Newspaper reports said recently that the Hone Shee Art Museum(鴻禧美術館) building was to be auctioned off. There have also been rumors that the Hone Shee group wanted to rent the place from the new owner, who politely refused. We therefore can't help worrying that the life of this private museum, which has contributed quite a lot to Taipei's cultural heritage, may come to an end soon. If this is truly the case, it will be another great setback for the cultural scene, following the closure of the Taiwan Folk Arts Museum in Peitou two years ago.
Taiwan's private museums, like those in Japan, are not taken seriously. Most of them publicize the private collections of industrialists and have no clear-cut system for sustainable operations. The establishing of museums is a way of repaying society by businesses when they thrive, and they do not worry about profits and losses. They fold only when the business faces adversity and cannot support museum operations.
If the business is facing excessive losses and hovers on the verge of bankruptcy, it must use the valuable art works as mortgage for loans, or put them on the auction block.
This is due to the traditional lack of mutual trust between the government, the public and the private museums.
Under Taiwan's system, the government does not want to grant museums the legal status of public-interest cultural and educational institutions, nor are business owners willing to donate land or their collections to legal persons defined as social organizations. Because neither the government nor legal persons can intervene in the management and operations, they have no legal basis for lending a helping hand when the museums face difficulties. They would rather look on as the museums come and go.
In contrast, relations between private museums, the public and the government are very cordial in the US. The public appreciate and support the motives of private museums, and fully utilize their services.
Even though the museums are private, the industry has long evolved into foundations and is in fact no different from public institutions, except that they are managed by a privately established board of directors.
The Hone Shee museum was opened more than a decade ago. Due to the high quality of its collections, business has been good and it has become a very important art museum not only in Taipei but also on the other side of the Taiwan Strait. It should be a sustainable art museum and Taipei residents should be proud of it.
Now it is facing difficulties, but no one is extending a helping hand. In fact, some may even take pleasure in its tribulations. A business enterprise supported the art museum and kept it open for so many years. Even if we set aside the provision of expensive antiques for public display, doesn't this business enterprise deserve everyone's sympathy -- in light of the annual maintenance fee of several tens of millions of NT dollars -- and even help in weathering this difficult time so that the museum can remain open?
Taiwan has seen major changes in cultural policy in recent years. The government has the intent to turn national museums into foundations and encourage private-sector management.
This indicates a change from the tradition in which everything is directed by the government. This amounts to learning from systems in countries such as the UK. However, due to the different national circumstances, the work of turning national and public cultural institutions into foundations has run into considerable difficulties. In Taiwan, privatization often smacks of commercialization. How can one justify allowing contractors to make money under the "national" banner?
Since turning the national institutions into foundations requires getting rid of their missions, they will no longer bear any specific mission. Then what is the use of keeping them? The fact is that all national cultural institutions have their missions. Museums at least have the mission of safeguarding and collecting information, and educating the public.
Under these circumstances, allowing private museums to shoulder the mission of disseminating culture is a very natural trend. Remove "national" from the titles of the National Taiwan Science Education Center, the National Taiwan Art Education Center and so on and let public-interest foundations run them entirely. Then, encourage the business circles to establish independent, autonomous cultural institutions, 45 percent subsidized by the government at the maximum. The government is to provide land for the new museum buildings in a symbolic long-term lease. If the businesses run into difficulties, the museums set up by them should be taken over by various other institutions, following consultations.
The Ministry of Education draws up large budgets every year to subsidize private schools, including those run like diploma-selling shops.
Using this logic, it should have all the more reason to subsidize private cultural and educational institutions with high objectives and excellent operations. The government should find ways to prevent a repeat of the Hone Shee museum's plight by formulating aggressive policies to support private museums.
Han Pao-teh is director of the Museum of World Religions.
Translated by Francis Huang
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