An Irreplaceable Contemporary Art Space: IT Park - Celebrates its Twentieth Anniversary
Text by Chia Chi Jason Wang 2008
Established in September 1988, IT Park Gallery (hereafter called IT Park) recently celebrated its twentieth birthday. Placed in the context of the development of contemporary art in Taiwan, this is an event that deserves to be celebrated and recorded for posterity.
Over the years, professionals or art goers familiar with contemporary art in Taiwan have grown accustomed to defining IT Park as an “alternative space.” This has mainly been used to distinguish the space from more well-known non-profit making art museums or commercially oriented galleries. What should be noted is that IT Park was originally established by a group of like-minded young artists led by Tsong Pu. Where “IT Park” differed from other renowned commune-like or artists’ association-like alternative spaces, was in its determination not to adopt a membership-based fee paying system.
Precisely because IT Park chose to operate independently and retain an open attitude to the art world, it is now affectionately known as The Park by the local art community. I’m not sure if it is because of this, but many art lovers unfamiliar with how exactly IT Park is run often assume it is in fact a non-profit making organization. Ironically, this impression has been one of the problems the gallery has had to deal with over the last two decades.
Although IT Park was launched by a group of artists, for many years now it has actually been maintained and run behind the scenes by Liu Ching-Tang, the owner of a photographic studio inside the gallery. As a photographer, Liu quietly makes a living from commercial photography and has also taken responsibility for IT Park, providing the economic support needed to keep it open.
During its first decade, whenever IT Park organized solo exhibitions it also held seminars or talks as a way of encouraging people to engage in discussion or debate on issues important to contemporary art. In this period, IT Park still had a bar and quickly became a place where like-minded art professionals, including artists, art critics and art goers gathered and hung out.
In the early years IT Park had a clearly defined character as a focus for marginal and alternative art, with particular importance given to the purity of artists’ creative visions. In the 1990’s, the major art museums in Taiwan expressed an artistic vision that seemed to awkwardly inhabit the space between the traditional and modernism. At the same time, the operational model commonly followed by art galleries was to cater to the tastes of art collectors, an approach that excluded adventurism and pioneering art. Because IT Park was established by artists, the gallery has always had a very strong creative style and therefore provided a different spiritual vision and space.
Many of the contemporary artists who have shown work at IT Park have gone on to officially represent Taiwan at various internationally renowned art exhibitions, or had pieces purchased by art museums for their permanent collections. For the last 20 years IT Park has played the role of an important springboard through which contemporary artists have become known to art museums and shown works at international exhibitions.
Where IT Park can most reasonably be considered “alternative” is in its opening times for the public. Most art museums stay open until 5:30PM at the latest and even galleries close their doors at 7:00PM. In contrast, IT Park stayed open much later, becoming one of only a few, if not the only place, where members of the public could go to enjoy an art exhibition after school, work or an evening meal. When the gallery still had a bar it proved a big attraction to the art community as a place where people could relax and talk with like-minded individuals. After the bar was removed at the end of 2000, professionals and art lovers familiar with the artistic feel of the gallery continued to use the space the way as it had been developed over years to engage artistic exchange. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that many artists considered IT Park a “home” of art and as such felt it necessary to visit regularly.
For 20 years, Liu Ching-Tang and Chen Hui-Chiao have been two of the permanent features of IT Park. The former is in charge of the economics and responsible for keeping the gallery open, the latter curates and manages all matters relating to exhibitions, whilst also quietly accumulating and organizing archives on various artists. Beginning as the most creative moment in their lives, IT Park has become the focus of their ideals, not to mention a burden that can sometimes seem particularly onerous because of an insistence that things are run a particular way. Liu and Chen have always been a little uncomfortable with the view of IT Park as a place where art is bought and sold. The desire for “purity” was one of the guiding principles in the establishment of the gallery and to that end the gallery focuses on the creativity of artists and the frequent encouragement of experimentation. In this sense, how to sustain the operations of IT Park is a key issue, but sales logic and commercialization is not a route they plan on taking.
During its first decade it could perhaps be said that IT Park found itself in a paradoxically marginal position. Despite the fact that the art works shown at the gallery ran completely counter to the taste of the contemporary art market and art collectors, as mainstream art museums began to focus on contemporary art and international exchange, curated exhibitions have become popular. As fashions have changed curators and art critics alike have begun to attach much greater importance to artists, many of whom originally exhibited at IT Park. In fact, some artists are now part of the art gallery/agent system and others who have been closest to IT Park over the years have joined the academic art world, taking up roles as educators and key players in the promotion of art education.
