Finding a greater role for the people in public museums

The city's public museums are on a roll - funding is up, shows sell out, critics are dazzled. But the public has been denied any real voice in how the facilities are run

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 December, 2012, 3:49am

The fuchsia banner is in place. Images , from the Campbell's Soup Cans to Marilyn Monroe, are hung on the wall. A time capsule containing Andy Warhol's memories of Hong Kong from 1982 has been unsealed, ready to welcome an estimated 280,000 art lovers to the largest exhibition of Warhol works in the city.

But as the crowds prepare to flock to the Museum of Art when the show "Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal" opens to the public tomorrow, the question remains - is this merely a case of the city's public museums enjoying the "15 minutes of fame" Warhol believed everyone would have, or is it a step towards carving out a new and distinctive role for museums at risk of being overshadowed by the huge resources being put into the future West Kowloon Cultural District.

The show, featuring 450 items ranging from paintings to screen prints and films from The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh on display, is expected to help Hong Kong forge a new relationship with the work and legacy of the pop art icon. Warhol certainly has his fans - in 2006, local property tycoon Joseph Lau Luen-hung paid US$17.4 million, a record for a Warhol at the time, for Mao, a 1972 silk-screened portrait of the late Communist Party leader Mao Zedong at Christie's in New York.

The show, which runs until March 31, caps a year in which the museums run by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department have striven to be different and put themselves on the international map.

From the summer's Picasso exhibition at the Heritage Museum and Feng Zikai show at the Museum of Art to a showcase of Hong Kong artists at the Liverpool Biennial in September, government museums have been changing gradually amid the development of M+, the contemporary visual culture museum to open at West Kowloon in 2017/18.

"Government museums bridge [culture] with the Hong Kong community. Whether it is art, history or heritage, the programmes offer a more lively interpretation and we want to make museum visits a more pleasant experience," says the Museum of Art's chief curator Eve Tam Mei-yee. "We are active in introducing art from around the world and we make our own interpretation when an overseas exhibition lands Hong Kong … putting in more of a curatorial perspective," says Tam, citing the "Time Capsule 23" exhibit, featuring Warhol's memories of the city from his visit in 1982.

"We are not just showing objects and artefacts. We are curating them to tell a story, adding a human touch."

The road to transforming the city's 14 public museums and four public cultural venues has been long, ever since the Leisure and Cultural Services Department took over responsibility for them in 2000. Before that they were run under the two municipal councils, which were wound up at the end of 1999.

A number of proposals for change have been made in the last decade or so. In 2003, the then Cultural and Heritage Commission recommended in its cultural policy review that government museums realign their roles and collections. The commission proposed establishing a statutory museum board to govern the overall operation of public museums. A board of trustees should also be added to the structure to manage and develop resources for public museums, the commission said.

Instead of implementing the commission's recommendations, the government set up the Committee on Museums in 2004. The committee produced another report in 2007, in line with the recommendations made by the commission: to set up a statutory museums board amid the development of the arts hub. The committee also recommended public museums produce annual business plans and strengthen their relationships with artists and collectors. It also proposed that public museums be corporatised - put under the control of a board of trustees independent of the government and opened up to private donations.

Three years on, the government rejected corporatisation. Instead of establishing a statutory museums board, the department in 2010 set up three museum advisory panels - for art, history and science - to oversee aspects of the museums covering the three fields, including their business development, branding and marketing, and to hold them accountable.

Funding for museums has increased by about 27 per cent from 2008/09's HK$519.2 million to the current financial year's HK$657.1 million. Funding for the Museum of Art has risen by more than 35 per cent, from HK$36.1 million in 2008/09 to HK$48.9 million this year. The Heritage Museum receives relatively stable funding, with about HK$65 million this year.

Besides the government funding, sponsorship from the private sector has also been rising. Sponsorships in cash and in kind for museums are at their highest level in five years this year - an estimated HK$38.41 million, compared to last year's HK$4.45 million, the lowest level since 2008/09.

The Museum of Art and the Heritage Museum have taken a great leap forward, receiving HK$6.86 million and HK$5 million respectively, compared to the HK$2 million or less that was common in the past.

High-profile shows have clearly helped. The most successful example is the exhibition "The Majesty of All Under Heaven: The Eternal Realm of China's First Emperor" held from July to last month at the Museum of History. It received more than HK$15 million in sponsorship from the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust. Tam says sponsorship support for the Warhol exhibition, including lead sponsorship from BNY Mellon, is among the highest the 50-year-old Museum of Art has had.

In June, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department released its first five-year corporate business plan and annual plans for museums. Among the new plans, Tam says that the art museum will dedicate resources to the research of Hong Kong art in a Chinese context, forming partnerships with other institutions. Regular shows of Hong Kong art will take place.

