Five key members of Hanoi’s contemporary art scene talk about their experiences of running art spaces in the city
Lê Thuận Uyên, manager of Nhà Sàn Collective, got together with four of her contemporaries – all of them running exciting contemporary art spaces in Hanoi to talk about their experiences, of working with artists, friendly competition and what lies ahead for the art scene
Vũ Ngọc Trâm – Co-founder of Manzi
Phạm Phương Cúc – Founder of MAM Art projects & owner of CUC Gallery
Nguyễn Phương Linh – Artist, art director of Nhà Sàn Collective
Võ Quỳnh Hoa – Director and owner of Cuci Fine Art
Writing and interview by Lê Thuận Uyên ● Edited by Rose Arnold ● Photos by Huong
I sat down with four lovely ladies one fine afternoon in the courtyard of Le Cine, right in the centre of a small artistic cluster in Hanoi. All of us, including myself, are working in the arts, sharing the same dream, despite individually pursing slightly different approaches.
CHANGES IN THE SCENE
Hoa: I think audience change has been a significant factor. Visitors are now more familiar with contemporary art. Even the artistic community has become more experienced in contemporary visual art practices.
Linh: Nhà Sàn Studio was closed in 2012. At that time, no local art spaces were in place, when it came to contemporary art, it was mainly international organisations who supported and hosted such activities. Alternative contemporary art spaces did not exist. Now there are more and more, CUC, Manzi, and Cuci being a few of them.
Trâm: Definitely! There are more hubs for exhibitions. Regarding the artistic process, academic, research-oriented approaches have starting being employed on a more regular basis.
Linh: The art market has also re-emerged. Places like Cuci, CUC and Manzi are instrumental in fostering the commercial activities within the art world.
MORE INTERESTED AUDIENCES
Visitors who came to the exhibitions were quite lost but now they are certainly more comfortable. Perhaps they don’t yet enjoy art, but at least [the concept] is now less foreign to them. – Cúc
Hoa: Visitors are more acquainted with contemporary art. There’s been a shift as both young and older audiences have tried harder to understand the artwork. They don’t just scan exhibitions anymore but have started to study and interpret the works.
Trâm: The growth of art spaces contributes a lot to developing an interested audience. One example was the curatorial tour that Nhà Sàn Collective offered at their opening exhibition, to help visitors better understand contemporary practices. As for Manzi, we employ an art-bar-café model, hoping that we can use the café to attract general public interest and gradually introduce them to artistic activities.
Uyên: Cúc, you also have an educational programme to build audiences, don’t you?
Cúc: Yes. And I think the change is noticeable. Before, visitors who came to the exhibitions were quite lost but now they are certainly more comfortable. Perhaps they don’t yet enjoy art, but at least [the concept] is now less foreign to them.
[Uyên’s note: When I ask whether this change has applied to the Vietnamese audience, all nod but are unsure exactly how much the local audience base has grown.]
Trâm: I think it’s quite substantial. From the late 90s – when the contemporary art scene started to emerge – until now, the art scene has seen an increase in younger and more local visitors. Even though perhaps they come to see art out of curiosity, it is already a positive change.
Hoa: I don’t know the exact figure, I don’t think the numbers have increased that much but I have also seen more and more older exhibition goers.
Cúc: We don’t keep track of visitor numbers either, due to the nature of the free walk-in and out gallery operation. However, since CUC first opened two years ago, the interest has grown significantly. Real interest! They are serious about looking at art.
Trâm: In terms of sales, what is the percentage of works sold to Vietnamese?
Cúc: We don’t have the statistics for that but I know for sure that the number is rising.
Trâm: What about you Hoa?
Hoa: It is difficult to collect the stats. There are very few Vietnamese collectors. I don’t know if perhaps CUC Gallery has a circle of contemporary art collectors, but at Cuci we don’t see any.
Cúc: Vietnamese collectors – in the true sense of the word – can be counted on your fingers. Vietnamese people still tend to buy and collect more decorative works.
Linh: Nhà Sàn Collective welcomes everyone. However, at the moment, our target group is mainly students. We want to source new talent and to nurture the next generation of art enthusiasts.
Trâm: Our target is similar to that of Nhà Sàn. Our events are more or less aimed at young intellectuals.
Cúc: For me, I want to build a long term business so I don’t want to miss out on any visitors. We have different programmes catered to different types of audiences.
[Uyên’s note: Cultivating public engagement is challenging, and art development has never been an easy venture. In a social context like Vietnam, ‘middlemen’ like art managers, programmers and gallery owners have it even tougher, from working with artist, to creating projects, running their spaces and building up an audience base.]
Programming is already challenging and managing operational aspects is extra work for the artists. We don’t have sustainable income and therefore cannot pay our staff. – Linh
Cúc: Speaking of challenges, one of the biggest is working simultaneously with artists and viewers. Each gallery has their own selection criteria. Given that there are not that many contemporary artists in Vietnam, finding the right one for the gallery requires even more work.
