Guest Author of December 2008
Our fourth guest author, Oscar Ho, analyzes in his contribution a project for a major cultural district in Hong Kong, and by so doing, highlights the problems inherent in the present museum boom in Asia.
Government, Business and People: Museum Development in AsiaIn June 2008, the government of Hong Kong launched a large-scale cultural plan bearing the name ‘West Kowloon Cultural District’ project. The project, costing HK$21.8 billion (US$2.8 billion) represents an unprecedented investment in culture in Hong Kong’s history.
However, as a phenomenon, more recently the ‘sudden’ attention paid to culture is not something unusual to Asia. Singapore is moving fast in building its new National Art Gallery as part of its cultural capital plan; the Cultural Center of the Philippines has just submitted a proposal to expand the Center into a grand cultural district as well as a real estate development; the Taipei municipal government is launching an ambitious plan to convert an old industrial area into a cultural district. And in Thailand, the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, after having been postponed for years, has now finally been opened…just to give a few examples.
However, it is in China where museum development has been the most striking. For the Chinese, the museum is a symbol of civility and of modernity. In 2006, the government announced a national scheme for the construction and renewal of 1000 museums by 2010. In Beijing, like all kinds of commercial spaces, which first moved to district 798 and then to Song Zhong, the government has been no less aggressive in the building of new museums, with nearly 30 new museums constructed solely for the grand occasion of the Olympics. In Shanghai, in 2002, the government officially announced a plan, or a political mission, to build 100 new museums by 2010, when the city will be host to the World Expo. If the government publicly announces that there will be 100 museums, then there will be 100 museums. More museums are being opened in Shanghai than are Starbucks cafes.
For the most part, this new interest in cultural investment in Asia is prompted by the fantasy that culture has economic potential. In centers such as Hong Kong and Singapore, governments are working hard to seek new ways to boost their shrinking economy. Creative industries and cultural tourism are seen as the life-saver in the choppy sea of economic troubles. Building a sophisticated cultural city for tourists and attracting executives and professionals are some of the causes behind this sudden culture phenomenon. The situation in China, however, is a little more complicated, for behind this cultural investment is concealed a political agenda as well as commercial interests.
West Kowloon Cultural District
In a way, the West Kowloon Cultural District project forms part of a series of attempts by the Hong Kong government to seek new economic solutions for the city in the wake of the devastating economic failures of 1997. After consecutive failure in nurturing the IT industry and Chinese medicine industry, the government then turned to culture.
This newly launched project intends to convert a 40-hectare surface area into a large-scale cultural district by the year 2015. Located at the Western side of Kowloon, this piece of reclaimed land is highly valuable since it is the last piece of centrally located real estate with a fantastic view of the famous Victoria Harbour.
Fifteen performing art venues of various sizes, a museum comprising 62000 square meters and an exhibition center encompassing 12500 square meters are to be built in the proposed district. The expenses, amounting to HK$ 21.8 billion, will cover the construction costs for cultural venues, commercial facilities and a light-gauge railway system. The funding is to be generated from the sale of 20% of the piece of land to developers for residential housing. Of the remaining 80% of the land, 36% will go to museums, exhibition centers and performing arts venues, 5% to other cultural and communal facilities, and 39 % to other commercial facilities such as hotels, restaurants, shopping areas and office buildings. These commercial facilities will be run by the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, an independently operated body with members appointed by the government. Income generated from renting these commercial facilities will go directly to supporting the operational costs of the various cultural facilities within the district. Based on calculations by the financial advisors, with these sources of income, the district would be self-financing and will not require any regular subsidy from the government.
Counting among the major plans for the Cultural District is the building of an extra-large ‘museum.’ The Museum Advisory Committee, of which I was a member, submitted a recommendation for the construction of an art space, tentatively called Museum Plus or M+. The ‘Plus’ reflects a desire to be more than a traditional museum. In addition to being a space that collects, exhibits, researches and educates, M+ intends to be a cultural forum in which members of the public can gather for the purposes of actively engaging and contributing, rather than simply passively observing. Most importantly of all, the ‘Plus’ is open ended, reminding all participants of the necessity to constantly redefine and expand the roles and functions of the museum1.
Problems Connected with Planning a Museum
Before elaborating on the concept of M+, I would first like to discuss some of the problems, quite common in museum planning in Asia, which the Advisory Group faced when planning this new art space.
