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Lifestyle

Tisa Ho, the force behind Hong Kong Arts Festival

Arts advocate has been dedicated since kindergarten, and is now the main force behind the Hong Kong Arts Festival, writes Tracey Furniss

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 October, 2013, 10:38am

Tisa Ho was hooked on the arts after her debut performance in a show at kindergarten. Later on, her school, St Paul's Convent, launched an inspiring arts series that featured the whole spectrum of music, dance, drama and debates, and Ho spent most of her time involved with these programmes.

"I had wonderful, inspiring teachers ... I got to act, I got to do make-up, I got to climb up and rig lights ... and I just had the greatest fun," says Ho, who is executive director of the Hong Kong Arts Festival (HKAF).

"The choir was wonderful. I played the piano, I'd accompany people. We just mucked in and did it all. And I found this to be a wonderful, vibrant, alive world - a place you like more intensely than any other space in your life."

While studying literature of the Middle Ages at university in France, her friends told her about an arts management course in London. "It was probably one of the first-ever arts management courses that anybody ever did, and this was at the City University in London," says Ho, who enrolled in the course and, since graduating, has made a career out of the thing she loves most - the arts.

"I am extremely thankful for it every day," she says.

Ho is in her eighth year at the helm of the HKAF - the highlight of the city's cultural calendar - having overseen seven festivals already.

In that time, the festival has grown by 50 per cent, selling 95 per cent of seats available, "which is pretty remarkable for any arts event", she says. "Especially for one that does not compromise in terms of populism.

"With this festival, it's very much a question of balance, so we have the headliners and names and stars - we love having them - but then we do the more cutting-edge, avant-garde stuff too. It's about present and future heritage. We take great traditions, and we present them and we honour them. And then we try and build for the future."

She credits the growth and achievements of the HKAF to her team. "This is a phenomenal team, so anything I do is done because of and with this team. They are amazing people.

"One of the things I love about this festival is that it's so diverse, it is so deep and varied. It has the glamorous operas, orchestras ... and then we have the smaller esoteric special interest things and ... then we have [the] avant garde - really out there, really pushing the limits - and sometimes these performances can be in your face."

She compares the diversity to a snapshot of Hong Kong society.

"Unlike many festivals that are just located in the city whose name it bears, there is less of a consciousness of expressing that city. For me, the Hong Kong Arts Festival is in, of, for and about Hong Kong, and if you want to take a quick snapshot in a very intense sort of way, about what Hong Kong is, then watching the festival gives you a pretty good sense of it.

"There is that range, there is that depth, there is that diversity, there is the internationalism. The local groups [and] the local involvement is very strong.

"We also make an investment in local talent, we curate, we produce, we present new work. We publish the script in several languages … we even publish the scripts now."

Ho is the first woman to hold the top job at the arts festival, but she says the initial challenges were more about being comfortable with her team than the job itself.

"I knew that they were a phenomenal team, but they needed to be comfortable with me. I guess it was a question of building trust. I [also] needed to know how this organisation and its dynamics worked so I could work with and put in changes I may have wanted to do.

"It was a good festival when I arrived, so there was nothing I needed to mend. So it was more, 'how will I work with it to make it better'," she says.

Ho previously worked in Singapore, where her art portfolio covered policy and infrastructure development, including Singapore's Esplanade, marketing and curatorial responsibilities for the 1988 and 1990 Singapore Arts Festival. She was also general manager for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

She does admit, however, that it's easier for a woman to get senior positions in the arts than in other sectors or businesses because the sector is more marginal.

Ho did take time out for seven years to be a full-time mum when her two children - now in their 30s - were young. "I stopped work for a short period. It was great. I was on the beach making sandcastles with them at 3 o'clock in the afternoon when other people were slogging away," Ho says.

She believes women should not be scared to take that step if they can, because it's possible to revive your career later on, difficult though it may be.

"You can get back on the wheel, although it's hard because the people that were your juniors are now your bosses or are ahead of you. But I don't think they can keep a good woman down," she says. "If you get back into work, you can get to where you want to go."

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