Arts of Hong Kong 2023: An Interview with Doryun Chong, Deputy Director, Curatorial, and Chief Curator of M+ Museum

Photo: Winnie Yeung @ Visual Voices
Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong

HONG KONG – Across his storied career, Doryun Chong has never had quite as massive a mission as the one he was tasked with when he took on his role as the inaugural Chief Curator of M+, a global museum of visual culture in Hong Kong. After all, how often does someone find themselves as part of a team setting up a museum from scratch?

“Even though I came onboard with some experience, this was a completely unique project for me,” says Doryun, as we meet him at M+ in Hong Kong. “There was little precedence for this, and I had to rely on my network of colleagues for advice and recommendations, and so much of it was learning on the job to get ourselves as prepared as possible to deal with the many unknowns and curveballs coming our way.”

Prior to joining M+, Doryun worked in various curatorial capacities at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco (1999–2000), the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (2003–2009), and the Museum of Modern Art in New York (2009–2013), curating several landmark exhibitions including major retrospectives of Tetsumi Kudo, Huang Yong Ping, and Haegue Yang. He also coordinated the Korean Pavilion at the 49th Venice Biennale in 2001. In his role at M+, Doryun oversees all curatorial activities and programmes, including acquisitions, exhibitions, learning and public programmes, and digital initiatives encompassing the museum’s three main disciplinary areas of design and architecture, moving image, and visual art, as well as the thematic area of Hong Kong visual culture.

The Main Hall, M+, Hong Kong
Photo: Kevin Mak
© Kevin Mak
Courtesy of Herzog & de Meuron

Since joining M+, Doryun has led the transformative growth of the M+ Collections and steered the curatorial direction and pedagogical practices of the museum’s exhibitions and programmes to foreground the transcultural and transnational narratives of twentieth- and twenty-first-century visual culture. That road hasn’t always been easy, what with the COVID-19 pandemic further delaying the opening, but Doryun remains positive and chose to see it as additional time for M+’s launch.

“In retrospect, we needed a lot of time to build an institution of this scale, from building a permanent collection from scratch, to designing a strong programming identity and DNA,” says Doryun. “We needed more time, and we ended up taking the pandemic as that, rolling with it and remaining agile and footloose. Somehow, we managed to come out the tunnel on the other side.”

M+ forms part of the greater West Kowloon Cultural District, considered one of the largest and most significant cultural projects in the world. Stretching across 40 hectares of reclaimed land, the West Kowloon Cultural District has been in the works from as far back as 1998, and come 2006, the HKSAR Government put their plans into action, recommending and developing various performing arts venues, a cultural institution with museum functions and an exhibition centre. In July 2008, the government approved an upfront endowment of HK$21.6 billion for developing the District, and following public engagement and final planning, development began.

“The government’s goal was very clear with this move, and I was excited to be part of this team of forward thinking and visionary planning for the arts and culture scene,” says Doryun. “And because it was a one-off endowment rather than constant state funding, we function quite differently from say, National Gallery Singapore. We’re a public institution with a pedagogical mandate, and our goal is to contribute to the creation a vibrant cultural quarter for Hong Kong where the local arts scene can interact, develop and collaborate.”

The Main Hall, M+, Hong Kong
Photo: Kevin Mak
© Kevin Mak
Courtesy of Herzog & de Meuron

That goal also directly influences the programming Doryun plans for, with a mission to “focus on 20th and 21st century visual culture, broadly defined, from a Hong Kong perspective and with a global vision…to inspire, delight, educate and engage the public, to explore diversity and foster creativity.”

“People used to think of curators as sitting with objects in storage and pondering which ones to show. That was probably true at some point, but today, our job has evolved somewhat, where we consider the curation and arrangement of ideas and concepts, and that involves having discernment,” says Doryun. “These days, the word is thrown around a lot, and while some people are aggrieved, I choose to enjoy how there’s now a broader visibility to what we do, and that more people appreciate it. Now that everyone has become a content creator and curator, I think it pushes our role as professional curators further and adds complexity – to get more academic training, for example, and figure out how to make exhibitions more interesting and accessible.”

