Soft touch, global reach

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 July, 2012, 12:00am


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Since its opening in mid-May, the exhibition at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum of works by Pablo Picasso has charmed almost 200,000 visitors. Even Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, the now-former chief executive, was dazzled by the masterpieces, reportedly ordering museum staff to begin work earlier than usual on one occasion so that he could enjoy a private viewing.

The exhibition of 56 paintings in Sha Tin has been the highlight of the 20th anniversary of the city's annual Le French May arts festival, and runs until July 22. Most viewing times have been booked, so unless you have the kind of clout that Tsang once enjoyed, you may not be able to see for yourself the magic and power of the Musee National Picasso's HK$6.7 billion worth of cultural exports, a unique example of France's soft power.

'We want to maintain our international presence through culture,' says Xavier Darcos, a former education minister and the president of the Institut Francais, a government agency promoting French culture overseas. 'We were a strong economic power before, but our economic influence has been reduced. Cultural soft power is what we still have, to maintain our influence overseas, and cultural soft power is a gate to economic interests.'

Ting Wai, a professor at Baptist University who specialises in international relations, concurs, saying that countries are using culture as a diplomatic tool to maintain their international presence and project a good image.

'For example, America dominated the world in the 20th century not only with its ideologies of democracy and freedom, but also popular culture, like Hollywood, Disney and even McDonald's. It's about the values a country represents. If you learn their model, it's considered a victory for them,' Ting says.

European countries like Britain and Germany have a long history of promoting their cultural influence overseas, through the work of organisations like the British Council and Goethe-Institut.

Hong Kong has been making its own efforts at cultural diplomacy. The Trade Development Council helps to promote Hong Kong cinema at international film festivals such as Cannes, and the Arts Development Council funds local artists who show their work at venues such as the Venice Biennale's Hong Kong pavilion. The HK$21.6 billion West Kowloon Cultural District is also helping to put the city on the world map, while the establishment of a culture bureau will hopefully increase the city's influence.

Darcos' Institut Francais is a statutory body established in July, 2010 that operates under France's Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, serving, he says, 'as the conduit for a new, more ambitious diplomacy of influence'.

Last year, despite severe pressure to reduce its spending, the French government committed Euro52.6 million (HK$513.2 million) to fund the institute for three years. Other than cultural exchanges, the institute is also responsible for promoting the French language and other aspects of French culture, both in physical and digital form. It now works with a network of 132 offices and 400 Alliances Francaise around the world.

Darcos observes that other world powers have also embraced this idea of cultural diplomacy. He says that, with the United States dominating the online world and China expanding its influence through some 300 branches of the Confucius Institute, there's more work to be done for France, especially in terms of content promotion.

In China, France has been staging Festival Croisements (French Crossings), festivals which are loosely based on the model of Hong Kong's Le French May, featuring a range of events from arts to culture debates. Last year, the festival was held in 21 cities on the mainland, attracting more than 500,000 visitors.

'We want to enhance diplomacy with cultural action,' says Darcos, adding that other than in China, France also hopes to boost its cultural presence in countries such as South Africa and India.

Other European countries such as Poland and Denmark are also actively strengthening their cultural soft power and promoting it overseas. This year, Denmark has opened Innovation Centre Denmark in Hong Kong to market Danish design.

Cultural diplomacy is at the forefront of Poland's foreign policy. The state-run Adam Mickiewicz Institute, run by Poland's Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, actively promotes Polish culture abroad, holding 4,000 cultural events that welcome 40 million participants on three continents, according to its director, Pawel Potoroczyn. He spoke at the recent cultural leadership summit organised by the Hong Kong Arts Administrators Association.

'Now culture has become very important. We are the most active, but this is an international trend, and many countries will follow suit,' Potoroczyn says.

Cultural diplomacy is not limited to Europe. In the East, the governments of both Japan and South Korea have been actively promoting their culture overseas, aided, in the case of South Korea, by its successful export of Korean cinema as well as K-pop and TV series, to create what has become known as the Korean wave.

In Australia, the public and private sectors have joined forces to strengthen the country's cultural diplomacy, according to Simon Crean, Australia's arts minister.

Crean, who last year launched a consultation on Australia's national cultural policy - the first in nearly 20 years - says that investing in the arts is important because of the social and economic dividends. To strengthen its connection with Asia, 'we have to be innovative, and investment in the creative industries is an important part'.

Crean told the South China Morning Post that to engage Asian countries, Australia must foster relationships by building cultural exchanges. Last year, more than 100 events celebrating Australian culture were held in China, and this year has been designated the Year of Chinese Culture in Australia. The Australia Council for the Arts also funds Australian galleries to develop markets overseas, by exhibiting at ART HK this year, for example.

'In Australia we host multiculturalism. If we can project that cultural diversity and cultural richness, particularly in Asia, we can build a cultural relationship around that diversity,' Crean says.

