Arts hub better be worth the wait
How long does it take to build an arts hub? A prime piece of harbourside land in West Kowloon has been sitting waiting for its transition into an iconic cultural district since then-chief executive Tung Chee-hwa announced the plan in 1998. The project has encountered numerous problems over the intervening years. Now, more funding is needed and key facilities have been delayed. Solutions must be found if the vision is to be realised.
Sadly, this has been a troubled project. The original plan, involving a single developer and an adventurous canopy design by leading architect Norman Foster, was scrapped in 2006 amid strong opposition and we went back to the drawing board. Two years later, the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority was born, to formally take over the project. But then there were setbacks with senior staff appointments. Two successive heads of the authority resigned prematurely.
Everything seemed to be back on track after the appointment of Australian arts administrator Michael Lynch in May, which followed the selection of another ambitious Foster design and the injection of a HK$21.6 billion government endowment for the project. But sharply rising construction costs and slippage caused by the construction of the high-speed railway - which uses the hub as the terminus - have forced the authority to spread the original two phases of delivery into three. Instead of having 12 performing arts venues ready by 2015 as first planned, the public have only been promised a partially completed park, an outdoor theatre, an arts pavilion and a Cantonese opera centre by that time. Core facilities like the art museum M+ and a concert hall will only be delivered between 2017 and 2020. This is disappointing.
The problems of inflation and low investment returns are not unique to the arts hub planners. Exploring new sources of financing will be a necessary step to take. The authority must find a way of raising the funds needed, perhaps through the issuing of bonds. Private sponsorship could have an important part to play, as elsewhere in the world. This, after all, is a prime development intended to benefit the entire community.
The authority must also make clear its plans for the development of cultural policies, working together with the arts community. This will be crucial to the success of the project.
Creating an iconic centre for the arts takes time, as the developers of the Sydney Opera House and other similar projects would testify. It is also important to make sure it is properly funded and that we get it right. But given our city's reputation for the efficient development of public works and our famous 'can do' spirit, putting the arts hub in place within a reasonable time should not be beyond us.