Hong Kong is most fascinating city on earth for Tobias Berger, arts curator
10-year veteran of city's arts scene left M+ museum for leading role in Central Police Station revitalisation. He sees it filling 'the missing link in our arts ecosystem'
If you've been to a gallery, museum or art event in Hong Kong the past decade, you're most likely to have spotted curator Tobias Berger.
He's known for his jovial demeanour and candid views on the city's cultural development, and, of course, his love affair with the visual - he is as likely to be seen peering at a Picasso as at protest art. "I love to see new things. I'm very curious to see what's going on and the most important thing about being a curator is that you have to go out and see exhibitions - so I see all the shows in galleries and non-profit spaces in Hong Kong."
Born in Germany, Berger has been a fixture on the Asia-Pacific contemporary arts scene for more than a decade. He was previously the executive director of Para Site Hong Kong and recently left his position as curator of the future M+ Museum for Visual Culture for a possibly even more coveted position: the head of art for the Central Police Station revitalisation project.
The project aims to give new life to the former police station, Central Magistracy and Victoria Prison that adjoin Hollywood Road in Central. Architectural giants Herzog de Meuron (who built the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing), Rocco Design Architects and Purcell are involved.
The management of heritage sites in Hong Kong can arouse strong emotions; some have been revamped in ways that have caused widespread anger, while others have been left to rot, their history lost. There are high expectations for the police station project, which is intended to "transform the unique cluster of historically significant buildings in Hong Kong into a centre for heritage, contemporary arts and leisure for the public to enjoy" and for which there are few precedents.
Although the project is not under quite such a bright critical spotlight as M+, a core component of the future West Kowloon arts hub, there is nevertheless much anticipation and scrutiny of it.
The sudden expansion in provision for the arts in Hong Kong could provide a powerful new focus for a city long known primarily for finance and trading - assuming this rapid growth remains manageable. It is precisely because of this potential that Berger left the developing M+ prematurely to join the equally fledging Central Police Station (CPS) project.
"It's not really a move - it's a continuation of what I have been doing before. The M+ is probably the most important museum project in the world at the moment and is coming together really well," says Berger. "So when CPS asked if I wanted to do the project, I was hesitant but I agreed because I really think it is the missing link in our arts ecosystem - we don't have an institution yet for younger, edgier projects. It was almost impossible not to take that job."
Berger now spends a lot of time looking around the commercial galleries along Hollywood Road that abut the former police station, prison and courts complex; he also likes what is happening in Wong Chuk Hang, the former factory district where a spate of edgier, multipurpose art spaces and galleries - including Spring Workshop, Empty Gallery and Blindspot Gallery - have set up shop.
As for his move to Asia, and specifically Hong Kong, Berger says it was one driven by the exponential growth of the arts in the region.
"After working in eastern Europe for a bit, I went to New Zealand, which is fantastic. It has that art infrastructure that Hong Kong is aiming for right now: great collectors, great museums, great art spaces," he says. "But after working there for three years, my wife and I thought that Asia was the most interesting region in the world at that moment in 2005, and it still is. We made the right decision."
Berger's first job in Hong Kong was to run Para Site Art Space at a time when contemporary visual art was still under the radar - this was pre-Art Basel, pre-major gallery spaces, and pre-West Kowloon Cultural District. "It was not just about growing Para Site but also growing the whole Hong Kong arts scene. It's nice to see five or 10 years later how it's all developed and how one has a part in growing that scene."
Indeed, Spring Workshop founder Mimi Brown says Berger was one of the first people she met when she touched down in Hong Kong and mentions him as an instrumental figure in organising her non-profit arts space.
Berger has certainly played a key role in changing perceptions of contemporary art in Hong Kong and the wider region, but how have his experiences changed him?
"You have to rethink everything. When you work in Europe for example, or the Western art world, things are very compartmentalised - you have commercial galleries and non-profit spaces and if you're an architect in Germany, you will never be taken seriously as an artist.
"In Asia, you see things are much more fluid, people are moving easily from non-profit to commercial and back, and you see artists that become architects, architects that become artists, people that do advertising but are also taken seriously as artists. That's much more 21st century and I think that will seep back into the global art world," Berger says.
The Central Police Station project is due for completion in the second half of 2016, while the M+ museum is now not expected to open until 2019, although it continues to roll out mobile programming and develop its collection. Berger - and indeed the world - await Hong Kong's next move.
"My kids go to local school here and are learning Cantonese. I would not do that if I did not want to stay here for a long time," he says. "Hong Kong is the most fascinating city on earth; there is nowhere that is like it artistically and civically. I took that job at CPS because it gave me the chance to stay and work in Hong Kong. I do not know another city that I'd rather stay in."