Benjamin Cha tells us about what’s next for the organisation and reflects on Hong Kong’s booming arts scene

Like many people, Benjamin Cha found his first encounter with conceptual art a little bewildering.

“I remember seeing On Kawara’s work at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston in the mid ’90s. I was a student at the time,” Cha recalls. “It was a room full of over 100 of Kawara’s date paintings. I walked in and had a moment where I thought, ‘What’s the point? It’s a painting of a date. Who cares?’ But then I learned more about On Kawara, I learned that he was documenting his life and certain moments in history through his art, and I learned that his discipline and that story could be an artwork in itself. That was one of many, many lightbulb moments I had with art.” 

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Cha’s interest in contemporary art has only grown since that day in Boston, and today he spends much of his time supporting Hong Kong’s flourishing arts scene. He’s a member of the boards of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority and the M+ museum, is on the advisory committee of the Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Art, and is a long-term supporter of the Asia Art Archive (AAA), where he has been a member of the board since 2004.

“Research and the creation of knowledge, the sharing of knowledge, education, is a very, very important part of the art world,” says Cha, “but it’s also often quite neglected. The public sees the gallery world, the auction world and the institutional world, but behind-the-scenes education and research is kind of an overlooked area.”

This month, Cha is taking on the role of AAA co-chair alongside Jane DeBevoise. “Jane has a very strong academic background and I don’t,” says Cha. “I’m not an art academic, I’m not a researcher, that’s not my background. Jane is PhD level and she’ll continue to work with [AAA co-founder] Claire [Hsu-Vuchot] very closely on the content, education, research and more academic sides of the archive. What I’ll be doing is more on the development, fundraising, finances, organisational development component of things.”

These responsibilities dovetail neatly with Cha’s day job as chief executive of property group Grosvenor Asia Pacific, which he has led for more than four years. “One of the things that I feel very privileged and grateful for in my life is that these parts of what I’m involved with really do intersect,” Cha explains. “As a property company, Grosvenor is investing in buildings. But Grosvenor cares deeply about what’s beyond the building—the street front, neighbourhoods, communities. Art and cultural institutions are obviously a big part of that.”

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The AAA team is thinking deeply about neighbourhoods at the moment because the archive is looking to move out of its Sheung Wan base.

“We’ve been a tenant here and we’ve had the good fortune of having extremely supportive landlords, but we do need to find our own permanent home,” Cha says. “Physical space is extremely important for the archive. You can digitise some documents, but sometimes it’s important to hold the original in your hands. We’re thinking very carefully about where we would like to be. We need to be accessible to the general public, we need to be accessible by students and academics, we need to be accessible to the arts community and people who are coming into Hong Kong to do research.”

While this search for a physical space continues, the AAA is continuing to host and organise the exhibitions, talks, artist residencies and other features that make it such a valuable resource to the arts community and broader public.

“We’re about to do a lot of work around performance art,” Cha reveals. “We have been doing a lot of research into performance art around Asia and we will be doing a lot more outreach and educational programmes with the public about performance art as a genre.”

Between his day job and his work for the AAA, M+ and more, Cha is a busy man. But when he can, he tries to take a moment to pause and enjoy the thrill of watching Hong Kong’s arts scene boom. “There is so, so much happening,” he says. “M+ is under construction. It’ll open in 2020, and it will be one of the physically largest museums of contemporary art in the world.

In four months Tai Kwun has had a million visitors. The Asia Art Archive has now been open nearly 20 years and is continuing to grow. It’s an unprecedented time of dialogue, discourse, dynamism. It’s an incredible time for Hong Kong.”

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