West Kowloon Cultural District should be about arts, not money, experts say

Cost of West Kowloon Cultural District less important than what it does for city's arts scene, say experts, but some doubt it'll break mould

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 February, 2014, 10:52pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 January, 2015, 12:10pm

Patrons will be taking their seats - at least some of them - at the West Kowloon Cultural District next year after 10 years of planning and angst.

Part of the development designed by Norman Foster is set to open next year, as is an arts pavilion on the waterfront for small exhibitions and events.

The Xiqu Centre and the visual culture museum M+ are set to open in 2016 and 2017.

But speakers at a Redefining Hong Kong panel discussion hosted by the South China Morning Post yesterday wondered whether the shiny hardware will usher in a prestigious era for Hong Kong culture or simply create a puff of hype.

What will be the West Kowloon artistic vision?

"What I'm waiting for from West Kowloon is not how many seats there will be or how much it will cost. It is what it is going to do," Tisa Ho, executive director of Hong Kong Arts Festival, told the conference.

"All arts venues start with the concept of identity. What are we going to express?"

The West Kowloon Cultural District Authority must decide what it would offer: performances of recent graduates or something more?

The money issue "is all boring", according to Professor Adrian Walter, director of the Academy for Performing Arts. "What's important is what we do in the space, not how much you spend to build it."

Walter said there were two things missing in Hong Kong's performing arts education - tertiary education and employment opportunities for artists.

"We train the artists, but they fall down this cliff of unemployment" once they graduate, he said.

Without adequate arts education for locals, the West Kowloon project could turn Hong Kong into an importer of culture rather than a creator.

They voiced their concerns as the city looks to bury the turbulent past of the district's development.

It was tourism, not culture, that prompted the government to propose an arts hub.

During his 1998 policy address, then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa said the city should build a state-of-the-art performance venue on the West Kowloon reclamation to cater for a perceived demand by tourists for more cultural and entertainment events.

Then-chief secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen proposed that a single developer take control. But critics pounced, suggesting it would invite collusion between the government and the property developer.

Critics also feared the proposal would become another Cyberport - that the original intention of nurturing culture, or, in the case of Cyberport, technology would be overshadowed by the quest to develop property.

In 2006, the arts hub plan collapsed when no developer accepted the conditions, including the establishment of a HK$30 billion trust to fund the operation.

In 2008, the hub moved ahead when the government established the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, together with a one-off endowment of HK$21.6 billion to build arts and cultural facilities.

Since then, some residents and lawmakers have voiced concerns that construction costs would prompt the authority to ask for more money.

The authority gave a "ballpark estimate" that design and construction costs would be about HK$47 billion.

Authority chief executive Michael Lynch told yesterday's seminar the cost was just an estimate and declined to share an updated amount.

He said it was important to secure private sponsors: "Hong Kong should start stepping up to the plate in helping the project."

Lynch said that in the next two years the authority must balance commercial development and content creation to decide how the venues would be used.

Building partnerships with artistic groups and bonding with audiences were also important.

He said the arts hub was not built to be a tourist attraction.

"We don't see it as a tourist destination. We see it as a place for Hongkongers," Lynch said.

"Part of the challenge is to build public space… for artists to perform without being harassed," he said, referring to the recent incidents of police shooing away street performers after noise complaints.

Lynch said there was much work to be done outside the cultural district to make Hong Kong a creative city.

"Parents should start telling their children that art is a viable career," he said. Hong Kong had evolved beyond a "cultural desert" .

Colin Ward, a partner with Foster + Partners, the architects for West Kowloon, said he hoped the arts hub could democratise culture and break the elitist impression of art.

He said it was important to maintain the project's below- ground design, which would cost an extra HK$10 billion but create more public space.

Visual artist Stanley Wong Ping-pui, widely known as anothermountainman, said families worried about their children having a career in the arts because earning money remained the top priority for so many.

"I am concerned about Hong Kong not changing. Building the project will benefit Hong Kong's economy," he said.

Beyond that, the West Kowloon project would change residents' perception of money. "It is still a money-driven city?" Wong said.