IFA Contemporary Asia: The Power of Student Initiatives

June 3, 2020

By Eana Kim

One year ago, a small group of passionate students from the Institute of Fine Arts (IFA), NYU’s graduate program in Art History—including Han Hongzheng, Kolleen Ku, and the author—conceived the idea to launch a forum on contemporary Asian art.[1] We all shared the same goal, to establish a platform in which we can invite scholars, curators, artists, writers to the Institute and augment the scholarship on modern and contemporary Asian art. While the Institute has a long history of engagement with Asian art—for example the China Project Workshop, founded in 2011 by Professor Jonathan Hay, which focuses on premodern Chinese art or archaeology—it lacked a formal group for contemporary Asian art. Yet the number of Asian students and others interested in contemporary Asian art in our cohorts was rapidly increasing, and we felt the pressing need for an independent platform to foster our discussions around this topic. We also felt that the Institute’s existing classes and public programs—like those of many other art history programs in the U.S.—could engage more strongly with the discourses of diverse cultures.

IFA Contemporary Asia’s current members (clockwise from top left): Cindy Qian, Kristie Lui, Eric Goh, Eana Kim, and Titi Deng

Founding a new forum is not easy, and we are tremendously grateful for all the generous support we received along the way from Institute faculty and staff. Everyone was so supportive and encouraging. When we first asked Professor Hay for his advice, he shared our enthusiasm and immediately agreed to become the forum’s faculty advisor, even though his current research focuses on the pre-modern era. He proceeded to introduce us to various scholars and guided us in reaching out to potential speakers, including Professor Joan Kee, an Institute alumna, whom we were honored to invite as the keynote speaker for our inaugural lecture event. None of this would have been possible without the support of the Institute’s director, Christine Poggi, who recognized the great potential in our proposal and generously granted us two-year funding. We would also like to express our gratitude to Professors Pepe Karmel and Michele Matteini in NYU’s undergraduate Department of Art History, who gave us insightful feedback. In the course of launching the forum, we developed close ties with all the Institute’s departments, from Public Programming and Special Events to Development and Digital Media, and learning what goes on behind the scenes has been a great opportunity.

With all this support in place, we began drafting our mission statement. We defined our goals and clarified the definition and scope of the term “Asia,” which might otherwise appear vague to our audience. We decided to make the forum as inclusive as possible, to engage with topics touching on the broad geographical region that includes not only continental Asia, but also Asia Pacific and the Asian diaspora. We then created the IFA Contemporary Asia [link] forum pages on the Institute’s website, where in addition to listing our own programs, we linked to various initiatives at New York institutions that share our agenda. Among them are the Museum of Modern Art’s International Program, the Guggenheim Museum’s Asian Art Initiative, the Asia Society, and the Asia Art Archive in America. Studying these colleagues’ projects, we began searching for our future speakers and met with them and other colleagues in person to discuss our ideas. During this process we were on the lookout for possible inter-institutional collaborations, and we weighed ideas for various event formats, such as panel discussions, artist talks, symposia, and student workshops.

The author and Titi Deng giving introductory remarks at the panel discussion “Curating South Asian Modernism,” held at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts on September 13, 2019, co-organized with the Grey Art Gallery in conjunction with its exhibition Modernisms: Iranian, Turkish, and Indian Highlights from NYU’s Abby Weed Grey Collection.

First and foremost, we brainstormed ideas for interdepartmental collaborations within NYU. Seeking to tap into NYU’s network of art communities, we reached out to Tisch School of the Arts, the Steinhardt School, the Asian/Pacific/American Institute, the Departments of East Asian Studies and South Asian Studies, the Grey Art Gallery, and others. We were thrilled when our research revealed that Grey Art Gallery was preparing a collection exhibition for fall 2019, Modernisms: Iranian, Turkish, and Indian Highlights from NYU’s Abby Weed Grey Collection, showcasing its exceptional holdings of modern Asian and Middle Eastern art. We immediately reached out to the Grey’s Director, Lynn Gumpert, and its Head of Education and Programs, Lucy Oakley, and shared our ideas for a panel discussion in conjunction with the Grey’s show. Even though the Grey’s public programming schedule had already been finalized, Lynn and Lucy happily accepted our proposal to co-organize a panel on curatorial practices focusing on South Asian art. Lynn kindly agreed to moderate the panel discussion, and three distinguished speakers agreed to participate just a few weeks before our brochure-printing deadline. They were: Sean Anderson, Associate Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art; Beth Citron, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Rubin Museum of Art; and Saloni Mathur, Professor of Art History at UCLA, and they brought to the discussion both academic and museum perspectives. This event was attended by one of the Institute’s largest-ever audiences—but if you missed it, no worries: you can watch a video recording here.

“Curating South Asian Modernism” speakers, from left: Sean Anderson, Saloni Mathur, and Beth Citron, with moderator Lynn Gumpert

Following our successful collaboration with the Grey in fall 2019, we were joined by three energetic MA students, Kristie Lui, Eric Goh, and Cindy Qian, who helped organize two events in spring 2020. The first was our “Emerging Scholars Workshop” in February, for which we invited two PhD students to present excerpts from their dissertation projects: Titi Deng (IFA) on “Liu Xiao Dong’s Newly Displaced” and Xueli Wang (Yale) on “Xu Bing’s Dragonfly Eyes.” We designed the workshop to generate lively discussion among students, faculty, and the public in a more casual mode than other events in our forum. Students from Yale, Columbia, CUNY, and Princeton were invited to attend, and they were encouraged to give feedback and contribute to the conversation. I served as moderator for our second event this spring, the first program in our “Curators in Conversations” series, featuring Eugenie Tsai, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at the Brooklyn Museum. She discussed her recent exhibitions and shared insights into her curatorial process. As it happened, we managed to present this event during the chaotic moments just before NYU’s closure due to COVID-19. Given widespread anxiety about the pandemic, we did not know until the day of the event whether we could proceed. NYU’s announcement of the shutdown arrived just half an hour before our start time. In spite of this, the event was reasonably well attended despite some drop-off from the RSVPs.

Eugenie Tsai and Eana Kim in inaugural “Curators in Conversation” event, March 9, 2020

Like everyone at NYU, we had to cancel all our remaining events for spring, including one scheduled for March 26, a roundtable discussion on the New MoMA’s Contemporary Chinese Art Gallery. Currently we are discussing alternate scenarios for our fall programming, whether online or in-person. We plan to reschedule the New MoMA discussion to the fall, as well as to organize new events that address the COVID-19 crisis. Potential topics include the troubling rise in anti-Asian and anti-Asian American racism in the U.S., as well as the virus’s greater impact among people of color. In attending some of the virtual events currently being offered by cultural institutions, we have noted growing concern about diversity, equity, inclusion, and access—all of which have been central to the IFA Contemporary Asia forum’s mission from the beginning. In light of this, we look forward to providing a platform where students and scholars can share their thoughts about and visions of our post-COVID-19 future. We are ready and eager to do our part in helping cultural institutions to build solidarity with each other and their audiences, and to prepare for a better future.


[1] Han Hongzheng and Kolleen Ku received MA degrees from IFA in 2019. The Grey Art Gallery is grateful to Kolleen Ku for her service on its Student Friends Committee in 2017–18.

Eana Kim hails from South Korea. She is a PhD Candidate at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts and a co-founder of the IFA Asia Contemporary forum, as well as the Grey Art Gallery’s Graduate Curatorial Assistant for 2020–21.