Curator Abby Chen to Head Asian Art Museum's Contemporary Art Department

Curator Abby Chen. (Courtesy Asian Art Museum)

Bucking local trends, the Asian Art Museum announced today that Abby Chen, former artistic director of the Chinese Culture Center (CCC), will assume the role of head of the museum’s contemporary art department on Jan. 7, 2019.

The appointment, a newly created position, is part of the Asian Art Museum’s ongoing $90 million transformation project, which includes the renovation of existing gallery spaces and the construction of the new Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Pavilion, which is scheduled for completion in 2020.

Chen is no stranger to the Bay Area art scene. During her 12 years at the CCC, she built a reputation of presenting exciting, multidisciplinary projects that reached well beyond the walls of the culture center to encompass the entire neighborhood. Her curatorial practice, she says, is centered in artists and their process—the thinking behind contemporary art, and not just the finished product.

Speaking of her experience shaping the CCC’s art program, and what lessons she hopes to bring to the Asian Art Museum, Chen has no illusions of grandeur. “I feel like there's really no shortcut to building a solid contemporary art program,” she says. “You need a whole army to do it. I’m not just talking about the team inside an institution, but the whole ecosystem—the neighborhood, the funders. You need to work collaboratively and intersectionally.”

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The expansion plans for the Asian Art Museum include 8,500 square feet of continuous gallery space and a 7,500-square-foot rooftop art terrace—plenty of room for outdoor sculpture, performance and temporary installations. But Chen is mindful that even as the museum invests heavily in the presentation of contemporary art, its collection spans over 6,000 years.

“One part of it will be place-keeping,” she says of the institution’s future. “The museum, in its nature, is an institution that safeguards objects and collections. But with this new expansion, it’s really about place-making. So how do you merge the two? And have them be relevant to each other? I think that’s one of the biggest challenges.”

Final touches to Beili Liu's 'Sky Bridge' on Chinatown's Portsmouth Square pedestrian bridge, a project curated by Chen for the Chinese Culture Center in 2015.
Final touches to Beili Liu's 'Sky Bridge' on Chinatown's Portsmouth Square pedestrian bridge, a project curated by Chen for the Chinese Culture Center in 2015. (Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco)

Chen hopes contemporary art can be that bridge. “I think it’s a humongous opportunity with contemporary art—you can start to apply intersectional thinking across borders, across genre and regions. You can reimagine both the past and the future.”

With the addition of Chen’s position, contemporary art becomes the largest team in the Asian Art Museum’s curatorial department, and the only one that focuses on pan-Asian and Asian American art. She will lead Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art Dr. Karin Oen and Senior Educator of Contemporary Art Marc Mayer.

Chen is well aware “growth” is not the current buzzword in Bay Area curatorial departments. But especially in these times, she says, artists are crucial to helping us understand the world. And cultural workers are necessary to making sure the wider public has access to those ideas and artworks.

“These are the times that institutions need to take more risk and hope for the reward,” she says. “Some institutions chose to take the other route—they wanted to shrink their curatorial departments, they felt that other things need to take that place. And it might work, but in terms of my own experience and one of the very important reasons I joined the Asian Art Museum for this endeavor, is for this risk they’re willing to take.”

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