Arts hub needs a new chief fast, but don't rush it

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 January, 2011, 12:00am

Graham Sheffield's sudden resignation as chief executive of the West Kowloon Cultural District comes at an inauspicious time, with the HK$21.6 billion project just about to make its big leap forward.

The other eight senior management positions on its governing body have been filled and the authorities are expected to choose one out of the three conceptual master plans for the district within the next three months.

Sheffield's departure is a big shock. The full impact of his resignation will only become clear with time.

His departure will not bring the development to a halt - six committees, including one for museums and another for performing arts, were set up to ensure the various projects could be delivered on time.

Some may even argue that since the project has not reached a stage where crucial decisions have to be made, Sheffield's resignation will not leave the project in the lurch.

But others point out that the former artistic director of the Barbican Centre in London had already made progress on a number of plans, especially for venues for the performing arts. These will now have to be put on the back burner.

His departure also means there will be no leadership in the immediate future to give the various work committees a unified vision. Although the six committees are made up of professionals experienced in their specialised fields, they have not worked together before. A project as big as this really calls for a strong leader who can ensure the different groups get the right team dynamics.

On a broader level, this latest twist in the 13-year-old project - announced by chief executive Tung Chee-hwa in 1998 - is likely to affect the city's image and its desire to become the arts hub of the region.

Its first executive head, Angus Cheng Siu-chuen, left the job after just a week in 2009. Sheffield himself only had five months at the helm.

As one veteran arts administrator noted, the city risks becoming a joke within the international arts community.

Expectations had been high when Sheffield was appointed. His emphasis on arts education won applause in some quarters, and resulted in the three architects in the running to design the hub giving this more prominence in their master plans.

It is hoped his replacement will have the same kind of artistic vision. But here lies the biggest problem for the government: while the new chief executive needs to be appointed as soon as possible to keep the project afloat, finding the right person is a task that cannot be rushed.

This may be the biggest hurdle that the cultural district development has had to face.