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Taipei’s Thriving Art Scene Looks to Become an International Star

For a survey of what lies ahead as the art world looks forward to the future, ARTnews devoted part of the June-July 2021 issue of the magazine to 10 cities to watch: Philadelphia, Atlanta, Vancouver, Guadalajara, Bogotá, Oslo, Tallinn, Casablanca, Abu Dhabi, and Taipei. Stay tuned as each city joins related reports from Seoul and Paris online in the weeks to come.

Taiwan, an island off the southeastern coast of mainland China with a population of more than 23 million, was never a big star on the global stage, but it grabbed the limelight in 2020 as one of the few success stories early on in the pandemic. Taipei, the capital, was spared the fate of a total lockdown, and the city’s art scene has thrived as a result. The Art Taipei fair went on as planned in October, with the Taipei Biennial following in November. Activities have continued ever since, all against the backdrop of a liberal and progressive society—the first in Asia to recognize same-sex marriage and have full democratic elections—as well as a degree of technological advancement to be envied.

Institutional Action—at Home and Abroad

With more than 40 museums and 85 galleries in the greater Taipei region, Taiwan’s contemporary art scene thrives on a grand local stage. Museums and institutions in Taipei recorded more than a million visitors this past January alone, according to data from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, providing a solid base for the area’s art milieu. 

But boosting the visibility of contemporary art from Taiwan on the global map is high on the agenda among art institutions. “As a small island, we need to overcome geographical and market barriers by reaching abroad, engaging the international community for a dialogue,” said Wang Jun-jieh, director of Taipei Fine Arts Museum. Among the museum’s many initiatives has been an effort to maintain Taiwan’s presence at international art extravaganzas such as the Venice Biennale, in spite of challenges in doing so: The Taipei Fine Arts Museum had helmed the Taiwan exhibition in the Venice Biennale since 1995, but the island was bumped out of the national pavilion category under pressure from mainland China in 2003. Since then, the Taiwan exhibition has operated as a collateral event.

Painting of two nude men, shown from behind in a room.

Fu-Sheng Ku’s The Room at the Top of the Stairs, 1983, was included in the exhibition “Spectrosynthesis,” 2017, at MOCA Taipei.
Courtesy MOCA Taipei

Building bridges with the outside world has been a goal too for the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts in Taichung City, about 100 miles south of Taipei. In the spring, the museum was pressing ahead with plans for a collateral event at the Venice Architecture Biennale, which was scheduled to open in late May after pandemic-related delays. Its offering was “Primitive Migration from/to Taiwan,” curated by Divooe Zein Architects and Double-Grass International Co. “We want to focus on the exhibition to achieve greater international visibility,” said National Taiwan Museum director Liang Yung-fei. “We will also strengthen our collaborations with other global institutions.”

Another way to gain global exposure is to stage topical exhibitions that can attract the media spotlight. In 2017 the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Taipei, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, presented “Spectrosynthesis — Asian LGBTQ Issues and Art Now,” the first LGBTQ art survey show at a major museum in Asia, ahead of the island passing a law allowing same-sex marriage that same year. In 2019 MOCA Taipei showcased a series of melancholic photographs by Liu Xia, wife of the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, in an exhibition titled “Atemschaukel”; it was her first exhibition since being released from house arrest in China two years earlier. “MOCA’s exhibitions cover a range of topics from race and colonialism to gender and digital technology,” said MOCA Taipei director Li-Chen Loh. “Our choice of topics demonstrates our intention to connect with a global audience.”

The exterior of MOCA Taipei.

The exterior of MOCA Taipei.
Courtesy MOCA Taipei

Market Measures

According to a report published by the Ministry of Culture in 2019, art sales in Taiwan rose 14 percent, to $225.4 million, from the year before, with 97 percent of the sales made locally. And Taiwan’s enthusiastic local collectors have been the foundation of the island’s market, said Oliver Chang, chair of the Taiwan Art Gallery Association, which organizes art fairs around the island, including Art Taipei, the region’s oldest. For its 27th edition, last October, the five-day fair attracted more than 70,000 visitors despite international travel restrictions, with sales totaling $35 million.

