Founded in 2000, Asia Art Archive has grown from a handful of catalogues in an unassuming office into one of the region’s most critical art institutions
‘It’s so much more than a library,’ says Alexandra Seno, Head of Development at Asia Art Archive (AAA), a Hong Kong-based non-profit art organisation. ‘It’s really a think tank, a place to experiment with new ideas... Books are just materials on a shelf unless you activate them’. Alongside its burgeoning collection of some 70,000 items, AAA has built a reputation for its insightful exhibitions, talks and artist residency programme.
For the latest edition of Art Basel Hong Kong for instance, AAA flew in famed feminist activist art group Guerrilla Girls to curate their booth, which questioned the status of women at the fair itself as well as in the Hong Kong art world. Donning gorilla masks, the activists also gave a series of talks in the city where they delivered a scathing critique of art institutions in Asia (including AAA) for their lack of female representation.
Bringing in individuals who deliver thought-provoking talks is just one example of AAA’s contributions to the local art scene. ‘Having the Guerilla Girls here and talking to them really made us commit. We just started a women artist art fund,’ says Seno as she explains that the archive is constantly evolving and responding to the city’s changing art ecology.
When AAA was founded almost two decades ago, Hong Kong was a cultural backwater and the contemporary art scene was only just taking off. Founder Claire Hsu, a graduate student in her twenties, realised there weren’t any resources for academics researching Asian art and decided to start AAA. Since then the landscape has transformed with the arrival of Art Basel Hong Kong, Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts and M+. ‘Our work and goals have changed throughout the years,’ she says. ‘[Now] the most important thing is to provide a platform for the writing of Hong Kong’s art history’.
Today AAA is working with The University of Hong Kong to teach a course on Hong Kong’s modern art history. ‘It’s always been a struggle because there are only really three or four reference books available,’ says Seno. ‘Because we have the resources, we co-teach the programme’. The archive is also reaching out to some 250 secondary schools to help teachers incorporate contemporary art into their lessons. Another central project is archiving the late Hong Kong sculptor and printmaker Ha Bik Chuen’s work. The prolific artist documented exhibitions in Hong Kong from the 1960s to 70s offering a window into the city’s past.
To fund their various projects AAA holds an annual auction dinner, which has become a key fixture on the city’s art calendar. As Seno explains, the event supports more than half of AAA's annual budget and will this year feature about 70 works donated by artists, galleries and private collectors.
While the auction is a glamorous affair, Seno admits, ‘[AAA’s day to day work] is not naturally sexy.’ However, she stresses that it is extremely important. ‘AAA’s goal is to create a more generous art history that encompasses Asian art and artists. Without primary resources and solid archives, great exhibitions cannot happen, and art histories cannot be written… that’s one of our big contributions’.
Text / Payal Uttam
The auction will be live from 9 October 2018 at aaa2018auction.com