Trâm: For Manzi, a rather young space, there are many issues. I think Nhà Sàn faces similar problems to us. One of them is financing. Although Manzi operates as a café to sustain its creative programmes, this model has not been as successful as we had hoped. But I believe it will get better.
Hoa: Finances are undeniably on top of the list. After that is working with the artists.
Linh: I agree. Nhà Sàn Collective is still for the most part an artist run space, with the exception of Uyên. Programming is already challenging and managing operational aspects is extra work for the artists. We don’t have sustainable income and therefore cannot pay our staff.
Trâm: Maybe Cúc and Hoa are different, because of what you do, you have clear standards and structures. We have very few expectations and we almost have no pressure for our exhibitions and events, and therefore it’s easier.
Cúc: I am not talking about the financial aspect. My point is that the gallery has its own structure and artists tend to break away from it. Maintaining a fine balance between business activities and artists’ relations is tough. It requires skill.
Hoa: I understand Cúc’s point of view. Sometimes it gives me quite a headache.
We are some of the people who started these spaces. Maybe we will fail, but even if we do, we will have provided the experience for the next generation and they can learn from us to make it better. – Trâm
Uyên: It seems like there are a lot of challenges surrounding the art scene. Are you ladies at all optimistic about the future?
Linh: Yes, we have developed strategies to overcome the difficulties. We were largely dependent on foreign funding, but from this year on we have to stand on our own feet. Our direction, I believe, is right.
Trâm: Well, actually, there must be a way. If we keep going, we will pave the path. It’s not that bad.
Cúc: You have been around for a long time. When was the darkest time?
Trâm: When we did a lot of work but no one cared. We are some of the people who started these spaces. Maybe we will fail, but even if we do, we will have provided the experience for the next generation and they can learn from us to make it better.
[Uyên’s note: Trâm’s words, to some extent, reflect the spirit of the artistic community at the moment. There have been an increasing number of art spaces which is surely an exciting time for the public and for artists as well. But at the same time this means increased competition, many have wondered if those who are actively involved are truly comfortable with this development.]
Competition is absolutely normal. All of us I think are competitive and supportive at the same time. – Hoa
Uyên: Do you feel the competitive pressure from there being more spaces?
Trâm: Competition is essential for development. I don’t know about the commercial galleries but there is not much competition in the independent scene.
Linh: We all support each other.
Hoa: Competition is absolutely normal. All of us I think are competitive and supportive at the same time.
[Uyên’s note: As they all nod and carry on with off-topic chatting, I thank them for their time and can’t help a silly smirk. I can see the dedication and energy from all of them, and I too am optimistic about the future of the Hanoi art scene.]
Vũ Ngọc Trâm – Manzi Art Spacce
Tram is amongst the most active individuals supporting and witnessing the development of the contemporary art scene in Hanoi. With vast experiences working as the Art Manager at British Council, as freelance consultant for studios and galleries, and recently as the co-founder of Manzi, Tram is determined to cultivate an audience for art and to support contemporary Vietnamese artists.
Manzi was founded on the basis of this principle. A beautiful and elegant hangout spot for art enthusiasts and a platform for intellectual discussions, Manzi has become a must-see place in the capital.
Võ Quỳnh Hoa – Cuci Fine Art
Võ Quỳnh Hoa has worked many years in the professional artistic environment in Vietnam including spaces such as Galerie Quynh, San Art, before opening Cuci Fine Art. Hoa has good knowledge of how the art market works in Vietnam and understands the dynamic relationship between galleries and artists.
Cuci Fine Art is a very young art gallery in the centre of Hanoi dedicated to bringing artists closer to the audience through exhibitions and skill-oriented courses. Located in a green and tranquil venue, Cuci has become a rendezvous point for artists as well as for both local and international art lovers.
Nguyễn Phương Linh – Nhà Sàn Collective
Nguyễn Phương Linh is a contemporary visual artist and art director of Nhà Sàn Collective. She has been active in the art scene for over 10 years, experimenting her own artistic practices and organising programs to support the development of the contemporary art scene in Hanoi.
Nhà Sàn Collective is an acknowledged independent, artist-initiated, non-profit platform for contemporary art. Took its root from Nhà Sàn Studio, the organisation has been pioneer in facilitating an experimental art movement and in promoting contemporary culture.
Phạm Phương Cúc – CUC Gallery & MAM Art projects
Returning to Vietnam after her studies abroad, Pham Phuong Cuc is one of the most active facilitators of the contemporary art market in Hanoi. Owner of CUC Gallery and founder of MAM Art projects, she is also amongst the first who expands her works outside of the country, bringing Vietnamese art to international art fairs and events.
CUC Gallery is one of the few commercial gallery that exhibits exclusively contemporary art. Programmed and run by CUC, MAM-Art projects is a nonprofit long term series of works to introduce to the public a diversity of young contemporary artistic practices.