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Ungrateful arts leaders owe public an apology over West Kowloon project

Mix public funding with the arts in this town and what you get is a fixation with costly, fancy buildings, mostly of the windowless sort

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2014, 12:29am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2014, 12:29am

The government's non-committal attitude towards building the third phase of the West Kowloon Cultural District is not just an insult to the arts community but also a betrayal of its aspiration to build a world-class arts hub, industry leaders say.

SCMP, May 31

Note that bit about "industry leaders". We got us a construction industry, a food industry, a banking industry and, to round things off, we got us an arts industry. It has no annual production targets but otherwise it's a bird of a feather with the rest.

The difference, of course is that the arts industry is by far the most money obsessed of them all and I say this with career experience of the investment industry.

The arts industry chant never ceases: "Gimme more money." I have never met a fund manager that compulsive.

Note the arrogance, too. These people want HK$23 billion from us for a basement in West Kowloon, more than the entire budget for the project just six years ago, and it's "an insult to the arts community" that we might have second thoughts about this staggering sum and not just hand over the money on demand.

Have you ever heard as much as a ghost of a hint of a "thank you" from these people for reserving West Kowloon for the arts? With them it's just back every time to the same strident, tedious chant - "Gimme more money".

The burden will inevitably fall, as does all public spending, on the shoulders of the working poor

I suppose it had to be expected. Mix public funding with the arts in this town and what you get is a fixation with costly, fancy buildings, mostly of the windowless angular sort that call to mind the words "severe" and "cold".

You also get a stoking of the fires of civic hubris. Note that bit about "aspiration to build a world-class arts hub." In your eye, Shanghai - we've got the highest ratio in Asia of square metres of cultural display floor area per square kilometre of developed urban land. Who's No1 now, huh?

And what is to go into these hub buildings? Good question but a secondary one to the bureaucrats. We'll put art in them, you know, intellectual stuff like, bits and pieces of culture things to show that we're still one up on Singapore and let's hear no more talk about how we have again put the cart before the horse.

Judging by the contents of the concrete culture bunkers that already litter the shoreline of the harbour, what you will see is the mummified remnants of yesterday's ideas, considered timeless by arts bureaucrats who have never been in touch with their world and whose small stock of creativity is entirely taken up with chanting "Gimme more money".

You certainly won't see Hong Kong's artists. Their studios are to be found in old industrial buildings in places like Chai Wan and Tsuen Wan. Artists are out of place in art museums. Most of them don't even have evening wear, you know.

Nor do they need these buildings to showcase their offerings. They communicate with their fellows and their followers on their laptops and iPads over the web. They live in the 21st century. The arts industry is still stuck in the 19th century.

But I think the saddest thing about pouring yet more tens of billions into this insatiable arts maw is that the burden of it will inevitably fall, as does all public spending, on the shoulders of the working poor.

It will make the lives of these millions of people just that little bit harder and force them to devote just that little bit more of their creative ability to staying alive, leaving them just that little bit less of it to join in the cultural expressions of their society.

The huge expense of the West Kowloon arts project will thus do as much to constrain development of the arts in Hong Kong as it will to encourage the arts. What a sad irony.

And, frankly, it riles me to hear these arts industrialists then complain of insult. Just who is insulting whom here? If I were the chief secretary I wouldn't give them another cent until they make a full apology to Hong Kong's public for their whingeing, ungrateful ways.

jake.vanderkamp@scmp.com