As IT Park entered its second decade and the bar was removed, the gallery began to experience operational difficulties. As far as I understand this situation arose in part because of financial problems faced by the photographic studio. Indeed, things were so bad for a time that whenever artists talked about IT Park the discussion invariably turned to “debt” and how so many people wanted to help but didn’t know what to do. After 2000, IT Park survived on repeated small infusions of money that Liu Ching-Tang had to loan from various patrons using his personal credit, but this merely perpetuated the debt and barely covered the gallery’s management costs. The funding for art exhibitions now came from official sources – specifically, grants from the National Culture and Arts Foundation (NCAF) and Taipei City Government’s Department of Cultural Affairs, for new private sector exhibition/performance spaces or from the donations offered by a handful of interested enterprises and individuals.
Despite these developments, it was in this period that the important role played by IT Park in terms of the development of contemporary art in Taiwan gradually crystallized. As art has become increasingly global in nature, official circles in Taiwan have started to actively participate in international biennials. Against this backdrop, the artistic works and biographical data accumulated by IT Park became important source material for professionals on the international art scene searching for artists. Whether government cultural administrators and museum experts invited or entertained foreign museum directors, curators or artists, IT Park was often the first name on their list of places to see.
What is particularly worthy of praise is the fact that IT Park has been located at 2-3F, No 41, Yitong Street, Taipei City, for 20 years. Although this art space was created from an old-style apartment, the determination of those in charge has successfully transformed it into a place that anyone interested in contemporary Taiwanese art absolutely must visit. For the last two decades Liu Ching-Tang and Chen Hui-Chiao have been permanent features of this particular landscape.
After 2006, the market price for contemporary art pieces soared in Europe and the United States, with Chinese contemporary art a particular favorite. As a result, Taiwanese modern art also suddenly found itself in the limelight. Once galleries and collectors made money from dealing in contemporary Chinese art they began to take a closer look at works by Taiwanese artists, which appeared bargains by comparison. Suddenly commercial galleries and collectors flocked to contemporary art. Since 2007, IT Park’s long determined focus on this particular genre has reaped dividends. What was most unexpected was the way in which years of financial difficulties have since been resolved almost over night by such a change of taste in the collector’s realm. This sudden market upturn has also forced IT Park to start to focus on and consolidate the basic market for art work so as to place the gallery’s operations on a more financially sound footing.
As we celebrate IT Park’s twentieth birthday, the exhibition history of artists who have shown works at the gallery recorded and compiled by Chen Hui-Chiao over the last two decades has been digitized and is now available online on IT Park’s very own website. Although this site carries the “IT Park” name, it also selflessly provides information on all artists, curators and art critics connected to the gallery. In this way, the site seeks to keep art lovers up to date with the latest creative work and writing. For those individuals who are interested in reading about contemporary art in Taiwan this is without doubt a truly wonderful gift.
When it comes to benefitting from the art market, IT Park cannot really compete with other art galleries, but very few commercial galleries can claim to elicit as much passion or to have made such an important contribution to contemporary art in Taiwan. Despite facing almost non stop economic difficulties and having only extremely limited space, IT Park has continued to provide contemporary artists with the chance to show their works, an approach which on its own is enough to bring the administrators of art museums and cultural institutes out in a cold sweat. In the real world, IT Park is a small gallery but despite that it has still created a highly effective and friendly network of contacts that has not only brought together artists and art lovers from across Taiwan, but is now in the process of going international.
The reality faced by contemporary art in Taiwan has always been difficulties punctuated by periodic crises. In other words, the success of today often marks the beginning of the next downturn. As it celebrates its 20th birthday this year, IT Park is looking to sustain its passion for the “purity” of art whilst extending its work on innovative and experimental contemporary art. At the same time, the gallery is striving to become operationally self- sufficient. In the Taiwan of today where commercialism is more often than not to the fore, this is an approach that is not easy to adhere to, making the efforts of IT Park all the more laudable.
As a professional in the art world who has observed the operations of IT Park up close over many years, I would have to say that the gallery is one of those places one cannot help but think fondly and regularly about; the enthusiastic conversation and warm welcome offered by Liu Ching-Tang, the sight of Chen Hui-Chiao hidden behind the counter sorting through files, coffee and cigarettes never far away. These are unforgettable images, no less alluring for their familiarity and the fact that any visit invariably never ends until the early hours of a contented morning.