In this new Temper series, art aficionada Kate Kologrivaya sits down for a Deepdive and some Chitchat with people who are changing the face and facets of China’s urban landscape. #1: Oranda Hou, a business developer of Rockbund Museum Shanghai that opened its doors to the public on October 15 after a long period of renovation.
when people do art to just make it right
and they go to classes to learn fancy words
they lose what is already so hard to find
the mind-soul connection through their silver cords
Rockbund Art Museum (RAM) is a contemporary art museum in Shanghai located inside the former Royal Asiatic Society (RAS) Art Deco building near The Bund waterfront.
Originally, the place host to one of the first modern museums in China. Known as Shanghai Museum on Museum Road in the late 19th century, it presented collections of Chinese cultural artifacts.
Fast forward to the 21st Century and RAM has grown into a stylish place that uses complicated language to describe its main role: educating the public through thoroughly curated exhibitions. In October, the museum finally once again opened its doors to wider audiences following a long period of renovation.
The first show on the agenda is dedicated to Swiss artist John Armleder with the support of the Swiss Arts Council. Perhaps, just perhaps, this is how the museum intends to establish stronger relations between Switzerland with its influential Art Basel and Contemporary Art scene in China at large….
The most interesting part of the museum so far are the people who work there and take the story from pages to space. With a system of advisors and patrons who generously support the organization, RAM comes with a more atypical way of connecting the local community with the museum’s operations.
I sat down with RAM’s development manager Oranda Hou and learned about her career journey from finance to arts and how the organization managed to create a whole new community around them.
First of all, tell me about your professional journey. Why Shanghai? Why in the museum?
Well, my first job out of college was in Hong Kong. It was an investment banking job — very typical for people who went to my university. I studied finance at a business school. But I always had this desire to be more involved in arts and culture because I also studied music for a long time.
In Hong Kong I realized that staying put in the finance industry was not a way to realize my potential at that time. I wanted to live up to my dreams and give myself some time to explore. So for two years, I spent some time in the U.S. and then later went to Bangkok to do a start up with friends.
I came to Shanghai to explore the city. It was a coincidence that I essentially ultimately landed on my current job. I went to RAM so often that the team got to know me well. I actually rejected another offer and decided to stay with the museum. My rationale was that it would a rare opportunity to be a business developer there.
And when was this moment back in Hong Kong when you felt like this was not the right place for you anymore? Was it an immediate thought or it had it been irking you for like months and months and then you ended up deciding to leave?
I would say that I always wanted to be somewhere culturally diverse. So during coffee breaks at the bank that I worked at, I would walk around looking for galleries and exhibitions to visit. And there are a lot of big galleries, a lot of good ones, all based in Hong Kong. But, the funniest thing was that I wanted more. I wanted to see more. Something in a way less developed, less stabilized. I was also afraid to get sick of Hong Kong too soon.
Overall, it was not about leaving Hong Kong, but rather going forward and moving somewhere else, with everything: profession, personality, community around. It just happened to involve moving somewhere else physically.
Honestly, when I left investment banking, I wasn’t sure how and where I would (want to) land. But I knew I wanted to come up with my own narrative over the years of exploration.
Finding yourself or your own way is a kind of a priceless thing — as you only live once. Does museum help to build the narrative you wanted?
From what I see now is that starting from scratch to find my own narrative and what it turned out to be like and whether this aligns with my initial goals today is different. Also, if we discuss this matter from a career development perspective, I’m not working at a museum for money, because it’s like working for an NGO. But not following the money eventually didn’t necessarily bring me a lot of freedom. Often, people with capital, in finance, do have it though…
Well, that does make some sense. It’s understandable and… ironic. I also worked for nonprofits for a long time and sometimes the constraints they face are much bigger than of those of businesses with money. And in NGOs quite often people would stop taking responsibility for the outcome because their goals didn’t reach the initial expectations and the impact was hard to measure. Can anything similar happen at the museum?
Well, of course, the museum is not as tidy and organized as a consulting or an investment banking firm. The museum functions as an organization, where different departments have different goals to reach. Not necessarily everything we’re doing is done in the most efficient of manners. But we make sure that we do things right and in the most organic way, which is something I think is important.
When we’re organizing public seminars, or when the curators are working on a show, it’s important for us to assure that visitors can gain the most from it. And we do need to grow our audience and sell tickets. So, anyway, with limited budgets and timeframes, we still think of what is the best quality we can bring to the world. It’s also interesting that there’s no evaluation or like a standard process to follow. Sometimes, it’s an intangible plan for intangible things. It is very abstract.
