Veteran curator and arts administrator Tan Boon Hui, for decades a vital presence in the Singapore art world and a tireless promoter of Asian art on the world stage, died July 7 at the age of fifty-three, following complications of a stroke he had suffered in May. Tan was a stalwart champion of Singaporean artists, particularly those of the lesser-known stripe, and of contemporary art, and was instrumental in bringing the country’s arts scene to broader global attention through his efforts as director of the Singapore Art Museum and organizer of two iterations of the Singapore Biennale. A former director of the Asia Society Museum in New York, he played a key role in establishing the Asia Society Triennial, whose inaugural edition, “We Do Not Dream Alone,” took place at the height of the Covid-19 crisis.
Tan Boon Hui was born in Singapore in 1968. His father was a bus driver and his mother a housewife. Tan remembered being brought to the National Museum of Singapore as a child, telling Hyperallergic in 2020, “It still had its natural history collection of animal specimens and bones, alongside ethnography and paintings. It was this strange, odd jumble of things that fascinated and sort of frightened me at the same time.” He earned his BA and MA in geography at the National University of Singapore before going to work as an editor for Editions Didier Millet, which among other publications produced exhibition catalogues for Southeast Asian institutions. Tan in 1997 assumed the role of assistant curator at Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum.
“I have learnt everything on the job,” he told the Straits Times in 2009. “Right from writing the storyline for the exhibition, deciding what goes into an exhibition and finding the artifacts or the artworks. A lot of it is project management and I have done everything that goes into the job—I have even swept the museum floors.”
Following a stint as deputy director of programs at the National Museum of Singapore, during which time he curated the curated the Singapore Pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale, Tan in 2009 took on the role of director of the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), where he is credited with reinvigorating the institution’s exhibition program through a focus on contemporary Southeast Asian art. Among the shows he curated there are those by pathbreaking Singaporean artists Amanda Heng, Vincent Leow, and Lee Wen; he additionally staged exhibitions by emerging artists from the region. Tan in 2011 served as director of the Singapore Biennale, a role he would reprise in 2013, that year assuming co-curation duties as well. He departed SAM in 2013 to serve as assistant chief executive for museums and programs at Singapore’s National Heritage Board, where he founded the Singapore Night Festival. In 2015, he helmed the Singapour en France festival—which brough Singapore contemporary arts, culture, and heritage to French cities including Lyon, Nantes, and Paris—before being named vice president of global artistic programs and director of New York’s Asia Society Museum. There, he oversaw the nonprofit’s exhibitions program and museum collection, as well as its annual Arts & Museum Summit. Following the launch of the Asia Society Triennial in 2020, he left to return to Singapore and take up the post of executive director of Arts House, which sponsors the Singapore International Festival of Arts and has charge of performance venues including the Arts House and the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall.
Tan was a strong believer in inclusivity and in what he described as a “big-tent” approach to art, and in achieving a balance between local support and internationalization. “All art comes from a specific place and time and does not exist in a vacuum,” he told Culture Academy Singapore in 2021. “All international visitors or audiences of art seek to understand where artworks come from and they will want to know what the community from which the art comes from has to say about it.”