Oscar Ho: Government, Business and People

Museum Development in Asia

Cover der Publikation »Contemporary Art and the Museum«
»The Global Challenge of Art Museums II«, internationale Konferenz, ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, Karlsruhe, 19.–20. Oktober 2007.
Der Text wurde am 20. Oktober 2007 in Sektion II, »The New Art Geography in the Asia Pacific Area«, vorgetragen.

It gives me great pleasure to be here to learn from my distinguish colleagues, and shared with you some of my experience in working in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia. At my talk this morning, I would like to start off with talking about an ambitious museum project that was launched in Hong Kong a month ago, then discuss the content of this new museum, and some of the problems we are facing in implementing this new museum, within the context of developing museums, especially contemporary art museums, in Asia. For I do find some of the problems we are facing are not distinctively Hong Kong, but are commonly faced by many of my Asian colleagues, who are witnessing a rapid growth in museum development within the region.

Around a month ago, the Hong Kong Government has launched a grand scale cultural plan called the »West Kowloon Cultural District« project. It is an unprecedented investment in culture in the history of Hong Kong.

This ‘suddenly cultured’ phenomenon, however, is not unusual in Asia in recent years, Singapore is now moving fast in building its new National Art Gallery as part of its Cultural Capital plan; the Cultural Centre of Philippines has just submitted a proposal to the government to expand the Centre into a grand scale cultural district plus real estate development; in Thailand, the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, after being postponed for years, is back on track again. In China, museum is a symbol of civility and modernity. In Beijing, as all kinds of commercial spaces moving first to 798 and now to Song Zhong, the government is equally aggressive. It plans to open 32 new museums by August 2008 (don’t forget, this is October 2007 already); and in Shanghai in 2002, the government officially announced its plan (or political order) to build 100 new museums by 2012, when the World Expo will be held in the City. (A few months ago, I had a meeting with an official in Shanghai, and was told that there are still 60 more museums to go). But believe me, if the government says 100 museums, they will build 100 museums. In Shanghai, they are opening up more museums than Starbucks. (When I was setting up MOCA Shanghai, we were approached by a frustrated official who complained that after one and a half year, we still could not finish setting up a museum).

A lot of this new interest in investing in culture in Asia is lulled by a fantasy over the economic potential of culture, especially at places such as Hong Kong and Singapore, which are working hard to seek new directions for its economy. Nurturing creative industries and cultural tourism, building a sophisticated cultural city to attract cooperate executives and professionals, are all important motivations behind this ‘suddenly cultured’ phenomenon. (Situation in China is a bit more complicated, as there is a political dimension as well as strong commercial interest behind this bloom in cultural investment).


In a way, the West Kowloon Cultural District project is one of a series of attempts of the Hong Kong Government trying to seek a new economic direction for Hong Kong since the economic down fall of 1997. After failing to nurture the digital industry and later on the Chinese medicine industry, the government turned to culture. This newly launched project intends to, by 2015, turn a piece of 40 hectare land into a large scale cultural district. Located at the Western side of Kowloon, this piece of reclaimed land is highly valuable as it is the last piece of centrally located land with a fantastic view of the famous Victoria Harbour.

15 performing arts venues of various sizes, a museum of 62,000 square meters and an exhibition centre of 12,500 square meters will be built. The construction fee of these venues plus commercial facilities and a light train transportation system within the district is estimated to be 19 billion Hong Kong dollars (2.4 billion US dollars). The 19 billion dollars would come from the sale of 20% of that piece of land to real estate developer for residential development.

And for the remaining 80% of the land, 36% will go to museum, exhibition centre and performing arts venues, 5% for other cultural and communal facilities, and 39 % will be for building commercial facilities such as hotels, restaurants, shopping areas and office buildings. These commercial facilities will be run by a West Kowloon Cultural District Authority. Income generated from renting out these commercial facilities will go to support the annual operational costs of the various cultural facilities within the District. Based on the calculation of the financial advisors, with that source of income, the District can be self-financed and will not require any regular subsidy from the government.

