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Curating modern Kunming, an interview with Jeff Crosby

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Jeff Crosby is the curator at Contemporary Gallery Kunming, a new art institution that opened this past weekend at Park 1903 with the exhibition Notes on Region. He also runs a boutique translation and consulting firm focused on art called Crosby & Co. Art Consulting. He founded the translation company in 2008, and has been actively involved in the Kunming international community and arts scene for more than 15 years.

Crosby is also a founding member of the Yunnan Foreign Business Club (YFBC), and recently served as that group's chairman. We sat down with him as he prepared Contemporary Gallery Kunming for its grand opening. Our conversation covered modern art, running a business South of the Clouds and his nearly two decades in Yunnan.

GoKunming: Why Yunnan? Tell the story of how you ended up here and what made you stay.

Jeff Crosby: I first came in 2000 on a study abroad program run by the University of Vermont, taking six months of intensive Chinese courses at Yunnan University. UVM actually still brings students here every year, and every once in a while, one of them decides to stay.

I fell in love with Yunnan after hanging out in the cafes along Wenhua Xiang — which was then lined with mud-brick courtyard houses — and in Dali, mostly at the Bird Bar, where I started meeting artists, writers and filmmakers. I found these people fascinating, and my desire to communicate with them pushed me to work harder at studying Chinese.

GK: How did you get started working here?

Crosby: I found my first job before I even completed my studies. I was hired by a local advertising company to replace Matti Dubee, who was busy founding the Hump Bar. I was there to come up with English brand names and copywriting for their clients, but I also spent a lot of time just making the company look "international".

I also had a lot of downtime, because there wasn't really a whole lot of "international" advertising business in Yunnan at the time. Luckily, the people at the company were a cool bunch, and famous musicians and artists were always turning up to hang out. We ended up being involved in some cool projects, like the first Snow Mountain Music Festival in 2002, and Real Madrid's visit to Kunming, though only on the sidelines for that one [laughs].

In the meantime, I was providing very amateur translations for artists on the side. I moved on to a few other boring office jobs, both here and in Beijing, but I was doing more and more translations for art exhibitions in my spare time. I was also volunteering for various local cultural events, such as the Yunfest Film Festival and a few US tours of traditional Yunnan music and dance.

GK: Why did you decide to run a translation service?

Crosby: Even though I was climbing up the corporate ladder, I wasn't really enjoying my work, and realized I was having a lot more fun when I was helping Chinese artists and thinkers communicate their ideas.

I left my job in Beijing in 2008, just before the Olympics, and moved back to Kunming to set up my own WFOE [Wholly Foreign-Owned Enterprise]. I decided to provide translations for the Chinese art world full time. The market in Kunming wasn't very strong, but I already had plenty of contacts from Beijing and Shanghai, and they were more than enough to provide a living for myself and a few employees. The translation business was decent in and of itself, but having my own company also allowed me to do work for various Chinese companies and organizations without having to join that company and have them sponsor my work visa. It has given me a lot of flexibility.

GK: What has been the biggest challenge in opening a Yunnan-based business?

Crosby: It used to be a lot more complicated, with about ten different departments overseeing my one small company. That has gotten a lot better as they have streamlined a lot of processes. But uncertainty about worker visas and other related policies have made it hard for me to hire more people and expand my company's operations.

GK: What do you consider your biggest success?

Crosby: My biggest success is definitely my latest, being named curator at CGK. Kunming has produced a lot of great artists over the years, but it has always lacked a dedicated contemporary art institution. As we have been building the place and preparing our first show, we've seen a lot of excitement in the local art community. They've been waiting for this for a long time.

For me it is a shift from merely facilitating for others to actively playing a role in the scene and presenting my own artistic views in a more public forum. Being chosen for this job feels like validation for all the years I've spent in the background.

GK: How do you move forward balancing time between the two jobs, curator and business owner?

Crosby: The company is probably going to go on the back burner for a little while. I'm just too busy laying the foundation for the museum. Aside from selecting artists and exhibitions to fill the museum schedule, we have a lot of public education and outreach activities to plan. In the past, when a new exhibition would open in Kunming, all the art scene insiders would jam the place for the opening ceremony to sip some wine, socialize and check out the artworks. Then the exhibition would basically sit empty for the rest of the duration. We'll be doing workshops, artist talks, children's education programs and other activities throughout the run of each show.

We're also working to build a healthier art system and art market here in Kunming — by encouraging local businesses to support the arts, fostering more individual and organizational art collectors, and helping local vendors improve their services to the level we need. We're of course also working on ways to give local artists more opportunities for residency programs, exchanges and exhibitions.

GK: How do you see Kunming, and your personal ventures, evolving over the next several years?

Crosby: I hope that through our efforts and those of others, the Kunming art scene can grow big enough to support multiple museums and commercial galleries dedicated to contemporary art. I want to leverage my new platform to bring in more international art events, and to bring more Yunnan artists out into the world. I think Kunming is ready to take off. We're about to see a lot more connections to Southeast Asia with the new rail and air links, and I think Yunnan is just the kind of place that attracts really interesting people.

How has being involved with the Yunnan Foreign Business Club been?

Crosby: I was one of the founding members of YFBC. We first came together because we felt we needed more communication about various things that affect foreign business in the region, and because there is a lot of overlap between some of our members' businesses, where we can help each other out.

It's also great just to get together on a regular basis. A lot of us are old friends, but we've been too busy with our various businesses to see each other very often. It's fun just to catch up. But in the context of the YFBC, we also end up sharing a lot of tips about how to get things done around here, and that is very valuable.

Images: Jeff Crosby

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Trying to decide if the scaffolding in the last picture is an exhibit or not?

Do/would Chinese hospitals increasingly appreciate and place "art"?

What does "Curating modern Kunming" mean? Is there a word missing perhaps?

Congrats to Jeff for stepping into this exciting new role. I went down and checked out the exhibit as part of a YFBC event. It is well done and interesting, particularly with Jeff onhand to explain the history of each artist and background of each piece. The '1903' development in which the museum is located is not exactly to my taste, what with the international chains like Gap and Starbucks. On the other hand, there are some interesting looking restaurants there, including Gare de la Sud, which was forced to move out of its original location near the city center. Dined there. Pricey, but food quality still quite good.

@Cloudtrapezer Think on it for a while; I'm sure you'll get there.

Dear Dan, I'm very stupid. Please help me out. Will only take you a minute.

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