Earlier this month, a show called “TechNoPhobe” closed at the cavernous new Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, which is a short circumnavigate across District 2 from Vin Gallery. It ended with ominous empty spaces where Thierry Bernard-Gotteland’s sound installation used to be. “There are just general rules, nothing specific, which means there are millions of ways to cross the invisible line,” says the centre’s Arts & Events Coordinator, Bao Le, of the regulations that they continuously have to stay ahead of.
The process is made all the more tiresome by the necessary frequency of exhibitions in Vietnam. While western galleries typically operate on a six-week exhibition schedule, galleries here often mount three or four week-long shows. That is due to a still-nascent market in which only around 5% of works from any exhibition tend to sell, according to those I spoke with. Considering the potential three-month turnaround for the permit, this means that galleries which conform are constantly submitting permit applications (more than one can be processed at a time) and scheduling shows very far in advance to reach a sustainable number of exhibitions to support their business.
Sales lean towards foreign buyers. That’s partly because art education in Vietnam is time locked by a curriculum developed in the 1920s. The curriculum tips towards the decorative arts and the persisting dominance of the Vietnam Fine Arts Association, which many see as just as outdated. “In art class at my school, the teacher drew the sample. You copy. They assign a grade. That’s it, no expression, no creativity or critiques,” says Bao Le. “The Factory is 100% privately funded by Vietnamese” says Bao Le, “and a lot of foreign cultural institutions have visited and talked about support, but zero Vietnamese funds or universities. No one cares.”
Unusually, Bao has spent her entire life in Vietnam. But most of the cultural development here is incumbent on young Vietnamese studying abroad, engaging with the arts globally, and returning home with an urge to open up new spaces or engage in creative work. “I wanted a space to flesh out concepts and ideas. As it turned out, that was a bit idealistic,” says Dia Projects’ Streitmatter-Tran. I ask Bao Le too, if her gallery was aware of the difficulties of showing contemporary art before the Factory opened. “Absolutely. We were fully aware,” she says finally. “We thought, if we don’t do it now, then who’s going to do it? And when will they do it—in five years, 10 years, maybe never?”