Tan Boon Hui
Arts House Limited

Tan Boon Hui: A Cultural Leader Of Grace And Courage

The Executive Director of Singapore's Arts House Limited's untimely death last week reverberated through the international art world. His colleagues pay tribute to his vision, leadership and friendship.

Born three years after Singapore’s independence, Tan Boon Hui embodied the optimistic energy and dynamism of a country that became one of the economic miracles in modern history. Boon Hui took immense pride in his heritage and served, with dedication and distinction, as one of Singapore’s cultural diplomats to the West, including as the Artistic Director of Singapour en France, le Festival, in 2015, and subsequently as the Director of the Asian Society Museum in New York from 2015 to 2020. He was also a founding board member of the International Biennale Association, founded in 2012. His professional legacy is remembered by a diverse and international collective of artists and arts professionals, who mourn the loss of a titan in contemporary Asian art.

Boon Hui had a discerning eye for the exceptional and the exquisite in all things—curatorial, sartorial, and culinary—and always adhered to an exacting standard of elegance. Confident but humorous about his own Napoleonic stature, Boon Hui cut a debonair figure in finely tailored Italian suits that he accessorised with whimsical lapel pins, cufflinks, or pocket squares. Crowned with a thick black mane, Boon Hui had an inimitable visage of youth, belying his true age and years of achievements.

Li-En Chong, Agnes Hsu-Tang, Boon Hui Tan 2020, Asia Society Museum, NYC Photo by Oscar L. Tang

Boon Hui was like no other. He lit up his surroundings with joy and wit, and an unwavering sense of trust in humanity. He wore his heart on his sleeve, or rather on one of his favorite cotton totes that showed a mermaid telling a dejected unicorn “I BELIEVE IN YOU.” Even during the most challenging time in his professional life, when we had to make an impossible decision—to move ahead with or cancel the five-year-in-the-making inaugural contemporary Asian art festival in New York City during the early months of the pandemic in 2020—he remained hopeful and took measured steps to safeguard the integrity of the festival and of the artists. He courageously opened the 2020 Asia Society Triennial and collaborated on an equally groundbreaking exhibition of Asian American art, Dreaming Together, at the New-York Historical Society, New York’s first museum, in October 2020, because he believed that art is the highest form of hope.

Boon Hui Tan 2019, Vail, Colorado Photo by Agnes Hsu-Tang

Meeting Boon Hui for the first time was an overwhelming experience for some, as he loved and shared all kinds of knowledge. In the same breath, he could gush about Bridgerton and Baudelaire, quote Bollywood songs and Jane Austen verses, and without missing a beat, recommend the most exciting emerging artist he met in Yogyakarta, and the most effective sunscreen for Singapore’s equatorial climate. 

Often described as energetic and captivating, Boon Hui was equally cool under pressure and an objective, calm problem solver. His exceptional record of professional accomplishments—including the creations of multiple art festivals focused on contemporary Asia in Singapore, New York, and Paris—demonstrated an indefatigable courage to push against the historical Western canon.

Boon Hui Tan, Agnes Hsu-Tang, Ken Tan 2020, Asia Society Museum, NYC, Photo by Oscar L. Tang

Boon Hui enjoyed the cultural diversity and the many freedoms during the six years he lived and worked in New York City, but he loved Singapore and was always keenly aware that he—as a cultural diplomat—must represent his country beyond reproach. As an expat, he remained a loyal and dignified civil servant who, when experiencing repeated threats of making unethical compromises or facing termination, firmly chose to walk away with grace because, as he said, “I serve and represent my country.”

For those of us who have had the privilege to share a life of boundless joy and eternal hope with Boon Hui, he will always be remembered for his kind heart and enduring belief in the goodness of humanity—like the beautiful mermaid who tells the unicorn: “I BELIEVE IN YOU.”

About the author(s)

Agnes Hsu-Tang, Ph.D. is a respected academic who has worked in policy and cultural heritage protection and rescue for 20 years, including advising UNESCO and President Obama’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee. In 2021, she was elected Board Chair of the New-York Historical Society, becoming the first Asian American to direct a leading American historical institution. Agnes also serves on the Metropolitan Museum’s Modern and Contemporary Art and Object Conservation Visiting Committees. Dr. Hsu-Tang was Executive Chair of the 2020 Asia Society Triennial.

Born in Kuala Lumpur and trained in Art History in England, with a M.A. in Philanthropy Management from Columbia University, Li-En Chong has enjoyed an international career in Singapore, Hong Kong, and New York. She has curated exhibitions on contemporary Southeast Asian art, fielded record-breaking auction bids, and fundraised for the 2020 Asia Society Triennial. Li-En currently directs and advises a noted collection in New York.

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