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Why the Hong Kong Museum of Art needs to revamp its set-up as much as its building

Clad in pasty pink, insensitive to its superb location, and too small - the Museum of Art has long been needing a revamp. But an overhaul of its operations is just as vital

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 July, 2015, 12:37am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 July, 2015, 12:37am

The West Kowloon Cultural District's planned museum for visual culture - known as M+ - may be looming large on the horizon, but the Hong Kong Museum of Art is still the city's most prestigious institution of its kind, with a world-class collection of Chinese antiquities, paintings and ceramics.

It was originally housed in Hong Kong City Hall (as the City Hall Museum and Art Gallery, established by the government in 1962), and moved to the Cultural Centre complex on the Tsim Sha Tsui foreshore in 1991. These cultural facilities, including the Space Museum, replaced the historic Kowloon-Canton Railway Station and shunting yards.

It is tempting to think that if such redevelopment were to be done today, then a sensitive conversion of the railway station might result in a Musée d'Orsay-styled revamp, with added contemporary architecture to better exploit the site's historic harbour position and world-famous views. But that is probably wishful thinking, as recent controversies surrounding the Central Police Station makeover and the building of West Kowloon demonstrate that planning for public cultural spaces continues to be fraught with hiccups. The Cultural Centre's buildings have deservedly been derided for their toilet-pink tiled exterior and architecture that seemingly ignores the site's magnificent harbour views.

The whole complex will eventually be renovated and its main lobby is ripe for upgrading: with comfortable seating installed, removal of the ugly Van Lau wall sculpture and reconsideration of the current interior layout.

In the meantime, the Museum of Art is scheduled to be the first area within the complex for renovation. It was meant to close a year ago for upgrading and enlargement, but the project was held up in the Legislative Council's recent filibustering. The government funding application of HK$935 million for the museum's renovation has been approved and the venue will close for three years from August 3.

This is unfortunate timing - it shuts down while M+ is still under construction - but small exhibitions will continue to be mounted in the gallery of the Hong Kong Heritage Discovery Centre in Kowloon Park.

The Museum of Art has also organised travelling overseas exhibitions for parts of its collection; Paris, Hangzhou and Taiwan are among the destinations. Meanwhile, its new education and outreach programmes, particularly to schools, can be implemented during this closure.

Its renovation is long overdue. It was quickly recognised after opening that the venue was too small. Its collection of contemporary Hong Kong art has never been placed on permanent display and large temporary exhibitions encroached on the museum's permanent collection areas.

With the recent worldwide interest in contemporary art and Hong Kong's dominant position in Asia as an auction and art fair destination, the continuing inability of the museum to tell the story of Hong Kong's pivotal role in the region's modern and contemporary art development has become increasingly embarrassing. This will now hopefully change.

The museum's extensions and upgrade will include a new annex for a ground-floor gallery and a cafe on the museum-side of the Cultural Centre piazza. New galleries constructed on the present rooftop will amount to a total increase of 40 per cent in exhibiting space. The emphasis on these new spaces will allow a permanent display of contemporary Hong Kong art and provision for regional and international "blockbuster" exhibitions.

It's expected these physical changes will come with a shift in mindset, especially in how the museum will be run. In the past, the museum emphasised and favoured the promotion of its traditional arts collection alongside organising similar visiting exhibitions of antiquities.

In an apparent policy change, the museum will, through these new galleries, also highlight contemporary Hong Kong art. Complementing its permanent displays will be more flexible exhibition spaces where it is envisioned that museum staff and invited guest curators will curate smaller, edgier temporary exhibitions by Hong Kong artists.

The museum's greatest weakness is that it is run like any other arm of the government. It is just one of 13 museums, grouped together under the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, answerable to the Home Affairs Bureau.

The museum thus comes with great bureaucratic baggage as it tries to balance being both a respected, serious museum and a flexible, open-to-change contemporary cultural fixture.

As a government institution, the Museum of Art has had a patchy record in presenting itself as anything other than a conservative traditional museum. Unfortunately, the government rejected calls five years ago by the local arts community for fundamental changes in the way its museums were run, including a proposal that independent boards of governance be set up, similar to the management of many of the world's great museums.

It was also suggested museum directors and curatorial staff be placed on contract. Also, having flexible and independent statutory organisation-style funding would allow Hong Kong's two major museums, the Museum of Art and the Heritage Museum in the New Territories, to be more transparent in their collection and exhibition strategies.

As it stands, the museums still cannot independently raise funds or set up trusts to buy artwork for their collections. Instead, they remain camouflaged within the fog of Hong Kong's government bureaucracy. There is a great difference between the freer, holistic working style of M+ with its statutorily appointed West Kowloon Cultural District Authority board and government museums run within the constraints of government ethos.

Despite criticism and clear institutional constraints, the Museum of Art appears more forward-looking under chief curator Eve Tam Mei-yee. The museum has been changing under her leadership.

The museum's renovation is part of the continuing generational change in Hong Kong's museums - more worldly, open-minded, and internet-connected museum staff will better influence what the public is offered.

Soon the Museum of Art will stamp its own branding and identity on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront with a new facade and architecture replacing the current line of homogeneous, pink-tiled buildings.

The proof will be in the museum's courage in its future contemporary arts programming and its success in telling Hong Kong's art story, as well as maintaining strict intellectual rigour when presenting the traditional arts. The new architecture is only part of that process.

John Batten is president of the International Association of Art Critics Hong Kong