Jake's View

Pitch for culture concrete is just the same art form

If it's good enough for bridge builders, it's good enough for arts chief to go cap in hand for cash

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 June, 2013, 3:14am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 June, 2013, 4:31am

Rising construction costs have put pressure on the West Kowloon arts hub and it will need more financing in the future, its chief says.

SCMP, June 3


I entirely understand the demands of the arts industry for the culture bunkers it was promised at the West Kowloon reclamation.

After all, every other infrastructure project regularly comes back to the government to demand more money. The high-speed railway to the border has just done it, citing unexpected costs, and the Macau bridge people did it before they even got started.

What is more, the West Kowloon Concrete Dumping Authority (WKCDA) was never given that much of our money anyway, just  HK$25 billion. In contrast, the airport is already talking figures of well over HK$100 billion for a third runway, and it won’t take long for that railway to get into as many zeros.

Let’s be fair about this.

It all comes down to the same thing. You call in the concrete mixers, you tell them where to pour, and you fill the empty spaces between the concrete with glass. Bridges, railways, theatres, what’s the difference? The point is to award contracts. The job is done when the concrete sets.

But lest the arts industry be unjustly deprived of its fair share of the concrete-pouring loot, let me suggest a few pointers on how WKCDA chief Michael Lynch should make his sales pitch.

  • Pull out the philistine card. Remind everyone that the supposed objective was to prove that Hong Kong is not a cultural desert. We’ll instead show the world that Hong Kong  is one if we don’t get down to business soon and pour that concrete. At this rate Singapore will soon have more square feet of culture display floor area per unit of population. Tell ’em so.
  • Don’t complain too much about rising construction costs. Someone might actually check and find out that in the public sector they have risen barely a third over the last five years, not the more than doubling you claimed in the last paper you leaked.
  • Get us more pretty pictures. We haven’t seen any from you for a long time. You know the kind – a shimmering glass building  at dusk on a mid-summer’s eve with beautiful people in beautiful clothes. It’s how you sell concrete. Put some airbrush artists to work. You’re in the arts business, Mr Lynch. Don’t you know any?
  • But play down the greenery in these pictures. Greenery may remind people that the best idea yet put forward for West Kowloon was the Swire proposal for a forested park. In this town, we reserve our tree money for cutting trees down. They get in the way of concrete. They’re budget killers. Stay away from trees.
  • Ignore other culture bunkers, too. We have lots of them all over this town, some built at great expense, and all of them whistling for trade most of the time. For you, they don’t exist. Recognising them weakens your funding demands.
  • Talk up jobs. It works wonders for bridges and tunnels. Tell everyone that you’ll create 20,000 jobs at West Kowloon, 30,000 if you want. No one is checking. True, we would create just as many jobs elsewhere if we spent the money on something else, but don’t worry. No one ever makes the connection.
  • Ditto economic benefit. It’s almost as good as talking up jobs and even easier, because no one knows what it really means. The idea is that if you spend HK$100, you can make it look like HK$1,000 because the money just keeps flowing through the economy. Don’t go low. A nice round figure for you is HK$150 billion. It worked for Disney, and you’re really in the entertainment business too, aren’t you?

Most of all, don’t let people know that Vincent Van Gogh never sold a painting in his life, that Mozart was buried in a pauper’s grave and that most great artists whose memories we prize were so far ahead of their times that the art industry of their day ignored them and they were only fully recognised years later.

It’s the way of the art industry. It prizes yesteryear’s stale favourites. It looks backwards, not forward. Mix government money with art, and that’s invariably what you get. Don’t let them know, Mr Lynch.