“Can we be more professional, please?”1

It was in 2010, just a few months after I had joined the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) as curator. We were preparing to install Trans-Cool TOKYO, a touring exhibition coming from the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo in the presence of its curator, the renowned Yuko Hasegawa. As we sum up an otherwise non-eventful team briefing at the 8Q building on Queen Street, Miss Hasegawa said, “Guys, can we be more professional please?”1 This probably was the first time ever at SAM that anyone had blurted such absolute statement. On-site preparation was only just coming into swing, that statement jolted everyone present. I checked myself and pondered long on the team’s supposed unprofessionalism. I never really understood it.

Then, almost 3 years later, I found myself in Japan to mount Welcome to the Jungle, an exhibition at the Yokohama Museum of Art (YMA) that I co-curated with Eriko Kimura as part of a collaboration between SAM and YMA. I was there with a small team from SAM that included project manager Patrick Piay, head of exhibitions Derrick Yam and Rosli, our technical manager. It was here that I began to comprehend what Hasegawa meant.

At YMA, their project manager, together with a uniformed installation team from Yamato Global Logistics Japan were on the ready. Even their work boots were from the company’s standard issue. Artwork layout plan by curators, technical sheets and installation instructions were printed for the team’s perusal. This team arrives at 9am every morning to prepare. Our team were requested to arrive at the museum only at 10am. And each time we arrive, the Japanese crew were always ready, waiting for the curators’ installation brief.

Work commences briskly. The crew divide themselves into smaller teams to tend to specific artworks whose install had been planned for the day. Unlike the typically cordial mood between curators and art handlers back in Singapore, chit chats seemed taboo over there. The crew’s hands were all literally on deck. Made up of both men and women, they performed tasks on equal terms. If there were any clarifications to be made, both curators would be called in for a quick meeting to achieve resolution. I was told that most of these Japanese art handlers were university graduates and had to pass a thorough and rigorous in-house training programme before they were allowed to get to work on a museum floor.

At 1pm sharp, we break for a one-hour lunch. Everyone, including the curators, had to leave the galleries. Gallery doors were then shut. At 2pm sharp, the doors reopen, and with everyone present, we resume work.

About half an hour before 5pm, the crew stop installing to ensure that all artworks in the gallery were safely placed and secured. This was a precaution against unexpected tremors and earthquakes.

At 5pm, we meet for a debrief, then the gallery doors were shut for the day. The team from YMA return to their offices to attend to the day’s remaining administrative tasks. The Yamato crew leaves.

At 6pm, I re-join the team from YMA and we proceed to dinner. Being guests, the Singapore team were never allowed to pay our share for dinner. Instead, our colleagues from YMA split the bill equally amongst themselves, regardless of what was consumed by anyone – and yes, out of their own pockets. One night, Eriko Osaka, the museum’s director, joined us at dinner. She too participated in this splitting of bill ritual.

Such was our daily schedule until opening night.

On the opening night, I saw some of the art handlers in attendance. Yes, they were invited to the vernissage. Some even arrived in suits and had family with them. All appeared more than happy to share details of the art on display, at times pointing to contributions from their professional work.

6 months prior, on Jan 14, I was at the same museum for a meeting, and just in time to catch the last day of Nara Yoshitomo: a bit like you and me… a solo exhibition by the famed Nara. When the museum closed that evening, all staff were smartly assembled at the lobby. Eriko Osaka, the director, then gave a speech and a report of visitor attendances, ticket sales and the various successes of the exhibition. She ended with a bow, thanking the curators, gallery sitters, ticketing crew and administrative staff for their diligent and good work. It was a gracious gesture from the head of a museum, something I have never seen or experienced until then. It felt professional, yet deeply personal. As staff of a state-run museum back then, I found it to be a rather uplifting and democratising practice. I was envious and wished that this was also practiced back home. To me, this was a feature of astute leadership in action.

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