In Hong Kong, as is the case in many other Asian cities, visiting museums is definitely not an everyday activity among the public. And the public has good reason for this reluctance since, in Hong Kong, museums remain spaces reserved for esoteric interests. The art works collected and displayed, whether Chinese antiques, ink paintings or Western art, have little if anything in common with the cultural experience of the general public. To establish a museum sufficiently meaningful culturally so as to generate public engagement represents an important challenge.
Secondly, for a city like Hong Kong, which has a short history and a relatively small art community, works available for collection are limited. To make the situation worse, there has been no serious research and systematic collection of local art. Many of the historical works have been lost and can no longer be traced. It is practically impossible to fill such huge museum space, unless substantial funding is provided for the purchase of collections beyond Hong Kong.
A further consideration is the emergence of China. Compared to Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai are now more artistically attractive to the world. Hong Kong, like many of its Asian neighbors (with the exception of Japan and Korea), suffers from the rising cultural domination of China.
During the 1990s, major exhibitions would travel to Hong Kong before, perhaps, going on to Beijing or Shanghai. Now the opposite is the case: major exhibitions would go to Beijing and Shanghai, and if the schedule would permit, stop off at Hong Kong. How ought Hong Kong to deal with this marginalization at a time when the world continues to be awestruck by China?
The idea of Museum Plus was the result of months of heated debate. Some features of M+ deserve further explanation.
First of all, M+ has avoided using such terms as ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’, terms employed within the context of Western art. In view of the developmental differences within the Asian region, we declined to use terms such as ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary.’ Instead, the museum addresses the art of the twentieth and twenty first centuries, also a period during which Hong Kong continues to evolve from a colonial settlement to a metropolitan city.
Secondly, rather than focusing on visual arts, the museum also seeks to encompass visual cultures. For we believe that the definition of art, while already having been opened up, will continue to substantially expand..
In a sense, M+ turns away from the conventional definition of art and takes on a more embracing, ethnographic view of cultural expression. Anyone visiting Hong Kong would discover that such a broadening in the definition of art makes total sense, for one cannot help but be impressed by the city’s dazzling cityscape: from organically evolved architectural solutions to high density living and all kinds of dramatic, popular visual displays on the streets competing for attention.
While Hong Kong does not have a strong elitist tradition, historically it does have a highly successful, though much ignored, tradition of popular culture: from an underground hub of activity among communist cartoonists during the 1930s and 1940s, to the pseudo-Western cheap plastic products exported to all parts of the Third World during the 1960s; from the Bruce Lee of the 1970s, the Canton pop of the 1980s, and more recently, John Woo and Wong Kar Wai. It is a cultural asset that ought to be recognized and treasured after decades of indifference under colonial rule.
The Committee finds it necessary not to be too specific about the content of M+. It acknowledges that the cultural landscape is currently undergoing very rapid change, and that curatorial decisions should be left to future professionals in accordance with the available resources and external environment at any one given time. In Asia, traditionally, governments prefer clarity and precision with respect to cultural planning. It takes considerable effort to persuade the bureaucracy to accept that ambiguity is an essential attribute of culture and of cultural development.
However, the Committee also realized that the government and the public have little understanding of what visual culture means, and so ambiguity is simply too much for them. Consequently, we propose four areas (or starting points) which include the visual arts, moving image, design and popular culture. These areas of art overlap. But we will leave it to future curators to draw boundaries and provide definitions.
While we recognize the importance of preserving and displaying local culture, M+ does not set any geographical limitations regarding its exhibition program and collection, not only because of the fact that Hong Kong has too small a cultural pool from which to draw an adequate number of high quality art works for its collection, but also because of the cultural necessity of taking a more comprehensive view of the world. We did discuss art from our neighboring regions, such as the visual cultures of our Asian neighbors, including the much ignored culture of Southern China.
With the increased interaction among different media in the twentieth century, boundaries between various art forms are becoming increasingly blurred. Interaction of visual culture with other art forms such as performing arts and literature should be recognized and encouraged. By including spaces for other art forms, M+ intends to institutionally facilitate this interaction to consolidate such integration.
By taking visual cultures as its theme, M+ also proposes a more critical curatorial approach, which does not end with the appreciation and understanding of the displayed objects. One must also consider the dynamic between viewer and object. The process thus requires a curatorial approach to disentangle the inter-dynamics of perception.
