Let's get this show on the road
Michael Lynch is in an upbeat mood; fiddling with his walking stick as he poses for a photo against a full-length window overlooking the West Kowloon reclamation site.
Lynch has reason to be happy: the arts hub just launched its first architectural design competition for the Xiqu Centre, the HK$21.6 billion project's first permanent cultural venue. Plans have also been submitted to the Town Planning Board, which means that the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, despite all its recent controversies, is, in fact, moving forwards.
'Hopefully [this] develops a sense of momentum and a sense that we are getting somewhere, rather than continually talking about the past [and] what has gone wrong,' says Lynch.
He poses happily for the camera and grins when told that, with his walking stick, he resembles Monsieur Hulot, the amiable character from Jacques Tati's 1950s and 1960s classics, as portrayed by the French director himself.
But unlike the distracted Monsieur Hulot, the arts hub chief is very much in control. Just when many were asking what West Kowloon was about, culturally, he and his team strategically thrust Cantonese opera into the spotlight over the Lunar New Year holidays by staging the Bamboo Theatre, the arts hub's first cultural event. The Xiqu Centre is to be dedicated to this art form.
The authority is also organising an event showcasing the city's art around the same time as the ART HK12 international art fair in May.
It appears that the original goal of the hub when it was proposed 14 years ago - to enhance Hong Kong's appeal as a tourist destination - has been superseded. 'It's really important that our first statement says it's relevant to the people of Hong Kong,' says Lynch.
Eight months after taking up the position vacated when the arts hub's first CEO Graham Sheffield resigned at the beginning of 2011 - for health reasons after only five months into his job - the 61-year-old former chief of London's Southbank Centre has been busy engaging with the local arts community.
Previously also general manager of the Australia Council for the Arts and the chief executive of the Sydney Opera House, the veteran Australian arts administrator is always ready to meet new people - he carries around a huge stack of name cards in his jacket pocket.
But, above all, Lynch is determined to put the project's troubled past behind it.
'Being able to draw a line that says what's going to happen between now and 2020, and then 2020 and beyond' is high on his agenda.
The past referred to here is one involving chief executive candidate Leung Chun-ying, who has been accused of having had a conflict of interest during an arts hub design competition more than a decade ago. And it is also alleged that Norman Foster, the celebrated architect who submitted the original canopy design, was brought back into the game by the English chairman of the competition after being disqualified.
'Luckily, we don't have to get too involved in the discussion of the past, because none of us were here,' says Lynch. 'This allows us very much to focus on what we are going to do in the next couple of years, rather than what seems to be somewhat of a Hong Kong obsession about what happened 10 or so years ago.'
To start afresh, Lynch does not dismiss the possibility of changing West Kowloon Cultural District's name, which has long been associated with real estate and commercial interests as well as political scandals.
'We have flagged this before,' Lynch says, revealing that the authority has been working on a rebranding campaign. He confirms that it is highly possible that the name of the arts hub will be changed, but he will probably not be seeking advice from a fung shui master.
'I've had a fung shui master [check my office]. That's why I'm not allowed to look out of these two windows,' says Lynch, pointing at the floor-length windows facing his desk - the only two windows of his Tsim Sha Tsui harbour view office where the blinds are permanently drawn.
'That was the advice ... but I'm not sure if I will be consulting a fung shui master on the name [of West Kowloon]. No. I think we will use a more established marketing and branding company to help us do that.'
A fresh start means more than just adopting a new name. The arts hub has a serious money problem: it is estimated to be under budget by as much as HK$16.4 billion.
Other than investments, Lynch is also working on fund-raising initiatives such as public-private partnerships, as well as seeking sponsorships and donations.
He hopes philanthropy will play a role. On the visual arts side, Lynch says the team has been talking to potential collectors, and hopefully there will be some news on the collections of M+, West Kowloon's museum for visual culture, later this year.
'Building the collection is almost as important as the building,' he says. 'The issue for me is to ensure that M+ has the appropriate collection by the time we open the doors in 2017/18. Today very few museums are buying works; they focus on philanthropic activities. Probably the only place that's substantially buying is China.'
Lynch says not all of the performing arts venues will rely on subsidies. He is confident that some, like the Mega Performance Building, can be commercially viable, and he has no problem with staging pop shows for the likes of Lady Gaga.
'If you look at the Lady Gaga phenomenon,' Lynch says, referring to the American pop diva's sell-out Hong Kong stage debut, 'there must be something going on in the Hong Kong and mainland market. It's actually moving much more quickly to earn greater acceptance by the international circuit.
'I'd love to have that building to be able to run 20 Lady Gaga concerts. Unfortunately it will have to be Lady Gaga's daughter probably, [to] come back in 2020 to be able to do that.' That will be the time when the mega venue is expected to be ready.
Lynch also has ambitious plans to expand his team by a staggering 50 per cent by the end of this year, from about 100 people to 150 or 160.
'We are growing substantially on the visual arts and performing arts side,' he says. 'The board is getting more confidence with what's happening internally ... We have taken back more control of the project internally ... that's an important step in the evolution of the organisation.'
What about the bureaucracy from the Home Affairs Bureau?
'The HAB people are heavily involved in going through the history,' Lynch responds, fending off the question effortlessly.
Still, Hongkongers are irritated by conflicts of interest. And some West Kowloon board members are either art collectors or have a direct connection with the commercial side of the arts. But Lynch is keen to assure the public that the issue is being given priority by the authority, which applies strict controls over the board, the team and the Xiqu Centre design competition. 'People are taking it seriously,' he says.
Although he is new to Hong Kong, Lynch recognises that the lack of arts administrative talent is an issue. That's why, for the second year running, the authority is supporting four local arts administrators to join the University of Hong Kong's Advanced Cultural Leadership Programme, run in association with the British Clore Leadership Programme. 'I don't think much attention has been given to that in Hong Kong,' he says. 'I have always said that, at some point, I should be replaced by local leaders.'
But before that happens, an occasional recruitment of international talent will still be crucial. 'The team is essentially local. We will be building the visual arts and performing arts team, which will bring [talent] not just from Hong Kong, but also a few people ... with significant level of expertise ... from other places.'
Lynch would not comment on whether the arts hub's first chairman Henry Tang Ying-yen will win the chief executive race on March 25, but he certainly wants it to be over as soon as possible, as he is already looking forward to the 2017 election - when Hong Kong's permanent residents will vote for the chief executive.
'By the time we have the next election in 2017, a large part of the West Kowloon hub will be ready,' he says. Will Hong Kong's first universal suffrage election take place in West Kowloon? 'Absolutely. I'd be happy to provide a venue for the election.'
The Xiqu Centre will be the first of this number of core arts and cultural venues and one of 15 proposed performing arts venues