Museum Plus

One of the central features of the Cultural District is the proposal of a mega size art space. The Museum Advisory Committee, in which I was a member, made a recommendation to build an art space, which is 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 dynamic cultural plaza where the public gather, actively engage and contribute, instead of being passive observers. Most important of all, the ‘plus’ is open ended, constantly reminding the curators the necessity to redefine and expand the roles and functions of the museum.

Problems about planning a museum

Before I elaborate on the concept of M+, I want to first talk about some of the problems the Advisory Group faced when planning this art space, for I think these problems are quite common in museum planning in Asia.

In Hong Kong, going to museums is definitely not a common weekend activities for the public. And they have good reasons not to, for museums in Hong Kong remain the spaces for the esoteric. The art works displayed, whether they are Chinese antiques, ink paintings or Western paintings, have little linkage with the cultural experience of the public. How to create a museum that could be cultural meaningful enough to generate engagement of the public would be 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 it worse, there has not been any systematic collection of local art in the past; many of the historic works can no longer be traced). Unless substantial funding is provided for purchasing collection and the scope for collection goes beyond Hong Kong, how is it possible to fill in such huge museum space?

One more consideration is the rise of China which has made Beijing and Shanghai artistically some of the most attractive cities to the world. This Chinese domination has affected all parts of Asia, with the exception of countries such as Japan and Korea, where they have already established a solid infrastructure and network of their own.
During the 1990s, major exhibitions would come to Hong Kong then maybe stopped over in Beijing or Shanghai. Now the opposite happens, major exhibitions would go to Beijing and Shanghai, and then, if schedule allows, Hong Kong. How should we position ourselves at a time when the world falls into this fantasy over China?

About M+

The idea of a ‘Museum Plus’ came out of months of heated debates. Maybe I can summarize a few characteristics of this M+ here.

First of all, M+ has avoided using such terms as ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’, which are frequently interpreted within the context of Western art. Instead it focuses on art of the 20th and 21st Centuries, a period also when Hong Kong becomes a sizable city.

Secondly, instead of focusing on visual arts, it expands to be a museum of visual cultures. For we believe that the definition of art has already been, and will only get increasingly open up. Especially within the historical and cultural context of Hong Kong, the richness of its culture does not limited to the traditional art forms only.

It is interesting that at this conference, there have been discussions over how the ethnographic museums accommodate contemporary art. In a way, M+ moves out of the conventional definition of art and takes on a more embracing, ethnographic view of cultural expression.

For anyone who visits Hong Kong, one would find such broadening make sense, for one cannot help but impressed by its dazzling urbanscape, the organically evolved architectural solutions to high density living, and the all kinds of dramatic visual displays competing with each other on the streets.

Most important of all, Hong Kong has a highly successful but much ignored tradition of popular culture, from being an underground activity centre of the communist cartoonists during the 1930s to 40s, to the pseudo-Western cheap plastic products that were exported to all parts of the Third World during the 1960s, to Bruce Lee of the 70s, to the Canton pop of the 80s, and more recently, John Wu and Wong Ka Wai. It is a cultural asset that we should be recognized and treasured after decades of indifference.

The Committee finds it necessary not to be too specific about the content of M+, as we realize that the cultural landscape is changing very rapidly, and we should leave it to the future professionals to make their curatorial decisions, based on the available resources and external environment at that particular time. However, we also realized that the government and the public have little understanding of what ‘visual culture’ means and they cannot tolerate too much ambiguity. Consequently we suggest four areas of focuses, or starting points, which include visual arts, moving image, design and popular culture. There are overlapping among these ‘areas of art’, but we will leave it to the future curators to draw the boundaries and give their definitions.