And does this intangible plan help you to build expertise?
For many, having the right connections and knowing the rules suffices. For some, knowing where to find the best “what and who” in a short period of time is a skill. And for jobs like engineering, your hard skills matter the most.
So this understanding also entered my consideration when I was deciding whether I wanted to stay at the museum for the past two, actually, three years. But yeah it does help me to build a certain expertise, even though at times I feel lost. #wink
What’s the hardest part of your job?
Well, to put it simply, everyone has a different way of doing their job. And I must pave my own way, carve out my own path of doing it. But it’s also something that I enjoy a lot.
And what’s the best part? Were there any projects the outcome of which was totally different from your original expectations?
Maybe not totally different… but surprising… in a good way. Some things ventured beyond our expectations. Sometimes, it just simply boils down to numbers when we attracted more people than we thought or had larger media coverage.
A small example is that last year we hosted an art night at the Louis Vuitton foundation. So usually, we don’t host events outside of the museum, but last year — as the museum was under renovation –we figured we could. So we developed a series of interactive existential questions for our patrons and connected them to … works. I was very worried that it was going to be awkward, but you were there, right? What did you make of it?
I think it was actually engaging and quite impressive. I feel like this is what many museums lack. They do discuss how the exhibitions interact with audiences, but what they don’t talk about is how the audience itself engages with the context of a museum. This is what knowingly or unknowingly you brought up at this event. Your presentation and questions inspired people at the exhibition to interact with one another and take their conversations to the next level. “Deepdive,” if you will.
Yeah, I completely agree. While people come to the exhibition as individual units, what we are trying to essentially forge a community of likeminded persons. Those who engage in arts are rare, nice and smart.
How hard it was for you to organize an event not on the museum grounds?
It’s definitely more challenging because you have to manage the narrative and everything. But it wasn’t that hard because we had the support of an already existing community of good people.
How did you create this community?
Long story short, many of our patrons and other supporters are old friends and we all get along. So through constant self-improvement and setting the same goals, we keep up with our community, which is slowly growing each year and attracts new faces.
Going back to your personal self, then, what made you a “good person”? I wanted to ask if you remember what kind of a child you were? What were you interested in? Did you hang out with other children or were you a loner?
I was, wow, those are good questions… I was a child with a very high level of self-awareness. Even though I wasn’t told how to behave. The education I received was mostly, you know, Chinese. I went to a good public school. And it didn’t tell me to follow my heart, but still I was given a lot of freedom before leaving for college.
And how did you choose your major? And why did you add music to it?
The cooler version of the story is that when I went to Penn, you could see that the business school had a lot of resources, especially when it came to studying finance. But at the same time, I also wanted (and got the opportunity) to explore the Humanities. It’s a kind of luxury that you can’t get in many other places. In China, you don’t do both, for sure.
In Western academia, it’s called a holistic approach to education.
It absolutely is. And even for work, doing repetitive jobs is never a problem for me; not learning is the problem. I want to learn because I constantly want to become a better person. Plus, it’s the only way to stay active and get your brain to light up, and not get bored.
Back in college, I was encouraged by my advisor to pursue a double degree. And I’m forever grateful for this. Now, I think of myself as an interdisciplinary person.
So I would continue by saying that you’re a curious person, right? You have this level of curiosity that needs to be fulfilled, and no matter what fulfills it, as soon as it gets there, you feel happy.
Curious, that’s the right way to put it, I agree.
Were you curious from early on, being a self-aware child, or did school spark something deep within?
I’d say both school and parents made me think that way. I was involved in a lot of extracurricular classes. I from a young age onwards that exploring was important, and I remember traveling to exotic places with my parents. It showed me many different perspectives on life.
Beautiful. Thank you!
“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds.
There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”
― T.H. White, The Once and Future King
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR — DUE TO A PERSISTENT TECHY HICCUP, #WESIGH:
Kate writes environmental education (EE) curriculums using experiential learning methodologies (ExL) while at the same time connecting learner’s knowledge building and emotional intelligence development.
The nerdy stuff aside, she also develops her own classes on Art and Film and explores the contemporary art sphere in China. She gradually wants to become a collector and promote previously unknown names to the public.
FEATURED IMAGE: Courtesy of ORANDA HOU
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