Installation view of Hong Kong: Here and
Beyond in Main Hall Gallery
Photo: Lok Cheng
Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong

That is the mindset behind M+’s current exhibitions, which include a full retrospective of renowned Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s work, as well as an exhibition that captures the visual culture of Hong Kong from the ’60s to present day. “It’s important that we present Hong Kong visual culture because we’re first and foremost a Hong Kong museum, which then couches our mission within the larger embryo of presenting international visual culture,” says Doryun.

“As for starting off with a known name like Kusama, we do understand that she’s trending now and so many museums have exhibited her, but you see – as a curator, I actually think she needs this right now. At 93, she’s one of the biggest living artists on the planet, making art for 75 years, and going through so many ups and downs,” says Doryun. “She’s only really come into the spotlight in the last 25 years, and in fact, deserves more exposure. What we’re doing with our Kusama exhibition is to add a new angle to understanding Kusama’s art and philosophy. To that end, I think we’ve succeeded, with positive responsefrom so many people and fans both new and old.”

“Coming into an exhibition, the best thing you can get is finding out new things about who the artist is, and how it’s interesting that now you see her so commercialised, with brands like Louis Vuitton,” he adds. “Back when she was in New York, she actually created ‘wearable art’, and wasn’t very successful at selling it back then. So now it comes full circle, where commercialising it becomes a way to disseminate her artistic language and belief on such a large scale. To add on, it also sparks an interesting dialogue about the relationship between consumerism and contemporary art.”

M+, Hong Kong
Photo: Kevin Mak
© Kevin Mak
Courtesy of Herzog & de Meuron

Everything about M+ has been carefully planned, even in terms of the building’s architecture itself. Designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, M+ possesses a billboard-like façade, glowing like a magnificent screen against the skyline, signifying the city’s cultural ascendancy, a city that finally recognises that arts and culture are a vital part of any world-class city’s economic and social fabric.

“We needed a notable building, and we’ve been involved in the design process since the beginning, from selecting the architects, to workshopping the designs with them back in 2013. It was very fast and efficient, and they responded very well to the site, which is a testament to how experienced they are with designing museums,” says Doryun. “Honestly, I think it’s the best museum they’ve built – they have this intellectual approach without imposing their point of view, and have this sensuous use of materials which lead to unexpected interactions. Even something like the concrete you see in this building, it’s not so common in Asia yet, except maybe Japan and South Korea, and it requires this high level of craftsmanship. It stands out against the steel and glass buildings defining contemporary architecture Hong Kong is known for, and I’m glad we can show the beauty of architecture in our building itself.”

The Atrium, 2F, M+, Hong Kong
Photo: Kevin Mak
© Kevin Mak
Courtesy of Herzog & de Meuron

“Thinking about how much the arts scene has grown here, I remember growing up so influenced by Hong Kong culture, that I was so surprised moving here from New York to find it feeling almost like a cultural desert,” muses Doryun. “But nowadays, that’s changed a lot. The scene has grown to encompass almost everyone, and not just with M+ and the West Kowloon Cultural District, but other institutions like the Asia Art Archive or Tai Kwun. In such a short time, Hong Kong became a place with so many different kinds of arts, of different scales and different focus.”

“And you can even see how big international events like Art Basel is coming back in March. It’s a big moment of celebration as the city opens up again, as we welcome the world back to our island, and offer up a whole suite of programmes and exhibitions,” adds Doryun. “What’s still important at this point is to continue lowering the threshold to arts, with education and learning and public programmes. We need to open the doors, and offer greater accessibility and understanding, to make the arts scene even more robust.”

At the end of the day, with M+ open and running smoothly, and Hong Kong city itself open to the world, the arts and culture scene in Hong Kong only looks to be in good shape. “We’re very proud of everyone in the M+ team, with about 200 full-timers, whether it’s the curators or even the ones working in security and finance, all of us making up this complex organisation, from diverse backgrounds,” says Doryun. “We’re all in this together, motivated by this drive to be a part of something historic, in building up this important, brand new institution. It sometimes feels like like landing a giant spaceship, while also making sure we’re making inroads and building relationships with the arts community. It’s never been opportunistic or just for ourselves, but to help build the fabric of arts and culture, to pay our homage and provide a new angle to Hong Kong’s visual culture, and together, continue contributing to the growth and depth of our scene.”

More information on M+ available here

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