The great arts gamble

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 July, 2011, 12:00am


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Leanne Nicholls, the founder and artistic director of the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong, is in two minds about a new arts grant that promises to transform her 12-year-old troupe.

Under the Springboard Grants, launched by the Home Affairs Bureau last month, for every HK$1 she can raise for the orchestra, the government will hand over up to HK$2. It means the City Chamber Orchestra might receive a public subsidy of up to HK$7.5 million in the next five years. That's twice as much as the group would get under its existing funding arrangement with the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (ADC).

It sounds great. Yet Nicholls says there are 'cracks and down points' that suggest the grant programme hasn't been thoroughly thought through.

'It is, initially, for two years and we can apply for another three years. But what happens after that?' Nicholls asks.

Officials say the grant is designed primarily to encourage medium-sized, non-profit arts groups - for years neglected in funding schemes - to raise funds through private sponsorship. It is not intended to be a permanent subsidy (hence 'Springboard').

Set up in March by the Advisory Committee on Arts Development, it falls under the Arts Capacity Development Funding Scheme and reflects the government's growing commitment to support the long-term development of the arts. The new project grants under this same scheme - up to HK$2 million per project - are at least twice as hefty as existing project grants offered by the ADC.

Nicholls, who doubles as the orchestra's principal oboist, says the prospect of getting a grant is a cause for 'major excitement'. It would permit 'all these creative ideas that have been in our heads for ages' to finally be realised.

'New commissions are the major thing,' she says, 'because it's so expensive to commission composers to do new works. We are also very interested in looking into music theatre and educational programmes that would partner that.'

But, she says, it's tough to know how much to depend on this new funding source.

'For groups like us, we have to make a decision whether to keep our ADC grant or not,' she says. 'It is quite a big decision. Are you going to buy a car model that has been out on the market for a long time or something that is brand new that you've never tried? You tend to go for what you know is going to be reliable.' She says the grant seems to assume that her orchestra will be self-sufficient. 'But at the same time, any surplus made from this grant has to go back to the government, so obviously we cannot survive on surpluses that we make,' she says. 'So how are we supposed to survive after this five-year period?'

Last year, the administration injected HK$3 billion into the Arts and Sport Development Fund. It was seed money to generate stable investment returns 'to support existing and new worthwhile arts, culture and sports initiatives on a sustainable and long-term basis', according to the Home Affairs Bureau.

Half was set aside for the arts. The estimated return is projected to provide HK$30 million a year for the Arts Capacity Development Funding Scheme.

This city's strengthening financial commitment to the arts bucks the global trend of cuts in the cultural sector. In Britain, more than 200 arts organisations have recently lost their funding, while in the US, arts patronage has taken a beating in the country's economic downturn.

Here, because of the government's huge investment of HK$21.6 billion in the West Kowloon Cultural District, the challenge is to groom and nurture more local artists, arts administrators and managers.

A funding review is also under way for the so-called 'Big Nine' - the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, the Hong Kong Dance Company, the Hong Kong Ballet, the City Contemporary Dance Company, the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, Chung Ying Theatre and Zuni Icosahedron. Recommendations on how these performing arts companies are to be assessed and better funded are expected to be released before the end of this year.

The new grants are designed for smaller groups that have sound track records in producing quality works.

Sean Curran, artistic director of Theatre du Pif, says the new project grants will encourage more ambitious works. His group's acclaimed The Will to Build, which premiered in 2008 as part of the New Vision Arts Festival and was re-staged last September at the Shanghai Expo, cost HK$1.2 million to stage.

'We would never have got HK$1.2 million from the LCSD [Leisure and Cultural Services Department],' he says. They managed instead to get a half-million dollars from the British Council and a bit more than a half-million from the LCSD, enabling them to invite video artists from Britain and put on a production that could tour overseas.

'You cannot do shows like that with the kind of funding we have at the moment,' Curran says.

Theatre du Pif, which Curran co-founded with fellow actor Bonni Chan Lai-chu in 1992 to promote bilingual multicultural theatre, receives an annual ADC grant of HK$850,000.

Invited to stage their original work Dance Me to the End of Love at the Manizales International Theatre Festival in Colombia, South America, in September, they are now seeking additional funding of HK$64,000 to make the trip.

'We are taking a show that is good and is an example of some of the art that is coming out of Hong Kong currently. Surely that is a good thing for the city,' Curran says. He says the experience will help the troupe mature and develop an audience.

'I still very much believe in theatre education,' he says. 'If we are going to have West Kowloon then we have to have an audience that is used to coming to the theatre - and we are building that.'

Heidi Lee Oi-yee, an adviser to the independent theatre outfit O Theatre Workshop set up by director-actress Olivia Yan Wing-pui, is also looking into applying for a project grant. She likes the flexibility it promises: 'It looks to me the single grant money can be used for a wide range of art forms, from theatre to book publishing.'

The Springboard Grants require the applicants to secure a cash income of HK$1 million, putting it beyond the reach of most visual artists because exhibitions are normally free of charge. Cheng Yee-man, co-founder of independent art space C&G Artpartment, says he would need to sell his flat in order to meet that threshold.

Yet raising HK$1 million will be easy for arts and cultural foundations or non-profit arts spaces backed by big business. This raises the question of whether the grants will go to visual artists who really need the support.

Chung Shui-ming, chairman of the Advisory Committee on Arts Development, says as long as grant applicants fulfil the scheme's objectives, 'it's hard for us not to give them the opportunity'.

He added: 'For [individual] artists who can meet these objectives, yet don't have the ability to secure the $1 million required, they may consider the project grants.'

Leanne Nicholls says that even her orchestra may have trouble meeting the requirements for the Springboard Grants. She says it is 'unrealistic' to exclude sponsorship in kind, such as the provision of airfare and hotel accommodation, in the projected HK$1 million income because, for some commercial companies, that's all that they can manage.

'Hotels can't give cash but they can give hotel rooms,' she says. 'I think that is totally unfair and, in some way, it's alienating some corporates from being involved in the arts. There is a lack of understanding of how corporates can work for the arts ... I'd like to see a grant that is more understanding of that.'

But she applauds the introduction of the Springboard Grants. 'Arts groups do need to be motivated,' she says, 'not just to be sitting on a government grant, but to be using it effectively in order to grow and expand their activities.'

She adds: 'I can't see any problem getting started on it, it's more what's going to happen at the end that I'm concerned about.'

She's currently weighing all the consequences and says she's not entirely sure of all the downsides: 'But I have to say it's the biggest glimmer of hope for the arts [in recent years].'


That is the amount, in Hong Kong dollars, in the pot for the new funding scheme each year

- It comes from a $3b investment fund.