Critical masses: Row over arts award

A row over an annual award for best arts critique has intensified amid claims of a conflict of interest, writes Vivienne Chow

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 March, 2013, 12:50pm

When the Hong Kong Arts Development Council established an award to promote arts reviews and criticism in July last year, some in the arts circle believed that it was doomed to fail.

The council's Critic's Prize, set up by the arts funding body's Arts Criticism Group, which is chaired by Perry Lam, is headed by government appointed council members who have been accused of being disconnected from the arts community.

The crux of the latest controversy surrounded a publicly funded HK$50,000 cash prize, which went to Beijing-born Jia Xuanning, a 24-year-old journalist at the pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po, last month. Jia's provocative critique of Pang Ho-cheung's black comedy Vulgaria beat 59 other entries.

Some critics called Jia's award a conflict of interest, as she is a contributor to Yazhou Zhoukan, a publication for which Lam, a culture critic, also writes. Fellow panellist Yau Lop-poon is the chief editor.

Both Lam and Yau have repeatedly denied claims that there is a conflict of interest. Lam insisted no favouritism was involved, as the jury adopted the "blind assessment method. All the entries given to the jury panel were not identified by name and were printed out ... it was unnecessary for jury panellists to declare any conflict of interest."

But some say that a writer's identity could still be revealed through their writing style.

Fuelling the controversy is Jia's provocative "social perspective" criticism against Pang's Vulgaria.

Pang and other critics questioned the professionalism of the judging panel, which picked a commentary that deviated from the film itself. Chow Fan-fu, vice-chairman of the Hong Kong chapter of the International Association of Theatre Critics, is critical of the way the Critic's Prize was awarded. "The ADC has organised an award without careful planning and consideration," he says.

"You can use a cultural perspective to look at art, but art needs art perspectives, and there are no art perspectives in this piece of writing," says Chow.

"Is this an award for cultural criticism or arts criticism? This judging panel gave this award [for a critique that] has nothing to do with the profession of arts criticism."

Lam disagreed. "How should a piece of arts criticism be written?" he said in a release. "We should keep mulling over this question, but under no circumstances should we give it a stock answer."

But Lam's statement convinced neither the public nor the arts community. A culture critic, Lam is a government-appointed council member. He was chosen as chairman of the Arts Criticism Group only because there was no elected representative from the arts community in the 2010 council nomination exercise.

Group vice-chairman, James Mathew Fong, is also an appointed member. They have little recognition from art critics.

John Batten, president of the International Association of Art Critics Hong Kong, says the award "is set up for disaster. [Controversies] are bound to happen. The group who did it have no official standing in the world of arts criticism. None of them are members of any professional critics' association."

Announced last July, an initial idea to organise a Critic's Prize was tabled at an Arts Criticism Advisers meeting, according to Lynn Yau Foon-chi, one of the five advisers, who were nominated for the post by Arts Criticism Group chairman Lam. But she was not aware of the actual details of the prize.

However, three other advisers - Yau Lop-poon, former Polytechnic University Chinese and bilingual studies professor Wong Chi-ching, and Joyful Books editor-in-chief Carmen Poon Lai-king - sat on the panel of judges, alongside Lam and the late poet Professor Leung Ping-kwan.

The Arts Support Committee then approved the HK$200,000 funding. Committee chairman, appointed council member Christopher Chung Shu-kun, says the committee's job is to approve funding for projects. "We don't query the artistic content," he says.

The responsibility then rests on the council, which endorsed the Critic's Prize without question. Council chairman Wilfred Wong Ying-wai says that because the prize is relatively minor, the full council didn't participate in the discussion of its organisation.

"The award was created with good intentions because arts criticism is not emphasised in Hong Kong," Wong says.

"This is a small project, and we trust the judgment of the art form group." He says the blind assessment was adequate, and it would be impossible to get all six judges to support one person. He thinks the criticism of Jia has been unfair. "If she weren't from Beijing, would people think differently?" he says.

Wong promises a review of the award, saying the council could either scrap the Critic's Prize or improve it. "If we continue it next year, we want to explore a better way to organise it, to have a more balanced judging panel and involve more people," he says.

Wong says the council recognises the need to promote arts criticism. Asked if the council should involve professionals in the next Critic's Prize, he says: "If the associations can join, I'd be very happy. People need to support the award, and we [are happy] to collaborate with professionals."

Lynn Yau, also CEO of The Absolutely Fabulous Theatre Connection, says: "Journalists and critics are important pieces in the completion of a healthy cultural environment. This [incident] is a catalyst for a bigger discussion. Without intellectual content, our arts can't grow deeper."

Prize raises eyebrows

Artist duo Laurent Gutierrez and Valerie Portefaix, also known as the MAP Office, won the Sovereign Asian Art Prize last month after beating 29 finalists with a work that is more than seven years old.

Back Home With Baudelaire, No. 5 (2005) won the pair US$30,000 - the largest prize for the arts in Asia - and raised eyebrows in arts circles.

Sovereign Art Foundation's director, Tiffany Pinkstone, explains that each nominated artist can select three of his or her artworks.

Pinkstone says that the judges rate the works, and those with the highest score make it to the final. Each artist can only present one work in the final.

She says that nominated artists can choose a work from any period of time, although "usually they choose more recent works".

As this year's winner is from seven years ago, a re-evaluation of the procedure may be necessary. "We are always looking at how we can fine-tune the process. This can be brought up and discussed," Pinkstone says.

The panel of judges, chaired by British curator David Elliott, is dominated by Western voices. Along with Emi Eu, director of Singapore Tyler Print Institute, the panel consists of Tim Marlow, the director of White Cube, Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing, and Lars Nittve, executive director of M+.

Pinkstone says that some panel members, such as Tinari, have been based in Asia for a long time, and have a good grasp of what's going on in the region.

Pinkstone adds that in the past, Mori Art Museum's director Fumio Nanjo, Christina Chu, former chief curator of the Hong Kong Museum of Art, and Kurt Chan, fine art professor at Chinese University, were among the Asian judges.

"As the arts scene changes, we try our best to adapt," she says.