|Filled to the brim: The Viet Nam Fine Arts Museum is housed in French-style buildings in the heart of the capital city. It's an ideal place, but the exhibition area has become too small to host a sufficient amount of contemporary art objects. — VNS Photos Truong Vi
Ha Noi's Viet Nam Fine Arts Museum has great potential, but it's kept the same paintings on display for years and years without change. Some think it could use a dose of modernity. Le Huong reports.
The children are a bit young to be avid museum goers, but the seven and nine-year-old kids seem to be genuinely interested in the paintings and sculptures around them.
On a clear summer morning, 70-year-old Nguyen Duc Thanh hovered protectively over his grandchildren as they closely examined the exhibits at the Fine Arts Museum in Ha Noi.
Both kids have joined a painting class at a private school, Thanh explained, adding that he brought them along because "in such a small exhibition area, the museum offers a quick look at Viet Nam's fine arts (development) through the ages.
"The French-style building in the heart of the capital city is an ideal place for displaying artworks," he said.
However, despite the great location, Thanh said he was not very happy with the display. He said the short captions sometimes caused confusion and many paintings and sculptures on show were the same that he'd seen dozens of years ago.
"Though the museum has been equipped with modern lighting systems and preservation facilities, and more information added to objects, the objects themselves have remained unchanged from the time I was young and fond of painting myself."
|Stroke of genius: The oil-on-canvas painting Thieu Nu Ben Hoa Hue (A Girl by Water Lilies) by noted painter To Ngoc Van is among the treasures of the Viet Nam Fine Arts Museum.
Furthermore, the museum suffered from a serious lack of contemporary works, Thanh said.
Thanh's views were shared by a slew of experts.
At a recent talk show held in Ha Noi on "Fine Arts Museums in Contemporary Life", painter Bui Hoai Mai said: "Most museums in Viet Nam are the same, functioning more like 'memorial halls' and offering just one fifth of the value of a 'real museum'."
This situation typified the three most popular fine art museums in the country – Viet Nam Fine Arts Museum (Ha Noi), HCM City Fine Arts Museum and Da Nang Fine Arts Museum, he said.
"The Viet Nam Fine Arts Museum's collection shows that it does not have a proper team to research and collect contemporary paintings," he added.
"A good fine arts museum should be as honest as possible. For example, it should gather paintings of both popular and unpopular artists."
"Walking around the Fine Arts Museum, a professional artist like me cannot understand where the history of fine art begins and what periods it has gone through," Mai said.
"The way they pick some objects of the Dong Son period, a bit of the dynasties of Ly, Tran and Early Le, some prehistorical stuff, some contemporary stuff… it has become monotonous."
Art critic Trang Thanh Hien agreed with Mai.
"Except for the Da Nang Fine Arts Museum, which has just been built, the others in Ha Noi and HCM City have a long history with magnificent French-style exhibition space, but the way they display things is too old, lacks professionalism and seriously lacks extra information."
Bui Phuong Anh, a frequent museum visitor at home and abroad, said: "Objects at the Viet Nam Fine Arts Museum in Ha Noi are displayed too close to each other, and tires out audiences."
Art critic Bui Nhu Huong said she was dismayed that contemporary art works have been sold out to overseas customers.
"The best and the most beautiful works during the nation's renewal process are no longer in the country," she said, blaming it on there being "no proper museum profession in the country".
|Picture perfect: People visit an exhibition at the Viet Nam Fine Arts Museum. Some complain it is too small for contemporary art, while its exhibition concept style is too outdated.
Painter Dang Thi Khue said the problem had dogged Viet Nam for a long time.
"The lack of contemporary fine arts museum is a big mistake," she said. "Young artists are like footballers without a ground to play in."
Phan Van Tien, director of the Viet Nam Fine Arts Museum, admitted that the museum is facing "untold" management difficulties.
"The museum has a small area for exhibition and can display only one seventh of our inventory," he said.
The museum possesses 20,000 objects dating from prehistoric to contemporary times, but it only has an area of 3,000sq.m.
"So the task of exhibiting all this properly is a real challenge," he said.
Tien said the Government has approved a fine arts development master plan (till 2020, with vision to 2030) in which a new display facility will be built.
The museum has received support from the Mariemont Royal Museum in Belgium to train its staff, he said.
In the past few years, the number of visitors to the museum has increased considerably. Last year, the museum received 70,000 visitors, 1.5 times more than in 2013.
"As a leader, I am very sad to hear complaints about the museum, but they help me understand audience's interest and expectations. When they express their views, they make us think twice. We'll try to improve dissemination of information so that more people know what we are doing."
On the Google Art Project website, an online museum featuring more than 45,000 works from collections of more than 150 museums in 40 countries, the Vietnamese works that turn up are paintings by Tran Luong and Nguyen Quan, which belong to the National Heritage Board in Singapore.
"It's a pity that none of the museums in Viet Nam can introduce their collection on the website because they don't have any digital stock," said critic Nguyen Anh Tuan.
"This project seeks to bring art works closer to the public. Many museums have used up this channel to attract people to real museums."
Three years ago, critic Nguyen Hai Yen released a book called Hoi Hoa Ha Noi – Nhung Ky Uc Con Lai (Hanoian Paintings - Memories Retained), that has been used as a guide by the Christie's and Sotheby's auction houses for recognising and evaluating Vietnamese paintings.
|High on the hill: An aerial view of Phu Thanh Chuong (a private museum owned by painter Thanh Chuong), a tourism hub in the northern outskirts of the capital. VNS Photos Truong Vi
Two years ago, the Viet Nam Fine Art Museum invited Yen to complete background information for 200 works on display.
"People's awareness of storing fine arts data in Viet Nam is very poor," said painter Le Huy Tiep. "In order to build up the inventory, we need living sources including veteran researchers and critics like Yen. There are not many of them. If we hesitate now, there will be a lot of gaps in our stored data."
An official from the Viet Nam Fine Arts Museum, who wished to remain unnamed, admitted that its manager acts rather slowly and hasn't thought of a digital museum.
"It depends much more on managers' point of view," said critic Tuan. "Both expense and technology are manageable. For example, the National Museum of Vietnamese History succeeded in digitalising two exhibitions last year at a reasonable cost. The question is whether we really want to do it or not."
Tran Luong, whose paintings have been displayed abroad in prestigious establishments like Guggenheim (the US) and Kumamoto Contemporary Arts Museum (Japan), said most big museums in the world do not belong to the State.
"In other countries, local authorities may just manage, owners run them. In some cases, if private owners run the museums well, authorities provide 30 per cent of operating costs."
Luong said he is worried that Vietnamese works between the 1930s to now have been sold to people in other countries.
"It's rather late to open contemporary art museums. In fact, I know no person or organisation who wants to do it. There will be a time that the rich in Viet Nam seek paintings by Vietnamese painters in order to bring them home from overseas. But many contemporary works may never come home again."
Luong called for greater support to establish private museums and contemporary art museums.
Several private museums have been set up in Ha Noi, including the Viet Phu Thanh Chuong (built and owned by painter Thanh Chuong), Phan Thi Ngoc My (named after the artist) and the Painter Tot and Family Museum (Nguyen Sy Tot)
All these museums, located in the outskirts of the capital, have attracted tourists.
"Cultural activities will be more diverse when they are organised by individuals rather than the State," Mai said.
He is building a private museum in the northern province of Bac Ninh for his ceramic collection. — VNS