As art collectors go, Quynh Nguyen had an early start. When still a student, she sat for a portrait by Bui Quang Ngoc, an acclaimed Vietnamese painter, and promptly fell in love with the painting. Not least because she felt it sat outside the canon dominated by demure, long-haired maidens. Yet it took Quynh five years to work up the courage and ask the artist to sell it to her.
The collector has been much more decisive with the acquisitions that followed, usually buying on the spot. The school girl portrait started a collection that formed the basis of the Nguyen Art Foundation (NAF), a nonprofit organization founded in 2018 with a goal of promoting contemporary art. With hundreds of paintings, sculptures, performance art pieces and installations, NAF is one of Vietnam’s largest private collections of contemporary art.
Unlike her mother, Thy Nguyen who is in charge of special projects at NAF, doesn’t have a particular painting to thank for her cultural awakening. In her family’s home-cum-gallery in Houston, art was on the walls and in dinnertime conversations. Family nights out included attending artist talks at Menil Collection — an art space featuring a private collection of John and Dominique de Menil that served as an inspiration for NAF.
With her family now back in Vietnam, Thy’s plan is to complete her studies in the US before deciding how to best contribute to NAF’s growth. One of the organization’s ambitions is to lay the foundation for Vietnam’s first contemporary art museum — a long-term goal. In the meantime, the focus remains on supporting Vietnamese and international artists with links to Vietnam and on promoting contemporary art through the network of EMASI and Renaissance schools, owned by Quynh’s family.
We talk to the mother and daughter team about the role of art in education and what can be done to make young Viet Kieus and Vietnamese more interested in contemporary art.
NAF is establishing dedicated art spaces in Saigon schools. What is the idea behind them?
Quynh: Back in 2017, when designing EMASI schools, we worked closely with an art advisor. The brief was to create a versatile art space that could function as a gallery, an event venue, an artist studio and a library. The first two of these venues, the art spaces at EMASI Nam Long and Van Phuc, will open by October 2020 with an exhibition featuring select pieces from NAF’s collection. All content and activities linking the exhibitions and projects with the school curriculum will be developed in consultation with students, parents, teachers and curators.
But these art spaces are only one part of our commitment to making contemporary art more accessible. At three of our campuses, students already interact with art on a daily basis. There are installations and other artworks, all of museum quality, that kids have access to just by attending classes or getting a bit of air during the recess. They are really immersed in art.
We also organize art-centric field trips. In October 2018, we brought IB Arts students to meet artists at A. Farm, an art residency we initiated in partnership with MoT+++ and Sàn Art — two other independent art spaces in Saigon. To be able to see artists at work, to understand their creative process was an invaluable experience for the students.
I believe that we are the only ones putting a private collection on show at Vietnam’s educational institutions as well as running all these other initiatives.
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Other than the artwork on display at the schools, where can the public view NAF’s collection?
Quynh: It was only recently that I moved a shipping container’s worth of art from Houston to Vietnam, so we are still looking for ways to have the key pieces on permanent display. At the moment, the public can see parts of the collection on NAF’s website managed by MoT+++. And as soon as EMASI and Renaissance art spaces open, there will be a physical space for the art lovers to visit too.
Right now, my home and my office double as exhibition halls. Back in Houston, where my family lived between 2010 and 2018, our house was a veritable art gallery. Our doors were open to friends, artists and anyone interested in contemporary art. In 2014, as part of the Houston Fine Art Fair, I introduced some of Vietnam’s most exciting contemporary artists to a new audience: Dang Xuan Hoa, the Gang of Five, Thanh Chuong, Pham An Hai, Hong Viet Dung, Ha Tri Hieu and Dinh Quan were all part of the Vietnam pavilion.
In your opinion, when will Vietnam get its first contemporary art museum? Will it be public or private-funded?
Quynh: When Thanh Tran Ha, the founder of MoT+++, and I first talked about creating a space similar to Houston’s Menil Collection, she suggested the format of a foundation. Ha introduced me to many artists and collectors in Saigon and everyone was very enthusiastic about NAF. We have all agreed that it will be at least a decade before Vietnam gets its first contemporary art museum, and in the meantime we’ll need to lay a foundation for it.
It will definitely be privately founded and I see it open in Saigon, not Hanoi, because even though Hanoi has clout, Saigon has a broader base of collectors and art enthusiasts who are also more open-minded.
What is your acquisition strategy and direction?
Quynh: I am still very much a spontaneous buyer. I buy what I fall in love with and find it very hard to part with the pieces, therefore I almost never sell. As a result, the collection until now has been driven by my personal preferences. But as we are opening more public spaces and focusing more on the educational aspect, the direction will change and our acquisition strategy will become more focused.
Thy: We are now working with MoT+++ and local curators to commission essays and in-depth research focusing on the artists represented by the collection. In addition to a series of videos that will be shared on social media, we will publish a collection of books exploring artists’ practices.
The first NAF-published book will be the Vietnamese version of my book ‘Origins’ published in the US by New Degree Press. It deals with issues of culture and social impact and will be released in Vietnamese in a month or so. It is already out in English.
Quynh: Another reason why NAF is changing direction is our focus on the long-term goal of positioning the foundation as an ambassador for Vietnamese contemporary art. Attending international art fairs such as S.E.A. Focus in Singapore gives us a platform to speak of social issues unique to Vietnam, through art, and to elevate the profile of contemporary art domestically.
Thy, as a special projects manager, what do you have in the works for NAF at the moment?
Thy: I've always been interested in arts, both drawing and reading about art history, so taking on a bigger role with NAF is really exciting. One of the projects I'm leading for NAF right now is a series of panel discussions about art and social impact. The idea was born out of a realization that right now, college students studying abroad and young Vietnamese professionals are a big untapped market for the art community.
The goal of the panel discussion series is to connect art with young professionals. We want to change the way they see art and the ways it can be used to showcase the new Vietnam and social issues within society here.
For each session we will invite an artist and three young professionals/students and will focus on one social issue at a time: race, gender, equality and so on. We will look at how art helps amplify these issues.
Nguyen Art Foundation Instagram @nguyenartfoundation; Thy Nguyen Instagram @dthynguyen