Asian Priorities in the Provision of Spaces for the Arts – Taiwan Experiences

presented at La Friche la Belle de Mai (Marseille / France) by Margaret Shiu Tan during the International seminar "New arts arenas" (14th-16th february 2002)

Inter and Intra Differences in Development Paths

There may be vast differences with Asian countries in their economic, historical, social and political background. But we nonetheless have a common denominator as being nonwestern and currently fully aware of seeking a non-Euro centric way of looking for a new development path that may help take us along a new trajectory to a more universal sense of worth or raison d’etre. Be it eastern philosophy, religion or just pride in the Third Way. Hence there is a great sense of urgency now within many head of states and economic think tanks, seeking to incorporate art and culture as input to their new equation of developmental blue prints. After years of nonsupport or out right repression, this is a belated but refreshing invitation to us cultural workers.

Distribution of Scares Resources

There is great population distribution problem in Asia, with land and thus space as a very very scare commodity. Hence the justification for land use for any cultural activity has to face a very harsh measuring stick for the validity to the masses. There is still need of such hard wares for more immediate social issues like childcare, old age and other social ills. Next is an even harder hurdle to pass for the taxpayers’ dollar for running costs of the arts that feed the soul but not the mouth! The intrinsic value of art has still to be repeatedly reinforced into the general public’s mind as “food for the soul”- a new catch phrase that works like a charm of late.

However to get the space for arts development needs, there is now a keen awareness of using historical structures for reprogramming into activities. It now recognizes the efficiency of alternative spaces as being full of possibilities but with minimal costs.

Economic and industrial transformations

The rapid economic transformation within Asia: like Hong Kong, Thailand, China, and Taiwan, has caused the urban landscape to change so much that black holes of amnesia are setting into our old neighborhoods. There are even more sour moods in the defunct industrial sites that company towns left behind on their fast move to China across the boarder. There is also the privatization policy that is going through many government owned monopolies. In the case of Taiwan the wine and tobacco, salt, and sugar, wood and forestry monopolies are now heavy non-performing portfolio responsibilities to the government property department.

Cultural and Social Dislocation

The dislocation of the social fabric of the agrarian society of Taiwan from the 60’s onto the 80’s has made it difficult to be reprogrammed again. The magic of the five little dragon of Asia, that economic miracle seemed to have come and gone all in a full cycle by the end of the 90’s. There is now a need to use the artist’s hand to smooth out the pain and re-energizes the community and hopefully bring new awareness and confidence for self help projects.

New Voice of the Community

In the 90’s there has been a concrete decentralization policy for the development of community regeneration infrastructures, by way of revamping and reorganizing the community open spaces with new focus and new pathways. All in hope of reestablishing the community cohesion again for what was lost in the last economic fast ride to development. Local identity was much promoted within that context.

Newest Directives

Since the major earthquake of 1999,and the quickened relocation of investments to the Mainland China, there is now under the Taiwanese new government, a more aggressive directive to contain the outflow, and also to retain and even attract the young professionals to relocate back into the local communities. The latest policy is in fact calling for a new venue for every village and county so as to make the arts really decentralize and leave the metropolis of Taipei. Only then can there be real opportunities for nurturing the creative self help and re-growth in local identity and confidence to the grass root level. Only then can the great economic miracle can be retained, not by hard work as before, but by our real technological breakthrough on a national bases.

There are now in the past year, seven sizeable artist-in-residencies being g approved and four are running with in the year! There are also 12 government owned alternative spaces being planned for renovations and programmed for reuse by the end of 2002. These directives are now running full steam at breakneck pace, to our joy but also dire bewilderment.

Challenges and Opportunism

There are two schools of thought on the way alternative reuse of space should be implemented. The sense of urgency made it impossible to delay the action prone instinct of the local authorities and arts organizations, both with minimal practical experiences. Hands on learning was toted as the best learning method. There may be a lot of logic to “just do it” like Nike says, but many present legal, financial and administrative pitfalls make it a very difficult path to undertake. There is much need to learn from others who have been through that process before and not to reinvent the wheel.

That is why we have now an international study commission by our Council of Cultural Affairs to research on the way international organizations plan and run alternative art spaces. I am most awed by the universality of this trend in all cities suburban and countryside, and yet amazed by the variety and uniqueness of each one within its own local context. It is very much a global phenomenon, but its purpose is still strictly to serve the local needs.

The Case Studies that will be discussed at the conference will be: The Hwa Shan Art District, a wine monopoly in Taipei city that was closed since 1995, and now in the artist led process of being transformed, with much difficulty, into an art park for the citizens of Taipei.

The second is a warehouse donated by the British Shell Corporation to the suburban community of Tamsui, for reuse as a community culture center. They are working with much vision and mission but again great execution difficulties. We sincerely hope this conference and this international research can give rise to new creative thinking to help our NGO’s work well with the government ministries, the local community and industries.