Melanie Lum:

A free zone for artists from all corners of the world


This exhibition is about the contemporary art scene in Los Angeles, but your career actually began in China, where you lived for many years. What’s the story there? 

I majored in Art History at Wellesley (the top US college for women, which counts Hillary Clinton among its alumni). The college is known for being progressive, and for having teachers who are well-schooled in feminist thought. It had such an impact on me! My art history teacher Heping Liu was from China, and he was the reason why I ended up spending several years there right after graduating. This was about ten years ago. He told me, ‘China’s economic future looks bright, and any strong economy is interested in art. If you move there now, you will find great opportunities.’ He was right. The contemporary art scene was just budding, and it was far from saturated. And that’s what I ended up doing. 

And the market there was dominated by Chinese art, right?

Yes, there wasn’t much international art being shown when I began working as an intern at MoCA Shanghai, the first private museum in Shanghai, one of many that have since appeared all over the country. The best thing about everything being new and untested was that none of the hierarchies had been established yet. Our organisation was quite flat, and I made friends with the owners. They focused on producing exhibitions that would attract new artists and ideas. One of the exhibitions we worked on featured the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi. It was a truly international exchange project, and that was how I came into contact with people from the Chinese art scene. Everybody came to the show opening: curators, artists, and collectors. We all became good friends. 

So how did you end up on the commercial side of things? 

As time went by, I simply befriended the collectors. They were all starting out with their collections, so our needs were neatly aligned. I knew American art, and they needed somebody who could introduce them to artists whose careers were just taking off, and whose price levels hadn’t peaked yet. We joined forces, basically. At first, it was mostly a matter of translating art journal articles to Chinese. Good scholarly material is far more available in Chinese today, and there is a large selection now. 

So, basically, you were there to witness the shift of Chinese buyers, from buying Chinese art to buying Western art, as it actually happened?

That’s right, they were collecting Chinese contemporary art and antiques. Which is no surprise really, what you know is always the most accessible to you. They were able to meet with contemporary Chinese artists, ask them questions, and get to know them.

And once they began to take an interest in contemporary art, they began learning more about art from other countries through these conversations. In this way, they got to learn more about international art, and see how the influences have actually gone both ways. 

And how do things look now, ten years on?

The change has been rapid. Young Chinese collectors today care very little about nationality. They choose the art they like. They’re very globalized, and they work all over the world. If they’re around the age of twenty-five, they might have studied in LA. And their collections will differ a lot from their parents’ collections.

But how could it all happen so suddenly?

Culture and contemporary art are supported by the government, which wants to advance the nation’s cultural capital. For instance, they subsidize the rents in the artist’s neighborhood West Bund in Shanghai. They keep rents particularly low for art institutions. I think they do this because they realize it will benefit the country as a whole, by promoting concrete exchange between the East and the West. Exhibitions like Olafur Eliasson, Giacometti, James Turrell. The government is also trying to learn from these exhibitions. And it’s not just a matter of wanting to understand the markets–they want to comprehend the artistic practices. In order for these exhibitions to happen, good relations with foreign governments need to be in place. 

But then, you moved back home. Why?

After five years there, I moved back. I returned on a mission for Budi Tek, a highly successful businessman who is also a major Asian collector, the man who made the first (and largest) exhibition of Giacometti in China possible at his YUZ Museum in Shanghai. Now, he wants to start collecting and exhibiting emerging American artists at the museum. Two of the artists I’m showing at LA Dreams, Math Bass and Joshua Nathanson, havehad solo exhibitions at Budi Tek’s YUZ Museum in Shanghai. For these exhibitions Budi always wants to commission the largest pieces the artist has ever made. We’re talking monumental, like six metres in height. 

Such an exciting task! And so great to be entrusted with it! What had happened in LA while you were away?

A lot. For one thing, the city has become a genuine free zone for artists from all corners of the world. It has a tolerant atmosphere, a pleasant climate, good rents, and a clustering that is itself optimally beneficial to art.

When I moved back in 2012, a lot of talented artists had already moved into the area. I met many of them, and since then, I’ve followed them and watched them progress.

Melanie Lum is a curator based in LA, working in USA and China. To the left, artwork by Parker Ito.

Melanie Lum is a curator based in LA, working in USA and China. To the left, artwork by Parker Ito.



It’s gotten more expensive here, but still, compared to London, New York, or Paris, it’s really OK. I think the way the city is spread out makes a big difference. In New York, everything is cramped, and everybody is literally right on top of one another, mentally as well. Here, you can lock yourself away and do your work. Oh, and the sunshine,

of course! The light makes such a difference. 

So, what is it like to be back living in your home town?

I hated it at first. It didn’t feel like a real city. There is no real downtown area here, it’s all so spread out and flat. It’s like, where are all the high-rises? And the traffic is so terrible! But after two years, I fell back in love with it. I began to understand the city. It’s a conglomeration of lots of little villages, each with its own tastes, minorities, and age demographics. That makes it very dynamic. It just takes time to understand that. But when you do, it’s one of the most diverse places in the world. In LA, you can choose to spend time around people or by yourself, and you have the beach, the desert, and forests to choose from. Of course, being able to move so easily between different worlds is inspiring. But gentrification is underway. The moment artists move in, the rents go up. I worry that this will all disappear when it gets too expensive.

Tell me more about your curating practice and how this is seen in the upcoming exhibition?

Last summer when I was in Stockholm visiting my husband’s family I met Michael Elmenbeck at the old CFHILL location. We spoke about young LA artists that we both admired and found out that we had very similar taste! Soon into the conversation Michael asked if I would be interested in guest curating an exhibition including several of the artists we spoke about. 

I immediately said YES to the opportunity and began working on the exhibition when I arrived back in LA. The exhibitions that I curate in Shanghai, Taipei, LA, NYC or Europe are all collaborations with the hosting institution since the goal of the exhibition is not only to showcase talent from another part of the globe but also for their artworks to resonate with the local audience and community. In addition, it’s important for me that the select artists truly have curiosity and interest in the city and culture they will be exhibiting in, especially this time since it is Stockholm, one of my favorite cities in the world! I’m a huge admirer of Sweden and luckily have been able to learn about the culture from my husband’s family and friends. 

For this specific exhibition L.A. Dreams Michael and I put together a list of our favorite artists and luckily all the artists we wanted for our show agreed and all of them are coming to Stockholm for the opening! The six artists are Parker Ito, Becky Kolsrud, Aaron Garber-Maikovska, Joshua Nathanson, Math Bass and Lauren Davis Fischer. Their practices are all very different; but all of them are influenced by their lives in Los Angeles and infuse their work with the city and its art language.

What would you wish that the Swedish audience will experience? 

It is my hope that the Swedish audience will experience the same kind of joy and energy that I experience when I visit these artists’ studios. Several of the artists have become my close friends and each has enriched my life in many ways. In addition to being solid human beings, each has a unique practice that keeps on pushing the boundaries of contemporary art and the mediums that they are working in. It is a true honor that they have entrusted myself and CFHILL with this exhibition. 

Melanie Lum