Hong Kong scores for a minimalist approach to art appreciation

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 October, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 October, 2005, 12:00am

Four years after being exiled to a small though still pleasant little corner in the depths of the Louvre in Paris, the Mona Lisa has found a permanent home after a journey of half a millennium.

Surrounded by hectares of 16th-century Italian masterpieces in the museum's Salle des Etats, Leonardo da Vinci's La Gioconda holds her ground with her stamp-sized but cosmic-scaled smile.

The move cost Euro4.8 million ($45.2 million) as the hall had to be properly fitted, including non-reflective, unbreakable glass to protect the 500-year-old painting from climatic changes, camera flashes and wilful damage.

The Mona Lisa's homecoming, however, may soon be eclipsed by the forthcoming opening of the Musee du Quai Branly on the left bank of the Seine under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

The museum, 10 years in the making and with a budget of US$142 million, will house the country's vast collection of artefacts and works related to the arts and civilisations of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas.

It is probably not far-fetched to say that most French people regard culture as a human right, and that they believe that the incumbent government - of whatever political persuasion - has the obligation to provide access to the arts in the spirit of liberte, fraternite, egalite.

No wonder then that, on the first Sunday of every month, all museums, galleries and arts centres are open free to the public - including the millions of visiting culture vultures.

The Japanese model of providing public access to culture may not be as generous as its French counterpart. But it boasts its own sense of civic virtue in the name of the arts.

Perhaps the best model of this is the Mori Arts Center, the centrepiece of Japan's biggest integrated property development to date, the US$4 billion Roppongi Hills complex in Tokyo.

Sitting on an 11-hectare site and 17 years in the making, the complex boasts office space, apartments, shops, restaurants, cinemas, a hotel, a television studio, an outdoor amphitheatre, and a few parks.

But the jewel in the crown is the Mori Arts Museum, the brainchild of property tycoon Minoru Mori and his wife, Yoshiko.

Perched on top of the 54-storey Mori Tower, the museum focuses on Japanese and Asian artists, and boasts one of the best modern art collections in the region, if not the world.

The museum embodies that very Japanese value of art appreciation as an expression of individual refinement that verges on a spiritual mission.

Here, art is not meant for profit-making, as it is supported by earnings from other business interests of the philanthropic Mori couple.

But perhaps in a demonstration of the collateral benefits of art, the Roppongi Hills complex has helped revive Tokyo's long-moribund property market, thereby boosting the Moris' fortunes and allowing them to buy even more art works for their museum.

Philanthropy is also a key element in the American model of preserving and presenting arts and culture, though aggressive fund-raising is still pursued.

In the United States, museums and galleries are practically brand names, like the Guggenheim, the Frick and the Whitney in New York, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and the well-funded Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Born and bred in the bastion of global capitalism, these institutions are experts in selling themselves to deep-pocketed patrons and are notorious for cut-throat competition to secure the bequest of important art collections.

Even the publicly funded American museums have refined the savvy of marketing themselves. Witness, for instance, the cunning ability of New York's Museum of Modern Art to mine its collections to devise a complete range of furniture and houseware.

Then there is the hybrid Singaporean model, where art and culture are largely funded by the government but is ultimately treated as an industry whose merits are judged by its contribution to gross national product and the unemployment rate.

It is a very laissez-faire approach, but in a peculiarly Singaporean way, where culture is largely confined to the entertainment and commercial sphere, and kept from instigating debates on social issues such as political dissent, gender and race relations.

Hong Kong has to find its own model among these various approaches to arts and culture.

A cursory survey suggests that the government - true to its avowed policy of not choosing industrial champions - also has a very hands-off policy when it comes to the arts and culture.

The government, with the Hong Kong Jockey Club chipping in, funds bodies such as the Arts Development Council, which awards grants to several arts and cultural groups in the city.

One of the biggest expressions of government policy on the arts is the West Kowloon cultural district. The project, however, is in danger of turning into a mere property development, with a cultural centre as an add-on, like those pathetic, understocked refreshment kiosks on public beaches.

Given its half-hearted and confused efforts to promote culture, the Hong Kong government has been scored for its very minimalist approach to art. It is, in a way, a highly conceptual arts policy.