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Alan Chong. Courtesy Currier Museum of Art.




New blood
Currier Director Alan Chong talks museums

10/06/16
By Kelly Sennott ksennott@hippopress.com



 The Currier Museum of Art’s new director and CEO, Alan Chong, started work Sept. 8 after a year-long international search by a committee composed of board members and the museum’s executive team, plus Opportunity Resources, New York.

Chong comes to New Hampshire after serving as director of the Asian Civilisations Museum and the Peranakan Museum in Singapore from 2010 to 2016, and as curator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston from 1999 to 2010.
Three weeks into his new job, he talked about his experience so far and what he’s looking forward to.
 
Why’d you want to take the job? 
I’ve always loved the Currier Museum, and I like Manchester. I came up here during one of those presidential campaigns as a college student, like a lot of people do. I remember it being very, very cold. … Manchester is a city on the rise. … And it’s a city with this great textile mill past. … The museum is small but [has] a strong endowment with a committed audience. And it’s got a great collection. 
 
Was coming back close to Boston a draw? 
Not really. People have assumed that because, of course, it is nearby. But I had moved out of Boston not expecting to return. There are good museums scattered everywhere around the world. It might sound corny, but I see it as my personal mission to help museums. 
 
During an interview last year, former Director Susan Strickler said she wanted to be a hands-off former director — but did she give you any advice?
I think the best directors are the ones who sort of say, ‘I’ve done my stint. I’ve got to leave it to my successor.’ I’ve done that in Singapore. I’ve got a great successor there. I’m available to help whenever I’m needed, but I’m not going to be checking up. … Susan has been absolutely wonderful. We will call on her, because we will need her advice and help. … I regard her as a friend now.
 
What was your experience like as director of the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore?
Museums are very similar institutions. We face many of the same problems. Almost any community can be divided up of people who love art, who know know nothing about art, who go to museums, who don’t think of going to museums. … It was a big challenge in Singapore, where there are people who’ve recently risen from fairly hard circumstances and are now only beginning to discover culture and art. … Singapore was a very technological society. Everyone has a smartphone. So we tried to deliver information to everyone’s own device in as creative a means as possible, through gaming, through virtual reality. … We did, essentially, treasure hunts in the museum. … We don’t want to alienate our traditional audiences, but we’ve got to reach out to new people, and [using] smartphones is a wonderful way of doing it. … The other thing I learned is that museums can be social places. … They can bring people together for intellectual events — like exhibitions and lectures and workshops — but they can also just be fun places.
 
Do you have any specific interests or specialties?
I have a background as a curator, and I was trained as an art historian. I’ve done a lot of writing, editing and curating of shows. … More recently I’ve tried to turn my attention to marketing, audience, fundraising, governance and all those other things that need to happen in a museum. But at the end of the day I love art. … The content of the museum — I want that to be the foundation. … We’re here to reveal some of the wonders of creativity. … I’m also very interested in global art. Artists around the world have been, for thousands of years, creating things, and we can understand other cultures and other civilizations through art. … There’s a lot of tension with the Islamic world now. But when you look at Islamic art, science, poetry and philosophy, you will see that our values are very common. 
 
What are the challenges the museum faces in the future?
I think many cultural institutions around the world face financial challenges, and I wouldn’t say it’s a big challenge [at the Currier], but it’s there. Sometimes people regard the Currier as an old, dignified institution that’s very grand and has got great finances. And to a certain extent, that’s true — we’ve got a great foundation. But we’ve got some challenges in the near future in terms of funds. 
 
What needs to happen for it to continue to succeed?
The Currier Museum has to echo Manchester. We’re only as good as our environment. We have a good audience. We have to make them love us [and] come more often. … The museum itself needs to be nimble. … We also have to show people … what’s happening in the art world universally. … We’re not a big museum. We don’t have a huge collection, and we’re not going to do massive exhibitions. But that nimbleness should give us a sense of freedom, experimentation and, hopefully, creativity as well. 
 
Are there any upcoming exhibitions you’re particularly excited about?
We’re opening a really interesting exhibition in a few days on Mount Washington. It’s an innovative new look at a familiar subject. … The curator, Andrew Spahr, has really given it a social twist. He’s looked at tourism, the development of the railroad and the development of science and technology, and how all this facilitated the discovery of Mount Washington. … Coming up next is a paper cut exhibition. … Paper cutting was a big thing in the Renaissance up until the 19th century. … [It] was an art form like drawing or making textiles. … It kind of disappeared for about a century, but recently, contemporary artists have taken it up again in very creative ways. … I think it will excite people who are interested in contemporary art, but it also has a historic foundation.





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