The name that oozes culture

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 December, 2004, 12:00am

After addressing the Hong Kong-organised Asia Cultural Co-operation Forum last month, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation director Thomas Krens found himself being grilled about a potential museum in the West Kowloon Cultural District.

A tireless and articulate man, who has negotiated deals with Japan, Taiwan and China, Mr Krens has made a final decision to sell the global museum to Hong Kong, a city known for its economic rather than cultural achievements.

As the institution's head since 1988, he said Sir Norman Foster's giant canopy design for the district boosted his confidence in the city.

'I was in London and New York and I met Norman Foster a few times,' he said. 'When I looked at the Foster plan, I saw how advanced it was. If you could see the canopy from the moon, it would be very interesting.

'This is an opportunity to work with one of the greatest architects to design something very special in a very special place.'

If the truth be told, architectural design has been the biggest crowd-pulling element at Guggenheim museums. The Guggenheims in New York and Bilbao, each with more than a million visitors so far, are the most popular among the five Guggenheim museums around the world.

New Yorkers say the architecture of the spiral Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum designed by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright is greater than the art.

The Bilbao museum, completed in 1997, draws crowds with its curving and tilting metal-clad forms designed by Canadian architect Frank Gehry. The building also brought international attention to the formerly quiet and abandoned Spanish industrial town.

'My theory of a global museum is its architecture should raise questions of how art should be consumed and pushes the boundary of what a museum should be,' Mr Krens said. 'Should the gallery space be predefined or should it be flexible is a fundamental question [for museum operators].'

Despite Mr Krens' grand plan for a museum in Asia, talks with Asian cities have stirred controversy over the past decade and raise questions of whether Hong Kong will ever see one open. Since 1991, the foundation has attempted four commercial joint ventures in Japan - three in Tokyo and one in Osaka. All fell through.

It was close to landing a deal with Shanghai a few years ago, but that plan came to an end when the officials involved were promoted and urban planning for the Pudong area was altered.

Last year, Mr Krens unveiled a project in Taichung, Taiwan, with renowned deconstructionist architect Zaha Hadid. When in Hong Kong, he would not say whether the Taichung project would be realised, but Taiwanese media reported that the foundation had not received promised funds from the national government.

Mr Krens was also silent on the Las Vegas branch's closure and plans for Rio de Janeiro and New York that have been put on hold.

Guggenheim's business model, which dictates that the host city pay to use the Guggenheim brand, could be a difficulty for some cities. The museums would then be filled by a rotation of the foundation's vast art holdings. What gives Hong Kong the edge over the rest is perhaps its willingness to invest.

'Over the past 30 months we have been approached by over 120 cities around the world. But being approached does not necessarily lead to a courtship and a marriage,' Mr Krens said.

'To build a world-class museum, we are not the investors. Three-fourths of people leave at this point and many others are driven away when we say 'this is what it will cost'. I also cannot just pick cities if there is not a critical mass of resources.'

Mr Krens did not deny that Guggenheim's bid for a place in Hong Kong was initiated by Cheung Kong (Holdings). Cheung Kong and Sun Hung Kai Properties submitted a West Kowloon Cultural District proposal in a joint venture under the name Dynamic Star International.

'Every developer in Hong Kong came to us. Cheung Kong indeed has been very persistent. I was in Asia a few times and I met [group vice-chairman] Victor Li Tzar-kuoi. We made a deal in April.'

Mr Krens described himself as a 'bystander' and refrained from any strong criticism of the government's policy. 'I wish I could have participated in the discussion,' he said. 'But now I have been presented with a situation. I have to work within the parameters.'

He said the government's approach to the project was new to him. 'Can you put four museums and three performing arts venues in one location?' he asked. 'The developer is responsible for operating it for 30 years.

'But there are different ways of doing it. The West Kowloon Cultural District is something unique. Cultural institutions create value and there'll be value added to real estate and commercial development.'

With some Hong Kong cultural critics worried about the encroachment of foreign arts and the marginalisation of local culture, how would Mr Krens position Guggenheim in Hong Kong?

'A global museum is based on the idea that culture should not be a strictly local concern,' he said. 'The tension, the discussion and dialogue between global and local is what defines the Guggenheim.

'But how would I capture the essence of Hong Kong? I'm not there yet. We can bring the best part of western culture, which is not opposed here.'

Mr Krens said it would be world-class programmes and the architecture that drew the crowds. His preliminary plan would be to have a third of the space dedicated to global exhibitions, another third to regional organisations and the rest for local projects.

'What we have here is an MTV crowd,' he said. 'I have a feeling the audience might get bored with an 18th century painting. You have to make the museum an object of desire. As a director, you need to think about how to satisfy scholarship and the cultural narrative, as well as make something cool and hip.'

What if West Kowloon does not go forward? 'There will still be interest in this area,' Mr Krens said. 'This region is going through a powerful economic transformation. There will be creation of museums in Shanghai and the Olympics in Beijing.

'There's been a discussion that what Hong Kong needs is world-class cultural institutions and the question is how to get it done as soon as possible. Hong Kong can't afford to wait that long.

'Culture can be used intelligently as a vehicle for urban development, and Bilbao has successfully used culture as a driver. It is still a contemplative subject but I think it is a question that Hong Kong faces.'