While we recognize the importance of preserving and displaying local culture, M+ does not set any geographical limitations to its exhibition programme and collection, not only because of the fact that Hong Kong has too small a cultural pool to draw adequate high quality art works for its collection, but also because of the cultural necessity to a more accommodative view of the world. We did talk about art from our neighboring places, such as art of our Asia neighbours, including the much ignored Southern China culture. (There will be a railway built linking Hong Kong with Southern China, with its main station located right at the Cultural District. It makes a lot of sense of try to build the cultural link).

Curatorial focus

Now I want to talk a bit more about the curatorial aspect of M+. With the increased interaction among different media in the 21st Century, boundaries between various arts forms are getting increasingly blurred. Interaction of visual culture with other arts forms such as performing arts and literature should be recognized and encouraged. M+ intends to institutionally facilitate this interaction by introducing spaces for other forms for such integration. By recognizing visual cultures as the theme for M+, it also suggests a more critical, diversified curatorial approach. However, while trying to be accommodative with the differences in curatorial approaches, the Group does emphasize that curatorially M+ should, whether it is local or overseas exhibition, take a ‘Hong Kong perspective’. (As for what does Hong Kong perspective mean, we leave it to the individual curators), as an reminder of the curatorial necessity of being in tuned with the local.

The other curatorial focus is an emphasis on ‘now’, recognizing the contextually dynamic and immediate nature of cultural interpretation. The ideas proposed by M+ are not anything new. The best one may say is that it tries to amalgamate the many new thinking in museum practices happening in the last couple decades. However, for a culturally conservative place like Hong Kong, it was a tough battle the Group has gone through to get the ideas accepted.

Culture, the big business

In fact, the battle was started back in 2004, when the government first launched the West Kowloon project. The project at that time was monitored not by the Home Affairs Bureau, which is responsible for cultural development, but by the Planning and Development Bureau, a department in charge of urban planning and property development. The proposal presented at that time suggested to sell that piece of valuable land to one single developer for a high density residential housing development, under the condition that they will also built two performing arts venues and four museums, including Museums of Modern Art, Ink Museum, Design Museum and Film Museums. (The museum proposal was so specific that it even listed out what kind of lighting system should be installed).

As far as I know, the recent proposal for a cultural district in Manila is also based on a similar model. It is suggested that the government offers a valuable piece of land to developer, and in return the developer will built cultural facilities that are difficult to realize through other channels. But in Hong Kong’s case, the most shocking suggestion was, the government expected the developer to not only fund but also run the cultural facilities, for at least 50 years! The idea was not only outrageous for the arts community; it also created much anxiety among interested developers, whose profession has always been just building residential properties. (I remember those days, when the big bosses of these real estate developers inviting us for lunch, frantically asking about how to plan and run museums). Finally two of the three final bidders for the Project decided that they would just import something instead. One suggested they would bring in the Guggenheim, the other the Pompidou Centre.

It was obvious that the West Kowloon Project was a real estate development project disguised as something cultural. The best it would come out is a series of low budget art spaces serving as entertainment clubs for the residents living at the newly developed luxurious apartment blocks. It was the determination of the community not allowing the developers, who are already extremely powerful in Hong Kong, to run our culture. Forums were organized, articles were written, and public appeals were made. The community was determined not to have Project started all over again. After months of severe criticism and public outcries, the government withdrew the proposal, opened up the planning procedure by inviting professionals from the community to help making new recommendations for Project.

Power of taste

Like many Asian places with a colonial history, art has always been the enjoyment of a minority of the elitists (the literati tradition in Chinese culture is only the other side of the coin). At places such as the fashionable Shanghai, where another form of colonization, a colonization of consumerism, is going on, to be associated with art, especially Western contemporary art, is always a sign of upgrading oneself to be among the chic. I remember soon after I started my job at MOCA Shanghai, I mentioned to my staff of my interest in arranging kids from poorer, rural areas to visit our museum, as an attempt to make art more accessible to people. Immediately responses from local staff were strong and negative, for they fear that visits of the poor would downgrade the image of the museum. They believed that such move would definitely cause devastating damages. Suddenly I realized that we were speaking very different languages.

