Arts hub: no time to lose

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 May, 2011, 12:00am


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Veteran arts administrator Michael Lynch has just stepped into a job that is as formidable and ambitious as the HK$21 billion project of which he is now in charge.

The West Kowloon Cultural District has never just been about the 42 hectares of land on which 15 performing arts venues, a large piazza, a visual-arts museum and an exhibition centre will be built. It is also about giving the city the much needed space to develop its arts and culture, elevating local artistic standards to a world-class level, building links and partnerships with the existing cultural facilities and integrating the new district with its neighbourhoods and the rest of Hong Kong.

As its chief executive, the 60-year-old Australian will not only have to deal with artists but also builders, politicians and government officials from an array of departments.

The position has so far proved to be a poisoned chalice: Angus Cheng Siu-chuen left the job after just a week in 2009 and Graham Sheffield, former artistic director of the Barbican Centre in London, resigned from the post in January after five months, citing health reasons.

However, many believe that Lynch, with his extensive experience and international background, will be able to take the challenges in his stride.

The former head of the Sydney Opera House and the Southbank Centre in London has arrived at a crucial phase in the project: the conceptual plan for the West Kowloon Cultural District proposed by British architect Norman Foster was approved by the government in March and should be endorsed by the Town Planning Board at the end of this year at the earliest. The next step is to turn concepts into reality.

'Lynch will be a leader not just of West Kowloon but all its surrounding districts,' says one observer who is close to the project. 'There are many technical issues that need to be ironed out and there is an urgent need for the WKCD to come up with a construction programme or infrastructural blueprint for the plan. For instance, the Foster plan proposes underground traffic. How will that be connected with the existing local traffic in the area?'

Besides traffic, the arts district authority will have to figure out how to integrate the cultural hub and the nearby Hong Kong-Guangzhou high-speed railway. Sorting out these issues will be laborious and time-consuming.

And it will involve a slew of government departments, including the Town Planning Board, Environmental Protection Department, Transport Department, Lands Department, Home Affairs Bureau and district councils. All the while, the WKCD Authority must keep a close eye on its budget to ensure that it does not overspend.

The project needs to start its construction phase very soon if it is to meet the scheduled completion of its first phase around 2015. That means building 12 performing arts venues and the M+ art museum.

But the authority made some progress while searching for Sheffield's replacement.

On Wednesday, Lars Nittve, executive director of the M+, told a group of international art dealers and reporters in town for the Hong Kong International Art Fair that 'the momentum is already there'. He said he hoped the designer for M+ would be identified, through an international competition, by next April and the architect by next summer.

'We are now working on the policy of collection, as everything is [built] from inside out,' he said, adding that HK$1 billion was earmarked for acquisition. 'In 10 years' time, the collection should reflect that you are here in Hong Kong, the Pearl River Delta, China, Southeast Asia and the rest of Asia.'

M+ aimed to display local artwork, Nittve said, 'but more importantly to bring great art here from around the world'.

Louis Yu Kwok-lit, the executive director for performing arts, is looking at the feasibility of major local performing arts companies taking up residence in some of the new venues.

It will be Lynch's job to get his team of eight senior executives together and ensure everyone is working towards the same vision. He will need to get board members in agreement to put his administrative decisions in effect. The question of autonomy - whether WKCD will be free to make decisions about art without government interference - will need to be addressed, discussed and confirmed.

Most of all, Lynch has to learn about this city - fast. Despite his glowing resume and extensive experience, Hong Kong is no London or Sydney. He will have a lot of catching up to do to understand the local cultural scene and more. The learning curve will be very steep.

'His position is not simply to oversee a cultural district; being an outsider, he needs to have an understanding of the government, how it works, the arts community and potential audience in order to design the project,' says one veteran artist who is close to the project.

The WKCD cannot take the same approach as the government in promoting the arts, which places more emphasis on 'fairness and pleasing everyone' instead of artistic merit, the artist says.

'West Kowloon should take a leader's role in local art and cultural development. This district is a project that is of international world-class standard. Artistically, it has to be able to decide what is of quality. You cannot cater to everybody.

'So will the new chief executive have the courage to make that decision?

'On the one hand [Lynch] will need to communicate and work with the government - which is set in its way of doing things - and on the other striving for high standards. He needs to be brave enough to stand up for his decisions and choices and that is really challenging.'

But the success of the WKCD will not rest on Lynch's shoulders alone. The district's evolution will depend on who will take over the reins as chief executive in the future.

For now, it is hoped that Lynch will at least stay long enough to kick-start this mammoth project and give it a solid head start.