The Museum of Art will, she says, work with collectors to develop a "collectors series", showing collections and cultural heritage that have been preserved because of individuals. It will continue to showcase its collection overseas, in particular in the Asia-Pacific region, to cultivate an overseas presence. The museum will also undergo a major renovation in 2014 - the first since it opened at the Tsim Sha Tsui site two decades ago.

Tam says that, of the 15,000 items in the Museum of Art's collection, one-third is Hong Kong art, one-third fine art and the rest antiques. The museum is in regular talks with M+ about loaning and exchanging collections in future.

"Each individual [cultural organisation] is working on different projects and government museums can play a role to connect these works together, because we are stable organisations and have no individual interests. We are in a neutral position and the public can rely on us - and they should expect us to do so," Tam says of the future partnerships with different cultural organisations on projects ranging from research to exhibitions.

Despite the effort that has gone into revamping public museums, there are still questions that remained unanswered, according to critics. Patrick Mok Kin-wai, research director at the Hong Kong Institute of Contemporary Culture, says that without a new mechanism for running the museums, innovation becomes difficult. He notes that museums in Britain and Canada run under a commission, which can provide programming support without going outside the government. These commissions can also help bring new resources into public museums, without having to go through bureaucratic procedures, he says.

The Museums Advisory Panels, however, have not yet overcome problems of transparency and accountability, Mok says. "The two municipal councils were formed by elected councillors, who could ask the government questions on people's behalf," Mok says. "The councillors back then could make the government museums disclose their collection policy and explain why they collect one form of art but not another. The government was forced to publish reports in response to councillors' demand.

"But now no one comments on these museums and cultural institutions unless there's a scandal. Who monitors the LCSD? It is not a priority on the Legislative Council's agenda, and it is unlikely Legco's home affairs panel will form a committee just to keep track of the development of public museums. The public does not know exactly what's going on."

Cultural development and creative industries consultant Desmond Hui Cheuk-kuen says it is indeed true public museums have staged a number of well-received exhibitions, and expert opinions have been incorporated in the museums' development, but to what extent the public's voice can be included in the system is another issue.

Hui says the closure of the municipal councils meant the right to monitor public museums' development was handed back to the government.

"This constitutes a problem: how can [the public] affect government's decisions? Having a culture bureau might be one solution," Hui says. Legco would have to form a committee on museums or cultural services, which could help get the public involved.

"But given the current vibe, there's a potential difficulty that any pure cultural affairs discussion will be turned into a political affairs discussion. Is this what we want?" he said.

Critic Ada Wong Ying-kay, an elected member of one of the municipal councils, the Urban Council, and now a member of the art museums advisory panel, praises public museums' recent efforts to change and says the staging of blockbuster shows has helped boost the visibility of these public museums.

"But what about our own collection strategy and the museums' commitment to local arts and culture? The future direction of these museums will need to be discussed on a higher level," Wong says. Fine-tuning the relationship and positioning in relation to the development of M+ is a must, she says.

Nevertheless, the lack of a holistic cultural policy for the city could be the root of the issue, as "now [public museums] only focus on operation and programming", Wong says.

Besides boosting their commitment to Hong Kong, public museums should also think of ways to engage an international audience, as the importance of Hong Kong on the world's art map is growing, says Richard Chang, an art collector who serves on the board of trustees of many international museums including the Whitney Museum of American Art and PS1 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

"Hong Kong right now has the best chance … people are taking notice of Hong Kong artists," says Chang, also a member of the international council and the Asia-Pacific acquisitions committee at the Tate in Britain. He says many museums such as the Tate and MoMA position themselves as international museums and they fight for global visitors. However, he says, public museums in Hong Kong are not yet on the radar.

Besides money, strong leadership and vision are the keys to success, Chang says.

"With a successful director in place, everything changes, as the director can build relationships and get private sector [representatives] to join the board, bringing in interesting shows and collections as well as good curators. It is important for museums to have a strong board and a strong marketing team," Chang says. "There's no short cut."

Even if they are not striving to become international cultural centres, public museums in Hong Kong should cultivate what the city already has, according to Wang Shouzhi, dean of the Cheung Kong school of art and design at Shantou University in Guangdong.

"[Hong Kong's] unique background and heritage are so identified and remarkable, [and] that makes Hong Kong extraordinary just for being Hong Kong," says Wang, who recommends Hong Kong's public museums consider offering more on design and modern topics.

Regardless of the direction, transformation will be an ongoing process for the city's public museums.

"This is a good time to look at how the next half century should be developed. Arts and culture might [be seen to] target a relatively elite audience but it is no longer the case. We want to bring arts and culture to people's lives," says Tam.