Let's develop the art of transparency
The intimacy between government officials and appointees who sit on statutory advisory boards was highlighted with the resignation of Bernard Chan as chairman of the Antiquities Advisory Board. Acknowledging his relationship with government officials could give the impression that the board independence, Chan resigned to allow it to be perceived as free of government interference.
Chan's undoing was the government's fear of transparency. The government announced in 2009 that the former central government offices' west wing would be demolished, supposedly to ease a shortage of grade A office space in Central. Immediately, conservation and architectural professional groups argued that the ensemble of three 1950s modernist central government office buildings on Government Hill, Hong Kong's original site of governance since 1841, is of irreplaceable importance. A Heritage Impact Assessment on the retained buildings, the main and east wings, was tabled at the last Antiquities Advisory Board meeting, but it failed to consider the integral relationship between all three buildings and ignored assessing the west wing's architectural characteristics.
This is almost deja vu. In 2008, the Hong Kong Jockey Club unveiled a plan for a huge 'bamboo' tower to be erected on the back exercise courtyard of the former Central Police Station complex as part of its 'revitalisation'. It was revealed that Jockey Club officials had been in secret discussions with the government for two years prior to unveiling their plans. Local residents condemned the bulkiness of the new structure and conservationists deplored the plan's lack of emphasis on the heritage features of the historic site. The plan was duly scrapped after public consultation.
It was this lack of transparency that allowed an untenable plan to progress beyond an embryonic idea. The Jockey Club then instigated what should have been its starting point - a heritage assessment of the site. It then envisioned the future Central Police Station complex to have a contemporary art-and-heritage focus, complemented by shops and restaurants at the Hollywood Road end of the site.
The site is currently undergoing an extensive archaeological survey and site preparation prior to renovation and construction of two new buildings, fronting Arbuthnot Road and Old Bailey Street.
However, the biggest unresolved issue facing the project is its future funding and governance. The Jockey Club will provide HK$1.2 billion to complete the renovation, but continuing funding will come from income generated and charity fund-raising. The original management plan was to set up an independent non-profit company with a governing board, which would oversee professional staff to manage the facilities and programming. Instead, the Jockey Club, on the advice of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, will now tender for an existing organisation to manage the site.
Only a handful of existing arts groups are capable of operating the Central Police Station complex - and they are dominated by a small circle of people.
To ensure that the complex is operated in a liberal and enlightened way, the Jockey Club should abandon this approach and set up a new, unencumbered governance and endowment structure to allow this arts-and-heritage facility to reach its exciting potential - free of accusations of official, non-transparent, intimacy.
John Batten is president of the Hong Kong International Association of Art Critics Hong Kong