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What started as a series of unexpected visits from Vietnam’s Cultural Police has left one of Southeast Asia’s most respected artist residency programs temporarily stalled. Sàn Art’s Laboratory (the Lab) announced on February 22 that it has been forced to take a hiatus due to mounting pressure and recent difficulties obtaining licenses from both the Cultural Police and the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism. The Lab is working to reconvene the program as soon as possible.
Sàn Art, a gallery and reading room that opened in Ho Chi Minh City in 2007, added the Lab in May of 2012. It is a six-month, fully-funded residency program for Vietnamese and Southeast Asian artists. Twice a year, the Lab offers three artists a studio, living quarters, support for six months’ living expenses, and $1,000 USD each for production costs. The residency involves group critiques, studio visits by local arts professionals, and a “talking partner” as a formal mentor selected from the local Ho Chi Minh City art community. Each trio of residencies culminates in an exhibition, one of which I reviewed for Hyperallergic.
From Cambodia to the Philippines, I’ve heard artists reference the quality and desirability of the Lab’s program. It is known for being a well-funded, top-quality residency that consistently produces great art, as seen in the end-of-residency exhibitions. Sàn Art’s general manager, Nguyen Bich Tra, told me over email that the Lab is considered one of their most important programs. “We trust that the artists at the Lab can contribute majorly to the regional artistic landscape,” she said, “and thus we have exerted great effort over the past three and a half years to support them in doing that.”
Tra believes the difficulties may stem from new staff in the government charged with reviewing Sàn Art’s applications for permits for exhibitions and events, which all cultural institutions are required to obtain. However, while Sàn Art tries to be more transparent about applications and the difficulties they face in getting permits, both with the government and within their community, they face huge challenges. All contemporary arts institutions are subject to governmental pressure in Vietnam, where censorship is common. (Reporters Without Borders ranks Vietnam as the world’s sixth most oppressive country in terms of press freedom, right behind China.)
Tra stresses that Sàn Art and the artists involved were not doing anything to oppose the Vietnamese government. “The discontinuation is only temporarily. The Lab has proven essential for artists, and we’ll find the way to keep this support going by seeking legal advice and also re-strategizing the activities under given circumstances,” she said. “Free expression is a right anywhere in the world; Vietnam should not be an exception.”