In Hong Kong, one of the toughest battles we had to fight against was the pressure from a small but powerful group of collectors and dealers who insisted on building Ink Museum within M+. The idea of outstanding a particular medium and set aside a museum for it would definitely ruin the totality of the concept of M+. Despite the tremendous pressure some members were put under, ultimately the idea was not accepted. While we recognize Ink Painting, especially Modern Ink Painting plays an important role in Hong Kong and Chinese art in the 20th Century, some of us feel that it should not continue to enjoy a special treatment that it has been enjoying for decades within the government museum system. The swift to visual culture and popular culture in particular, although not welcome by everyone, is recognition of the value of everyday cultural experience of the people. By opening up the definition and restructuring the hierarchy of art, M+ could provide a more embracing, more engaging cultural experience the general public can identify with.

Lack of infrastructural support

While the idea of recognizing the importance of local cultural heritage from a broader perspective is a welcomed one, the problem one has to face immediately is the lack of research and collection for undertaking the necessary curatorial work. We have experts in Western or Chinese art, but hardly any in the studies of Hong Kong art or popular culture. The recent development in recognizing the importance of local culture has revealed a long, accumulated defect of Hong Kong: our culture have never been seriously preserved and studied. As pointed out by the Filipino critic Gina Fairley, one of the problems many Asian cities facing is the lack of reference material for their artists and curators to contextualize their work and to understand the historical references they use.

Who is going to run it?

When the new proposal came out, responses have been, generally speaking, positive. While there is a lot of worry about the West Kowloon Project turning out to be another ‘White Elephant’ projects, the arts community is eager to see a new project to counter-balance the a highly twisted cultural ecology.

One of the most frequently asked questions from the public is: where is the software? Similar to many cities in Asia, Hong Kong suffers from a highly imbalanced cultural infrastructure that suffocates the nurturing of museum professionals. Most public museums are run by the government and are by its bureaucratic nature, inactive and conservative. Contemporary art are left in the hands of small alternative spaces, which could not provide adequate nurturing of museum professionals because of their extremely small scale operation. Suddenly there is a museum as big as Tate Modern going to be opened in 9 years, where can we pump out all these museum professionals in a short time? In Shanghai, we had this joke that the life span of a museum there is normally around two years, for the problems of their lack of professional maintenance normally surfaces after two years (obviously this is only a joke, and there are museums which could run properly, but for those of you who visit the museums in China, it is not difficult to realize that there is a lot of truth in this joke).

The other most frequently asked question is: where is the audience? The public are simply not interested in the arts. There have been suggestions on strengthening art education to help nurturing the audience. That is definitely one direction we should go. But I still believe that people don’t come to museum because they find museum uninteresting. How can we make visiting museum an integrated part of our community’s life? How can we, within the context of Asia, 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 the Pandora box, suddenly all the questions on cultural development are raised. Another concern raised by the community is the imbalance of cultural development, fearing that the majority of the resources and attention would get sucked to this new fancy art place, making the situation worst for small, grassroots cultural groups located outside of the grand centre of the arts. With the increased interest in community arts in recent years, pressures have been building upon the government to look at cultural development in its ecological totality, instead of just spotlighting on just one single mega platform.

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 long battle between the community and the government. The government finally decided to get cultured, should we go for it? Is it too big for us? Should we start off with the grass-roots, from bottom up in stead of top down? But, like many of our Asian neighbours, we have been working at the bottoms for decades, and still stay on at the bottom!
This sudden zeal for culture of the government is probably based on the wrong reasons, but it nevertheless provides a golden opportunity to create a new possibility for cultural development, if we do it right. Building a grand high-rise on a foundation that is not convincingly solid could be dangerous. There are still a lot of uncertainty and risk involved in implementing this art space called M+.
But then, art is about vision and dream, and is also about uncertainty and risk-taking. If we are afraid of that, we should not be in this profession anyway.


Last update: 26-10-2007 14:34