To promote this cause, Australia's private and public sectors work together at institutions such as the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), which reopened with a new wing at its premises on Sydney Harbour. The facelift has been a huge success, drawing over a quarter of a million visitors since it reopened on March 29.

The A$53 million (HK$422 million) project was a marriage between private and public, with a significant contribution made by private donors, including the museum's chairman, the investment banker and philanthropist Simon Mordant, who paid A$15 million out of his own pocket.

The Australian federal government contributed A$13 million, while the New South Wales state government paid the same amount, according to The Australian newspaper.

'Over the past 10 years, there has been a huge increase in public interest, and the number of visitors has gone up more than five-fold,' says the MCA's director, Liz Ann Macgregor. Visitor figures went up from 100,000 to almost 600,000 a year, and new exhibition spaces for programming and collection development will be necessary for the next decade to come, she says.

Now that the expansion is complete, the next goal is to raise funds, to build the collection and look into more overseas exposure for the MCA.

'We have to be very entrepreneurial,' Mordant says. The museum also runs a business providing a venue for weddings and other events. And it pushes the development of contemporary art in Australia by showing artists that are still unknown, Mordant says. 'With a new floor, it's going to be a lot easier.'

The Biennale of Sydney, the 18th edition of which opened last month and will run until September, has provided another major contribution to Australia's cultural diplomacy. Last year it welcomed more than 517,000 local and overseas visitors, contributing around A$63.9 million to the economy, according to its CEO, Marah Braye.

This year's biennale is exhibiting works by more than 100 artists from Australia and around the world - including China.

'People came specifically to see the show,' Braye says. 'The market is trying to understand what culture has to offer, and the government increasingly understands culture's contribution to the economy.'

Braye says that around 30 to 40 per cent of the biennale's budget is covered by the government, and the rest is raised privately. The next goal, she says, will be to boost the biennale's international exposure, through working with potential overseas institutions and commissioning artists to create works that can be exhibited around the world.

Tasmania, which has been suffering from an economic downturn, has recently seen a revival thanks to the opening of the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) in Hobart, a chic and daring private museum founded by philanthropist David Walsh, a somewhat controversial character described in the Australian press as 'a multimillionaire professional gambler'.

Mona, dubbed the Temple of David by The Australian, is home to a range of provocative arts-and-crafts pieces, from an Egyptian mummy to Australian artist Greg Taylor's vagina sculptures. The museum has quickly become a major tourist attraction for Tasmania, drawing more than 330,000 visitors from mainland Australia and the rest of the world since its opening in January of last year.

At the recent Chinese Creative Industries Forum in Macau, National University of Singapore's global-relations vice-president Lily Kong said that culture was important to Singapore. According to Kong, the Singaporean government has been striving to shape the city state into a 'global centre for arts, culture and entertainment' for more than 10 years, through a series of ambitious strategic plans cultivating 'creative people, creative spaces and creative products'.

In 2010, Singapore launched the Arts and Culture Strategic Review, which vowed to incorporate arts and culture in Singaporeans' lifestyle by doubling the percentage attending at least one cultural event a year, from 40 to 80 per cent a year, and raising active participation from 20 to 50 per cent.

Resources are put into developing creative clusters like the Work Loft at Chip Bee, and revitalising warehouses and shop houses for arts groups, in the hope of increasing the creative industries' contribution to gross domestic product. That rose from 3 per cent in 2004 to 6 per cent in 2012.

'We are very small, and if we have to find a place internationally for ourselves, we need to rely on soft power, so that people can understand and appreciate Singapore,' says Kong, a geography professor who has also researched Singapore's cultural development.

Kong points out that many Asian cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taipei, have invested heavily in cultural infrastructure, from monuments to museums and performing-arts venues, 'in a bid to improve their standing in the league of world cities, and not just in terms of economics and finance'.

China, too, is determined not to be left behind.

Cultural reform was in focus when the Central Committee of the Communist Party met in October, with the meeting emphasising the cultivation of cultural confidence and creative industries. Under the nation's current five-year plan, cultural and creative industries will turn into a 'pillar industry' that can generate 2 trillion yuan (HK$2.46 trillion) in income by 2015.

But Ting says a lot will need to be done on the mainland.

'It's true that there are 300 Confucius Institutes around the world, but they are all about traditional China. What about modern China? Mainland China's cultural soft power is weak,' Ting says. 'Only a free and open environment will allow creativity to flourish. Unless China has a fundamental change, people will just give up on promoting new ideas.'

The culture bureau that has been proposed for Hong Kong by the city's new chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, will have to pay attention to developments in global cultural trends, says Danny Yung Ning-tsun, the artistic co-director of Zuni Icosahedron, an experimental theatre company and one of Hong Kong's nine professional arts companies.

'We need to put Hong Kong in a regional and international context, finding out how we can strengthen ourselves and cultivate partnerships with others in this region,' Yung says. He says that he hopes resources will be given to the culture bureau for serious research and development.


The entrance fee, in Hong Kong dollars, for the Picasso show. All but three of the 15 days remaining are fully booked