Curator chose HK for its 'freedoms'

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 April, 2012, 12:00am


Hong Kong's freedom of speech and of the press are among the reasons mainland China's top curator has decided to make it his new home this summer.

Renowned scholar Pi Li, who will start work in July as a senior curator at the West Kowloon Cultural District's M+ museum, says such freedoms are vital for arts development.

'They are the values of human civilisation, the foundation for the discussion of contemporary art,' Pi told the South China Morning Post by phone from Beijing. 'Otherwise there's no point even if you have a lot of cash to build a lot of museums.'

It was announced last month that Pi would join M+, working with executive director Lars Nittve. The museum, focusing on 20th and 21st century visual culture, is due to open in 2017. Pi will concentrate on contemporary Chinese art, an area that will be an important focus for M+, Nittve said at the museum's public forum at the Science Museum last night.

The Swede said the director of Beijing Design Week, American-born Aric Chen, would be the museum's design and architecture curator, while a further five staff were being recruited. He hopes the team, half of whom are from Hong Kong, will come from varied backgrounds. A 'Mobile M+' pop-up exhibition will take place in Yau Ma Tei to coincide with next month's ART HK international art fair, Nittve added. It will feature work by six local artists.

A well-known figure in the contemporary Chinese art world, Pi has a PhD in art theory from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, where he is executive director of the art administration department. He lectures on curatorial studies and writes about contemporary Chinese art for publications in China and overseas and has curated exhibitions worldwide.

The mainland is experiencing a museum boom and by 2009 it had 3,020 museums, with about 100 new ones being built every year. But Pi said he chose Hong Kong because the city's liberal and open environment would be the most suitable in China for his study of contemporary Chinese art.

'It offers a more neutral perspective, and because of a more open environment ... I feel that more can be discussed,' the 38-year-old Wuhan native said.

When the government calculated its HK$21.6 billion endowment for the arts hub in 2008, the total cost of M+ was estimated to be HK$4.7 billion. The budget to build its collection will be HK$1.7 billion.

The museum is planning five non-commercial pavilions to allow outside groups to host exhibitions, Nittve says. The first will open in 2014.

As the Post has reported, the hub overall is facing a budget shortfall of up to HK$16.4 billion, but Pi said he was not too worried about feeling the pinch.

'It can always be resolved,' he said. 'Other than spending money on buying, many [artworks] can be acquired through donation, which will be very important in the future.'

Nittve said last night the museum had been in talks with collectors from home and abroad in an attempt to get them to donate works. He hopes to have news later this year.

Co-ownership of collections could also help. 'It's not uncommon for museums to share ownership of particular works of art,' Pi said.

The surging prices of artworks and limited budgets have prompted museums to co-ordinate their acquisition of expensive pieces. Pi added that museums should always take the lead to discover new works before their prices took off. Another mission he hopes to achieve will be bridging the gap between contemporary 'Chinese art' and 'Hong Kong art', which has often been left out of the discourse, despite the handover 15 years ago. 'It's very unfair to divide Hong Kong from Chinese art,' said Pi.

'I hope to work with local Hong Kong artists and build up this platform showcasing local and international art.'

Pi revealed that discussions over the position at M+ began in the second half of last year, but it took him no time to make the decision, even though he will have to leave his position at the academy and Boers-Li Gallery, which he founded. He said his ownership interest in the gallery would be held in a blind trust.

Pi has one last job to do for the gallery - attend ART HK.

He will be moving to his new home in June, and the most pressing task is flat-hunting. 'It's very expensive,' he said. '[But] the culture is very different and I like the open and liberal attitude. I'm very looking forward to moving to Hong Kong.'

An architectural competition will be launched for M+ at the end of the summer.