WPA interviews Lance Fung, chief curator for Fung Collaboratives. Fung has been curating large-scale public art exhibitions for decades and is currently curating Nonuments in Washington, DC for the 2014 5x5 project organized by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.  Fung's most important exhibition to date was The Snow Show in Torrino, Italy and he has been working with large scale public art exhibitions and projects ever since. Most recently, Fung transformed vacant lots in Atlantic City into large scale art parks through his Artlantic exhibition. Fung is in town this week to continue shaping his exciting 5x5 project in Southwest, DC. WPA's Nathalie von Veh caught up with Fung to discuss his philosophy as a public art curator and 5x5.

WPA: What is your background?

LF: I moved to New York from Northern California to get my masters in Fine Arts, although my end goal was never to become an artist. While in grad school, I worked at the Marian Goodman Gallery and later became the director of the Holly Solomon Gallery. I faced a lot of adversity at first due to my youth and inexperience but was quickly accepted in the art world.  I stayed at the Holly Solomon Gallery for six years until Nam June Paik approached me and offered to back my own gallery. I then opened Lance Fung Gallery which gave me the opportunity to cultivate a community and represent interesting young artists in addition to some very established artists. The gallery’s focus was on installation art which is difficult to sustain because the medium is less saleable than traditional art such as painting, photography or sculpture. But life has a way of presenting opportunities, even when things that don’t seem like opportunities at the time.  Life's path is rarely linear and, in my case, I just needed to keep my eyes open for the right direction to explore.

I started organizing little curatorial projects with no budget at the Holly Solomon Gallery which grew a bit at my gallery. From that moment, curatorial work became more interesting for me. This was the jumping off point for me. After the success and drama of creating The Snow Show I was burned out by the art world and spent most of my time in California. Someone who had seen The Snow Show in Finland asked if I would curate a new installment of the project for the 20th Winter Olympics in Torino. Simultaneously I was offered a job to curate for Albion Projects, a non-profit space in London. After two years when all those exhibitions were completed, I came back to the States. Happily, I was selected to be the curator for SITE Santa Fe's Seventh International Biennial, which opened in 2008.  After the biennial, I taught a course at the San Francisco Art Institute where I worked with students to put together an exhibition in the Tenderloin district titled Wonderland.  The exhibition was about partnering artists with local NGO's in the neighborhoods resulting in some amazing art and social practice.

While I was back in the Bay Area, I met my husband John and we were legally married. I was offered the opportunity to come to Atlantic City to develop a public art project. I decided I wanted to have artists and landscape designers create parks since there were none in Atlantic City. Fung Collaboratives pulled together so many amazing people and really bonded with the local community. John retired and became a partner in Fung Collaboratives. With his extensive contracting background, he has helped FC evolve and be more self-sufficient.

The Snow Show, 2006, installation view


WPA: What sets Fung Collaboratives apart from other public art organizations?

LF: We focus on the art first. Even though community engagement and social practice are hugely integral in our philosophy -- the community and the social practice can’t supersede the merit of the art work. We want to bring good art to these projects and I think that sets us apart from other public art organizations. We are able to be very picky at Fung Collaboratives and choose our projects carefully. To date, we have only done group shows that are somewhat thematic and 100% commission based. The most important thing is to have complete curatorial control so the artists can really challenge themselves and also not have their artwork compromised by committee decisions. An artist that creates a public work has so many additional issues to be concerned with compared to a studio based artist. We try to only tackle projects where the artists' process is not impeded.  In fact, we pride ourselves in helping artists facilitate something they have not been able to do before and representing and protecting the artists' work, desire, and philosophy.

WPA: Do you consider yourself a public art curator?

LF: It took me a long time to take ownership of that title and embrace the hat of ‘public art curator,’ particularly coming from the commercial art sector. Up until SITE Santa Fe I did not consider myself a curator, I just organized these shows. Traditionally, you needed a phD to become a curator and I wanted to respect this intellectual hierarchy. Not until I started curating for the Biennial and working in the public sphere did I start to embrace this identity. The qualifications have changed in the art world, not necessarily for the better, but I do feel I bring a unique approach to our projects. Being trained as an artist, having gallery experience, and working on public art shows all add up when trying to make a difference for the general public as well as for the art world.

WPA: What was your original vision for this project and how does the present plan differ?

LF: I actually knew very little about Washington, DC beforehand. But I was intrigued by the project and I first proposed another exhibition idea to the DC Commission for the first 5x5 project in 2012 -- although we were not selected that time. In 2013, the Commission approached us to revisit our original proposal and bring it to DC. In the end, this all worked out because we had the time to revise and make the project stronger. It was meant to be.

Originally, we wanted to have five different artworks spread throughout the city in five different wards. I later realized that this would not be as dynamic as locating all five pieces at one temporary park, like we did in Atlantic City. The vacant lot in Southwest DC was the perfect place to bring up questions regarding urban development and gentrification, community, and the value of public art in itself. This site was ripe for discussion. Centering the art at one place benefits the community and allows for a more inclusive and diverse experience. This also allows the public to see all of the pieces at once instead of traveling all around the city so the strength of this project is in its content.


Installation view of Fung's project: ARTLANTIC: wonder From left to right: Robert Barry's Unknown and Ilya & Emilia Kabakov's Devils Rage


WPA: How are you working with the local community for this project?

LF: WPA and DCCAH have been crucial for this. We were lucky to get extra funding for programming and we were able to partner with WPA to accomplish this. WPA provides us with the local expertise and resources to involve the community in activating Nonuments park. We are working with WPA to organize three additional projects including several performance art pieces, functional sculpture designed by a local artist, and a “create your own Nonuments” project for the public. The best result of partnering with WPA is I am learning about so many talented artists from the region for this project and hopefully future ones as well.  There seems to be a hidden wealth of strong and visionary artists working here.

WPA: What does the term "Nonuments" mean for you and why did you choose that as the theme for this project?

LF: Nonuments are socially charged, temporary monuments. They are instant monuments that bring up contemporary issues to initiate dialogue and bring people together.

WPA: What are the key issues that will be raised by the artists in this project?

LF: For Nonuments, I am working with six different artists who are each bringing politically-charged art of personal meaning to them. They will present abstract sculpture about immigration issues, human trafficking, global warming, development/displacement, and honoring the ordinary person's ability to cope and flourish. WPA has added to his energy with the performative actions, furniture, and student competition.  Details of each project can be seen at www.fungcollaboratives.org

WPA: Why DC? Why did you choose to come here for this project?

LF: DC has enormous potential to be a creative capital. There is a strong creative base here, but there is a lack of support and resources for artists and not enough public art. These things need to start as a bohemian movement, led by artists and this is exactly what I see happening right now in DC. This is a very exciting time for the arts here. 

About 5x5

A Project of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities is the District’s largest public art project. A District-wide program of contemporary, ephemeral public art, 5×5 is dedicated to exploring new perspectives on our city through the lens of five curators and 25 artists.The 2014 project will begin in early September and end by December of 2014.

The DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities commissioned five highly-experienced and innovative art professionals, who each select five artists to develop and present exciting, publicly accessible art works. The result will be 25 projects that activate, enliven and add a layer of creativity and artistic expression throughout all 8 wards of the District. In tandem, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities is creating programming and events to engage residents, visitors and art lovers with the 5×5 Project. MORE

For more on Lance Fung and Fung Collaboratives: www.fungcollaboratives.org
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June 12, 2014