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M+ deputy director discusses Seoul's potential to challenge Hong Kong as Asia's art hub

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An overview of M+ building located in the West Kowloon District of Hong Kong / Courtesy of M+ Hong Kong

Korean-born curator charts new museum's journey, vision
By Kwak Yeon-soo

HONG KONG ― As the second edition of Frieze Seoul art fair unfolded this September, a debate was reignited over Seoul's potential to rival Hong Kong as Asia's premier art hub, as well as Frieze Seoul replacing Art Basel Hong Kong, the largest art fair in Asia.

Doryun Chong, deputy director and chief curator of the M+ museum in Hong Kong, believes that rather than competing, the two cities could serve as complementary pillars in Asia's booming art scene.

"Asia is very big and I think Asia should have at least two major art fairs that serve as commercial platforms to bring people together from different parts of the world," he said during a recent interview with The Korea Times.

Chong, who has been listed among ArtReview's 100 most influential people in art in 2022, compared the two Asian metropolises, weighing in on the unique strengths of each city.

"Seoul is known for its strong artist community. It has more art schools, museums and galleries compared to Hong Kong. But perhaps what Seoul doesn't have is the West Kowloon Cultural District and M+ (Asia's first global museum of visual culture)," he said.

"Also when you think about the commercial sectors, major auction houses like Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips have had their Asia hubs in Hong Kong for decades. So this has been a very important place of trading art much longer than the Korean art market."

Doryun Chong, deputy director and chief curator of M+ museum in Hong Kong / Courtesy of M+ Hong Kong

Chong has been with M+ for a decade, but he spent the bulk of his career in the U.S. Prior to joining M+ in 2013, Chong worked 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).

When he was young and studying art history in the U.S., Chong wanted to be an art professor. However, working as a part-time curator at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, while pursuing his doctorate degree, changed the course of his life.

"One thing I found really interesting about curatorial work is working with the objects ― learning how to care for objects, how to interpret objects and how to study objects. The second attraction about museum work was the social aspect of it where you have to work with others ― be it curators, registrars, conservators and art handlers."

Before embarking on a museum career, Chong shifted his academic focus from traditional to contemporary art.

"In college, I was like, ‘Maybe I could do Greek and Roman archeology or medieval European art. But if I was going to be a professor of art history, I thought I would have to take advantage of my cultural background or origin and anchor my professional expertise. I think I was a bit conscious of the fact that I am Asian and an immigrant to the U.S.," he said.

"So that's why I wanted to look at Asian art, but more in the modern period that's closer to my own time. I also wanted to have a social relationship with living artists."

The entrance to the M+ museum building / Courtesy of M+ Hong Kong

From US to Hong Kong

Chong's journey led him to Hong Kong to help build M+ as the inaugural chief curator and he has since led the transformative growth of the museum as its deputy director.

"What motivated me to come here was the fact that M+ is one of the rare opportunities to build a global institution from scratch. My second motivation was wanting to live in Hong Kong" he said.

After years of meticulous planning, M+ Museum opened in November of 2021. The museum's collection now boasts over 8,300 pieces of modern and contemporary art, including 1,510 works generously donated by Swiss collector Uli Sigg.

When asked about the challenges of starting a new museum versus working at established ones, Chong explained, "When you work for a standard-setting museum like the MoMA, which is really the first true museum of modern art in the world, the first thing you would do is to look back on its history and see how its mission has evolved over time. Then you can understand how you can make a contribution to the history that already exists."

His practice of understanding the historical context of museums has helped him to develop and realize the vision of M+.

"Because I had that kind of training, I knew that starting a new institution meant you have to have a clear mission like ‘What are we trying to accomplish?' and that everything you do basically has to serve that mission," he said.

He added that the name M+ signifies that the institution is not just a museum, but much more. True to its name, M+ is dedicated to the collection, exhibition and interpretation of visual art, design, architecture and moving images.

Installation view of "2021-11-12 (2000/2023)" at M+ Sigg Collection: Another Story, 2023 / Courtesy of M+ Hong Kong

Art and AI

Chong also shared his thoughts on the impact of AI on the art world.

"There's always an excitement and anxiety around introduction of new technology. Especially with AI, the anxiety is almost pervasive or universal," he said. "If you look at things more historically, that kind of anxiety existed when TV, video and photography were introduced. But artists have turned them into a medium of advancing new forms of self-expression. The human mind is very resilient and inventive and jumps over barriers to find new creative possibilities."

He emphasized balance and long-term perspective in operating an art institution.

"A museum is in the business of preserving and interpreting history, but we are also a contemporary institution. So we have to pay attention to the current trends, but have a little bit of a distance and always look at things from a long-term perspective."

Kwak Yeon-soo


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