Concrete and consultababble our cultural fate

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 March, 2011, 12:00am

According to the [West Kowloon Cultural District] authority, 73 per cent of the budget will be spent on buildings, 13 per cent will be saved for renovation and repairs, 8 per cent for purchasing collections for the flagship museum and 6 per cent for project management.

SCMP, March 5

We have a government definition of culture here. Of every dollar to be spent on this culture corner, 73 cents will go to pouring concrete, 13 cents will go to fixing concrete and 6 cents will go to supervising concrete. Culture is a very concrete business in this town.

And lest you think that this will at least leave 8 cents to enrich art mongers who can spot a ripe sales prospect as fast as any used car dealer, be warned that the rising costs of pouring concrete since this HK$21.6 billion budget was proposed will easily absorb the 8 cents too.

You will probably say that these ratios are the wrong way round. It should be 92 per cent for culture. Any barn will do to keep off the rain while holding up an air conditioning and lighting system.

I mean, look at Paris. The Pompidou Centre, the largest modern art museum in Europe, is just a pipe and sheet metal warehouse that would look perfectly in place in any French industrial park. Another big art museum is housed in a disused railway station and a third in an indoor tennis court.

But we have special considerations here. If you are to have museum 'collections', you must first determine what sort of collections you want your museum to show.

I now refer you to the museum advisory group's mission statement for M+, the flagship museum. This from cultural district's website:

'The mission of M+ is to focus on 20th and 21st century visual culture, broadly defined, from a Hong Kong perspective and with a global vision. With an open, flexible and forward-looking attitude, M+ aims to inspire, delight, educate and engage the public, to explore diversity and foster creativity.'

Right, uh-huh. Broadly defined global vision, open and flexible with diversity explored. That really pinpoints things. Let's try again from the advisory group's executive summary:

'Visual culture' ... refers to areas of culture that are found on visual expressions and embrace a broad range of creative activity and experience that cross many media. It is a fluid concept which, while making it difficult to define, offers flexibility and scope to explore new aspects and rejuvenate itself in response to changing circumstances...'

I apologise for the consultababble. I don't normally allow more than a few words of this perverted form of speech into my column but I couldn't avoid it here.

Anyway, you get the point. The idea is self-confessed as 'difficult to define'. These people haven't a clue of what they are doing.

But it gets worse. From the same executive summary:

'Although M+ and existing public museums managed by the LCSD [leisure and cultural services department] may have some duplications in certain areas of collection they could co-exist to present two different and complementary curatorial approaches for enriching Hong Kong's cultural ecology.'

For M+ read 'a pea'. For existing public museums read 'in a pod'. Hong Kong already has a museum of art. It's on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront just behind the space museum. I visited it once. Well, you know, it was raining, we didn't have umbrellas and we'd already seen the space museum five times.

I can assure you, however, that this museum is not quite so bursting at the seams that another even bigger one is needed just up the road. And I suspect that its 'curatorial approach' does not include admitting by implication that it has no wish to inspire, delight, educate and engage the public. The museum advisory group may wish to take note.

But this touches only on visual arts. The cultural district is also to have performance venues. What distinctions will these offer from the existing Hong Kong Cultural Centre?

Good question and the cultural district people have asked it in a 'Stakeholder Engagement Exercise' on which they embarked only three months ago. Among the queries to which an answer is sought: 'Is this a useful type of facility to have in WKCD?' 'Would it be of value to the community as a whole?'

You get the plot. The questions they should have asked before the first architect was even approached will not be addressed until the concrete is already poured. Thank heavens at least that the architect we picked, Norman Foster, got it right this time and went for trees.

But do you still wonder why that Graham Sheffield fellow we hired as cultural district's chief executive ran away from the job as soon as he saw the lie of the land?