“Past editions show that we have a solid collector base, and we see more young collectors in recent years,” said Chang, whose next fair is scheduled for this coming October. “Many exhibitors at the 2020 edition of Art Taipei encountered a new generation of collectors who are not just young but also well-educated and have overseas experience. They have fresh ideas and greater control over their budget for art collecting.”

If lesser known in the West, Taiwanese collectors and their strong buying power is recognized across Asia. While Hong Kong remains a center for art auctions, it has long been routine for auction houses to exhibit future sales highlights in Taipei. That buying power was enough to attract Magnus Renfrew, who directed Hong Kong’s ART HK and Art Basel Hong Kong, to set up Taipei Dangdai, an art fair that brings international galleries and art lovers to the island. The first two editions, in 2019 and 2020 (the second one in January, just before the pandemic broke out), were well-received locally and earned the praise of visitors from abroad.

Renfrew described the art audience in Taiwan as “extremely sophisticated” and interested in “active collecting.” He also noted the growing presence of younger, Western-educated collectors who “have been attending exhibitions and fairs internationally and are engaging with art that resonates with them.”

The next full-scale Taipei Dangdai is scheduled for May 2022, owing to pandemic travel restrictions, but Renfrew said he believes Taiwan’s success in containing the coronavirus has given “confidence to the world that it is a safe place to visit. With its economy largely intact, Taiwan’s status as an art market destination is in a strong and credible position.”

One change Renfrew said could make it even stronger concerns taxes. “Import tax and sales tax are not prohibitive in Taiwan, but if you asked me to pick one thing that could further Taipei’s cause as a market destination, it would be to waive the tax on the import and sale of art,” he said. Others share the sentiment. Hu Yung-fen, a curator and board member of the National Culture and Arts Foundation, has repeatedly said that Taiwan’s unfriendly tax system has driven auction houses away to Hong Kong, a tax-free trading hub. An amendment to relax taxation on art objects was put forth to the local legislature at the end of last year, but consensus has yet to be reached—and the debate and deliberations are ongoing.

Three sculptures sit on a purple-neon-lighted bar in front of two stools cast in neon magenta light.

Wang Jiajia’s exhibition “FOMO: Fear of Missing Out,” 2020, at TAO Art Space.
Courtesy Tao Art

Artists and Galleries

“Artists from Taiwan have relatively low visibility in the eyes of collectors from abroad,” said Niu Jun-qiang, a Taipei-based artist focused on video, experimental film, photography, and mixed-media installations who has shown frequently around town. One reason for the challenge relates to politics: China’s dominance on the world stage works to overshadow the global presence of Taiwan, Niu said.

Two stills from Niu Jun-qiang’s film Transcript with Shadows, 2019.

Two stills from Niu Jun-qiang’s film Transcript with Shadows, 2019.
Courtesy Niu Jun-qiang

Wu Chi-tsung, an artist based in Taipei while also operating in Berlin and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, is among a handful of Taiwanese artists who have an international presence. His works have sold well at Art Basel Hong Kong and, in March, he mounted a solo exhibition at Hong Kong’s Galerie du Monde. He is also preparing for his first solo exhibition in New York, with Sean Kelly Gallery, in the fall. Despite all that, Wu expressed a sense of solidarity with artists still trying to make their way. “There’s a lack of channels to bridge with the international art world,” he said.

Wu also hopes that young collectors in Taipei could turn more toward local artists, especially given current global circumstances. “They are willing to travel everywhere and find the most trendy works,” he said of Taiwanese buyers. “But when easy international travel is no longer available, things need to change.”

The rise of young collectors has helped energize the local scene. Some of them have  even founded their own spaces to showcase artists they favor—like Vicky Chen, who with her father founded TAO ART Space in Taipei last year. Designed by Japanese architect Jun Aoki, it is positioned as not just a space for exhibitions but also as a platform to connect the Taiwan contemporary art scene with the world, with plans to collaborate with international galleries, according to Chen. “In the future we could cross over or swap spaces,” she said. “There are a lot of great art spaces in Taiwan already, but more art lovers and collectors like [me] have been setting up our own,” Chen said. “I feel that there will be even more interesting art.”

A version of this article appears in the June/July 2021 issue of ARTnews, under the title “The Island Safe Zone: Taipei.”

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