While M+ attempts to accommodate differences in curatorial approaches, we emphasize that whether a local or foreign exhibition, it ought to take on a Hong Kong perspective. As for the significance of the Hong Kong perspective, this is something we leave to individual curators. The emphasis on the Hong Kong perspective is a reminder of the curatorial necessity of being in tune with local cultural experience. The other curatorial focus places an emphasis on ‘now’, namely, the recognition of the contextually dynamic and immediate nature of cultural interpretation within a contemporary context.
The ideas proposed by M+ are nothing new. One of its outstanding features, one might say, is that it seeks to amalgamate the diverse approaches to museum practices which have evolved over the last twenty odd years. However, it was a tough battle to persuade culturally conservative Hong Kong to accept the ideas. Ironically, the conception of M+, which is based on a desire to make cultural experience more accessible to the public, seems too complicated for most people, including some members of the Museum Advisory Group.
Culture, the Big Business
In fact, it took the occurrence of a small miracle before the idea of M+ was accepted by the Advisory Group and the government. The battle flared up back in 2004, when the government first launched the West Kowloon project3. At that time, the project was monitored not by the Home Affairs Bureau, which is responsible for cultural development, but by the Planning and Development Bureau, the department in charge of urban planning and property development. The proposal presented at that time proposed that land be sold to one single developer for a high-density residential housing development, under the condition that the developer would also build two performing arts venues and four museums, including the Museums of Modern Art, the Ink Museum, the Design Museum and the Museum of the Moving Image.
As far as I know, the recent proposal for a cultural district in Manila is also based on a similar model. It has been proposed that the government offer a valuable piece of real estate to one developer and that, in return, the developer will build cultural facilities.
In the 2004 proposal, the most surprising suggestion was that the government expected the developer to not only fund the building of the cultural facilities, but also to be responsible for running these arts spaces for at least 50 years! The idea not only outraged the arts community, but also worried the developers, whose interest is solely in building property and making money. Two of the three final bidders for the project decided that they would simply import brand names instead. One proposed that it bring in the Guggenheim, the other the Centre Pompidou. A very Asian way of becoming cultured.
It was obvious that the West Kowloon project was a real estate project disguised as a cultural undertaking. The best that would come out of it was a series of low budget art spaces serving as entertainment clubs for residents dwelling in the newly developed luxurious apartment blocks.
Responses to the proposal were, not surprisingly, negative and reserved. The community was determined not to allow the developers, who are already extremely powerful in Hong Kong, to ruin their culture. Forums were organized, articles written, and public appeals submitted. The community wanted the project to be started all over again. After months of public outcries, the government withdrew the proposal, and opened up the planning procedure by inviting professionals from the community to help provide new recommendations for the project.
Power of Taste
In many Asian regions with a colonial past, art has always been the enjoyment of a minority. In locations such as the fashionable Shanghai, to be associated with art, especially with Western contemporary art, guarantees membership to the chic classes. I recall, soon after having taken up my position at MOCA Shanghai, explaining to my staff that I wanted kids from the poorer, rural areas to visit our museum, in an effort to make art more accessible to the people. Responses from local staff members were vehement and negative, for they feared that visits by the poor would downgrade the image of the museum. They were convinced that such a move would be bound to cause irreparable damage. It was then that I realized we spoke very different languages.
In Hong Kong, one of the toughest battles we waged was against pressure from a small but powerful group of collectors and dealers who insisted on building an ink museum within M+. The idea of selecting a specific medium and to dedicate a museum to it would be sure to ruin the totality of the M+ concept. Despite the tremendous pressure some members were put under, ultimately the idea was not accepted.
While recognizing that ink painting, especially modern ink painting plays, and continues to play an important role in Hong Kong and Chinese art in the twentieth century, some of us feel that it should not continue to enjoy the privileged treatment it has been enjoying for decades within the government museum system. The swift turn to visual culture, and to popular culture in particular, though may not be welcomed by everyone, at least recognizes the value of the everyday cultural experience of the people. By extending the definition and by restructuring the hierarchy of art, M+ could provide the kind of embracing and engaging cultural experience with which the general public could identify.
Lack of Infrastructural Support
The immediate problem one has to face when launching a large scale project on local cultural heritage is the lack of research and collection required for undertaking the necessary curatorial work. We have experts in Western or Chinese art, but hardly any in the studies of Hong Kong art, not to mention its popular culture.
