Introductions: Abby Chen

By Grace Hwang Lynch

New Head of Contemporary Art for Asian Art Museum Wants to Engage with Both Sides of the Pacific

Scaffolding and the sound of jackhammers echoing across San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza are unmistakable signs of change at the Asian Art Museum, which is in the midst of a $90M transformation. But along with the bold modern addition to the building, a growing team of curators is driving the museum’s increased focus on contemporary art. At the helm of the department of contemporary art is Abby Chen, a Beijing-born curator who started at the museum in January 2019, after serving as curator and artistic director for the Chinese Culture Center in San Francisco’s Chinatown for 13 years.

“As a museum and a cultural institution, we have this opportunity and responsibility to expand the contours of Asian and even Asian-inspired work,” explains Chen, who is working with a newly formed team made up of assistant curator of contemporary art Marc Mayer and project manager Megan Merritt to bring more contemporary art into the museum’s programs. Karin G. Oen, the Asian Art Museum’s first curator of contemporary art, was promoted to associate curator, and will be splitting her time between the museum and the Nanyang Technological University Centre for Contemporary Art.

Chen believes today’s artists draw from similar inspirations as the masters of the past. “Living artists tell us about our current state of being through their art, whether it’s about urbanization, politics, race or the rapid change of technology.” One of those artists is Jean Shin, known for her monumental installations featuring discarded objects. Opening in January will be an installation by the Seoul-born, New York-raised artist featuring a landscape made up of cast-off cell phones, some of them collected from patrons of the Asian Art Museum.

Chen joins the museum at a time when the 60-year old institution is going through a shift in ethos. The growing focus on contemporary art, and even new ways to display older works, is part of the museum’s efforts to stay relevant to its increasingly diverse and younger audience. “Abby knows how to make those connections come to life and how to create a platform for those conversations that feel authentic to the moment, as well as to us as an institution,” says Jay Xu, Director and CEO of the Asian Art Museum. When the construction project is completed next spring, there will be more galleries for contemporary art. The new wing will include the Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Pavilion, which is being built to industry standards for technology and large-scale installations. When it’s unveiled in spring 2020, the opening exhibit will feature the immersive multimedia experience "teamLab: Continuity."

Chen, who immigrated from China to the Bay Area as a young adult, is particularly fascinated by artists whose work engages both Asia and the United States. “I became interested in the immigrant artists that come, that are caught in that in-between space,” says Chen. “They’re not necessarily just immigrants that continue to maintain and live the lifestyle that they came with, but they’re also not a second generation who are born here and very removed from the homeland.” Feminism and gender are other themes that she is eager to explore.

The journey to becoming a curator was entwined with Chen’s own migration to the United States. She arrived in 1998, taking a job as an analyst with Silicon Valley Bank. “When I was working in a high-tech bank, I met lots of people who were willing to take risks and go after their dreams,” she recalls. “That sort of encouraged me and made me believe that I could do that too.” She started learning photography and eventually earned a master’s degree in Visual and Critical Studies from the California College of the Arts. Upon graduating, she was invited to work on projects with SF Camerawork, the Museum of Photographic Art (MoPA), and the Museum for Chinese in America (MOCA) in New York. In 2006, she was hired full-time at the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco.

Chen’s left-brained side still makes an occasional appearance, even though she is now surrounded by creative work. She calculates that in 2020 more than 30,000 square feet of the museum will be dedicated to contemporary art. Bogart Court, near the museum’s entrance, will be the home to an installation called “I Look for the Sky," the first museum show for Zheng Chongbin, an artist who splits his time between Marin and Shanghai. Hambrecht Gallery will become home to a permanent collection featuring the work of Jayashree Chkravarty of Kolkata, Fx Harsono of Jakarta, and Lam Tung Pang of Hong Kong.

Chen hopes to learn a few things from her new colleagues, especially in the area of conserving the exhibitions she’s commissioning, many of which incorporate ephemeral materials such as found objects, video, or other media. After all, today’s contemporary art may be tomorrow’s antiquities.