New arts hub chief in at the deep end

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 May, 2011, 12:00am

There was irony in the timing of the announcement of a new chief of the West Kowloon Cultural District - during the city's annual international art fair - that would not have been lost on those who have followed the troubled project's 13-year birth pains. The vision of a world-class arts hub symbolised optimism about our city's future place in Asia. But it is the growing success of the fair that has vindicated that optimism, along with Hong Kong's emergence as the world's biggest auction centre after New York and London and the 'Asian hub' for international art dealing. Meanwhile, the West Kowloon arts hub remains a vision.

Australian Michael Lynch is its third chief and the second within a year. But it is reassuring to learn that he was the preferred choice last time. The former head of the Sydney Opera House and the South Bank Centre in London declined then for personal reasons. Now that he is on board, and a master plan has finally been adopted, it is surely time to just get on with the HK$21 billion project. We cannot afford another false start. The authority has also been plagued by high staff turnover. If the vision is not to end up making a laughing stock of Hong Kong, there is a need for stability and inspirational leadership, with united support from officials, lawmakers, the arts community and public alike.

The project seemed to have turned the corner after the appointment of Graham Sheffield, the former artistic director of the Barbican Centre in London, as chief executive. His departure late last year for health reasons was clouded by his appointment to a senior post in London within two months, giving rise to speculation that his real malaise was frustration with red tape and bureaucratic interference. If Lynch had any illusions about what he is taking on, they should have been dispelled by his introduction to the Hong Kong media, where he was repeatedly questioned about his health and felt compelled to explain that his age, 60, had not wearied him and that he used a cane because of the effects of polio when he was three. He could also have pointed out that someone more badly affected than he by polio served four terms as US president and led his country through its biggest war. Apart from all the other reasons for wishing him well, success might help correct ageist attitudes in an ageing society that forces talented and productive people into premature retirement.

Understandable concern has been expressed about whether Lynch can adapt to the local culture and ways of doing things. At least he has had the experience of adapting to local customs and bureaucracy in his London appointment. After Sheffield quit, it was suggested the chief executive get a deputy or chief operating officer to give him space for strategic thinking and a buffer against petty detail. That would be a good way of helping him get on with the job.

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