The recent recognition of the importance of local culture reveals its long, cumulative defect: our culture has never been seriously preserved and studied. As pointed out by the Filipino critic Gina Fairley, one of the problems many Asian cities face is the lack of reference material for their artists and curators for contextualizing their work and for understanding the historical references they use.
Who is to Run M+?
When the new proposal was made public, responses were generally positive. While there are worries about the possibilities of the project turning out to be another ‘white elephant’, the arts community is eager to see a new project as an improvement on a severely contorted, and highly imbalanced cultural ecology.
One of the most Frequently Asked Questions by the Public is: Where is the Software?
Like many cities in Asia, Hong Kong suffers from a highly disjointed cultural infrastructure, which inhibits the nurturing of museum professionals. Most public museums are run by civil servants, and due to their bureaucratic inclinations, these civil servants are usually inactive and conservative. Consequently, contemporary art is left in the hands of small alternative spaces, which are unable to provide adequate opportunities for their staff because of their extremely small-scale operation: now, all of a sudden, a museum as big as the Tate Modern is to be opened within the next nine years. But where are we to drum up all the necessary museum professionals at such short notice?
In Shanghai, we joked that the average life span of a museum is two years, since deficient professional maintenance normally surfaces after two years. Obviously, this is only a joke, for there are professionally run museums. But for those who visit the museums in China, it is easy to recognize the truth in this joke. The other most frequently asked question is: where is the audience? The public is simply not interested in the art presented in museums. Obviously, substantial effort will be needed to strengthen art education to supplement the nurturing of audiences.
But people do not visit a museum because they think of it as uninteresting, and too alienated from their everyday cultural experience. How can we make visiting museums an integral part of our community’s life? How can we, within an Asian context, rearticulate the content, the language of interpretation and format of display, so that whatever we do will be meaningful to our communities?
Launching the West Kowloon project is like opening Pandora’s box. All of a sudden, the entire spectrum of questions pertaining to cultural development is raised. An additional concern raised by the community is the imbalance of cultural development. The fear is that the major part of these resources and attention would be absorbed by this new fancy art place, making the situation worse for small, grassroots cultural groups outside this grand center of the arts. Pressure has been mounting for the government to consider the other side of this cultural development, and to seek an ecological totality, instead of just focusing exclusively on one single mega project.
Arts for the People
Like the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, the implementation of the West Kowloon Cultural District project is the result of a protracted battle between the community and the government. The government has finally decided to become cultured: Should we do it? Is it too big for us? Should we start with the grass-roots, from the ‘bottom up’ instead of from the ‘top down’? But, like many of our Asian neighbors, we have been working at the bottom for decades, and have continued to remain there!
While this sudden zeal for cultural development on the behalf of the government may have been based on the wrong reasons, it nevertheless provides an unprecedented opportunity for new cultural development —if, that is, we adopt the right approach. On the other hand, we all know that building a grand high-rise on possibly precarious foundations is dangerous. There is still a great deal of uncertainty and risk involved in implementing this art space called M+.
But there again, art is all about visions and dreams. As stated in the proposal of the West Kowloon project, “investment in the arts is not entirely demand-led, but rather more supply-led and vision-driven”4. Art is about visions and dreams, about fulfilling dreams and dreams yet unfulfilled, it is also about uncertainty and risk-taking. If we are afraid of that, we should not be in this profession at all.
1 Consultative Committee on the Core Arts and Cultural Facilities of the West Kowloon Cultural District, Recommendation Report of the Consultative Committee on the Core Arts and Cultural Facilities of the West Kowloon Cultural District, in: http://www.hab.gov.hk/wkcd/pe/eng/report4.htm (access November 24, 2008), pp. 46–52.
2 Consultative Committee on the Core Arts and Cultural Facilities of the West Kowloon Cultural District, Recommendation Report of the Consultative Committee on the Core Arts and Cultural Facilities of the West Kowloon Cultural District, in: http://www.hab.gov.hk/wkcd/pe/eng/report4.htm (access November 24, 2008), pp. 46–52.
3 Consultative Committee on the Core Arts and Cultural Facilities of the West Kowloon Cultural District, Executive Summary, in: http://www.hab.gov.hk/wkcd/pe/eng/report4.htm (access November 24, 2008), pp. 1–25.
4 Consultative Committee on the Core Arts and Cultural Facilities of the West Kowloon Cultural District, Executive Summary, in: http://www.hab.gov.hk/wkcd/pe/eng/report4.htm (access November 24, 2008), p. 5.