Robert Miller's HK$100m gift to Asia Society highlights arts funding woes
A HK$100m donation to the Asia Society highlights the never-ending struggle small arts groups face trying to keep their heads above water
When Duty Free Shoppers founder Robert Miller donated HK$100 million to the Asia Society Hong Kong Centre last month, the news stunned the cultural sector.
It was the largest donation made by an individual to an arts institution in a city where private financial support is rare.
Glamorous art fairs like Art Basel and headline-grabbing auctions have made Hong Kong the world's third largest arts market, after New York and London. But unlike those Western cities, Hong Kong lacks a philanthropic tradition that compels private individuals and corporations to support culture, arts administrators say. The few donors who give to the arts tend to choose established institutions that also receive the lion's share of government support.
Arts community members say the city needs to create ways to compel people to give. Most of the money from charity galas, balls and dinners goes to health care and social welfare. A few established arts companies, such as the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and Hong Kong Ballet, have resources to host fund-raising galas. But smaller organisations say they simply cannot afford to stage events of that scale.
There are tax breaks for donations, but not specifically for arts gifts.
Small, independent arts groups are worried that with little ability to woo donors, and with so much money going to established museums and certain arts centres, their survival is at risk.
Oscar Ho Hing-kay, director of Chinese University's cultural management masters programme, says Hongkongers loosen their purse strings for disaster victims and social issues but the arts are rarely on their agenda, even among some of the city's biggest tycoons.
Late entertainment tycoon Run Run Shaw created the Shaw Prize in 2002, which annually awards US$1 million to scientists of astronomy, maths, life science and medicine. The foundation of Hong Kong's richest man, Li Ka-shing, focuses on education and health-care initiatives.
"There's a big cultural difference between the West and the Chinese," Ho says. "Arts donations have a long tradition in the West. The idea of contributing to society after building their wealth is firmly rooted in their mindset. But in Hong Kong, many tycoons grew up during the harsh times of war. To them, art is a luxury. They would rather contribute to causes they can relate to, such as education and health, or to people who are blood relations."
Increasingly, public institutions see private wealth as society's untapped resource. The city's richest publicly funded arts bodies - the West Kowloon Cultural District and the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, which runs museums, performance venues, libraries and some arts programmes - are planning to raise more money from private individuals and corporations.
Michael Lynch, CEO of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, says a fund-raising team is being formed, despite it already having received sizeable gifts.
M+, the planned West Kowloon visual culture museum, so far has received HK$1.3 billion of donated art, comprising 2,029 works, from collectors, artists, institutions, architects, designers and corporations locally and abroad. Last month an anonymous benefactor gave a multimillion-dollar donation to acquire Antony Gormley's sculptural installation Asian Field. A further HK$5 million came from Hong Kong-based artist and collector Rosamond Brown to create the Brown Family Annual Acquisition Fund to acquire art works at Art Basel Hong Kong over a decade.
The authority aims to attract more gifts and sponsorships through naming rights to help pay for events and programmes. "There was never money given to do that," Lynch says.
The Leisure and Cultural Services Department is planning to raise money for exhibitions, education and outreach programmes. Details are few and the department has not said when it plans to start. "The objective is to widen the supporter network and cultivate a philanthropic culture for the museums' activities," a department spokesman says.
The potential is definitely there. The department says that from 2009-10 to 2013-14, public museums received HK$111.2 million in sponsorships in cash and kind, the Museum of Art received HK$26.94 million and HK$22.75 went to the Heritage Museum.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust has donated more than HK$2 billion to art spaces and projects in the past 10 years.
Swire Group Charitable Trust says it donated an average of HK$15.7 million a year from 2009 to 2013, including HK$13 million to the Hong Kong Philharmonic and other organisations, including Arts with the Disabled Association, Hong Kong Arts Festival Society and Shakespeare4all.
Despite the largesse, private funding sources remain limited and underdeveloped, Ho says.
Corporations don't want to sponsor projects that might be deemed artistically or culturally risky. "And there is always a commercial consideration," he adds, as corporations look for opportunities for brand building.
Hong Kong has few private charitable foundations, Ho says. The most notable is the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation, which makes donations to art projects locally and internationally, such as a US$10 million grant to the Guggenheim Museum in New York last year to commission works from artists born in China, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the mainland.
New funding efforts are springing up. Two years ago, a group of leading artists led by musician Anthony Wong Yiu-ming formed the Renaissance Foundation to sponsor and mentor projects in music, film and literature.
Miller says many individual donors prefer giving to major institutions with solid track records that tell donors how their money is being spent.
"Before you donate you have to do the due diligence. It's like when buying a company, you have to check the numbers and the people," Miller says, explaining his decision to donate HK$100 million to the Asia Society. The money will be used to commission Hong Kong artists to complete site-specific works. In return, the centre named the gallery after his wife, Chantal. "I have known the Asia Society for a long time,'' Miller says. "I know my donation will be taken care of."
Collector Alan Lau, who has donated work to M+, says local institutions need to work harder to develop patron programmes to engage donors. He's also a member of the Asia-Pacific acquisition committee of the Tate Museums in the UK. The museums tell patrons about upcoming events and plans, and also seek donors' recommendations about acquisitions. That encourages more donations.
Melissa Chiu, director for global arts and cultural programmes for the Asia Society Museum in New York, says that in America, non-profit organisations depend on private philanthropy, and donors receive tax breaks.
Hong Kong also could benefit from the glittering charity events that are standard in the West to bankroll culture.
Concerns are growing that the city has become a place of "haves" and "have nots" when it comes to the arts.
The government spends HK$3.3 billion a year on arts and culture, with just 3 per cent - HK$95.8 million - going to the Arts Development Council, the funding body for budding arts groups.
"We can't blame the donors," Ho says. He says small arts groups can't afford to hire fund-raising teams or develop programmes to woo donors.
The Home Affairs Bureau operates the Arts Capacity Development Funding Scheme to benefit medium-sized arts groups and projects. The bureau offers a 200 per cent matching grant, up to HK$3 million, to groups that can generate HK$1 million or more. At least a quarter of the money comes from private sources.
That doesn't buoy every arts group. Independent art space Para Site scrambled to raise its own money after losing a HK$2.8 million grant from the bureau last year. It raised HK$4.6 million and secured a private donation of just under HK$1 million to maintain its HK$5 million budget.
Executive director Cosmin Costinas says private foundations want recognition for their contributions and tend to support new endeavours rather than existing programmes.
"The most important issue for the development of mid-sized institutions is long-term, predictable funding, the type that the public sector can best ensure," Costinas says. "There is no such scheme in Hong Kong."
The West Kowloon arts hub has promised not to squash small arts groups.
"I don't want West Kowloon to be seen as a big elephant stomping on fund-raising," Lynch says. "We won't be trying to steal sponsors away from small organisations."