Drama behind the scenes at the Arts Centre

ON Wednesday, after four years at the helm of the Hongkong Arts Centre, Mr Tim Doling said goodbye to his staff and closed the door marked Chief Executive behind him for the last time.

On Thursday, Mr John Pain, former director of the Hongkong Tourist Association, walked into the small pleasant office on the eighth floor of the Harbour Road landmark and sat down in his predecessor's barely-cooled chair.

There was no fancy farewell or golden handshake for Mr Doling, the 37-year-old Briton who skilfully guided the Arts Centre through one of its rockiest passages and left it firmly in the black.

As for 62-year-old Mr Pain, there was no rousing welcome, but that was to be expected. With the Arts Centre's board of governors sorely divided over his appointment and the public left uninformed till late on Wednesday when a press release was finally issued, celebrations would have been inappropriate.

They would have also been premature. ''No suitable successor to Tim Doling has yet been found. We have spent several months searching without success and now have to intensify our efforts to find a new executive director as soon as possible,'' chairman Mr Ira Kaye said in the statement.

It was ''a difficult post to fill'', he added, and first choice would be ''someone from Hongkong'', though there would be no restrictions ''on the scope of the search''.

In the meantime, the Arts Centre had been fortunate to secure the services of board member Mr Pain as interim boss for six months.

The ''several months'' cited by Mr Kaye fell a bit short of the mark.

''Almost exactly a year ago,'' deputy chairman Ms Sandra Walters reveals, ''a headhunter was brought in by Ira. As far as I know, the post for chief executive was never advertised either in Hongkong or abroad.'' The headhunter was Mr Anthony Au, head of local executive search consultancy Anthony Au and Associates, and at a board meeting last June it was reported that he had been paid $120,000 out of a total fee of $240,000 - presumably, the remainder to be paid on successful completion of his task.

Also heavily involved in the search were Mr Kaye, ex-finance committee chairman Mr Charles Ng and elected member Mr Craig Quick, general manager of Metro radio.

Ms Walters explains that the task of this group was to interview candidates, but it acted like ''an exclusive club'', she claimed, and consistently failed to report on its progress to the full board despite numerous, increasingly anxious requests.

''We were left totally in the dark,'' says Ms Walters who describes an extraordinary scenario in which efforts to call a meeting of the full executive ''so things could be properly explained'' were either fobbed off or ignored.

Mr Kaye, MBE, who has just been reappointed chairman by the Governor for a further one-year term was not available for comment this week.

''He had to go to his farm in China on an urgent matter,'' said the secretary of the 76-year-old businessman who has been dubbed ''the Deng Xiaoping of the arts in Hongkong'' by the disenchanted.

''A charming gentleman who somehow always manages to get his own way,'' one insider said.

As rumours of high-handedness and worse ran hot in the 15-storey building, the departing chief was deeply troubled.

''I've been intending to leave for the last two years,'' said Mr Doling whose original contract was extended when a proposed merger with the Academy for Performing Arts fell through, and who has never made any secret of his desire to quit the post as soon as a suitable successor could be found.

''I had hoped there would be a handing-over period, but it hasn't happened. I've passed on what I can and made extensive notes, but there's no substitute for sitting down with someone.'' BUT for that anxiety, Mr Doling would have been jubilant: finally the freedom to get on with the biggest project of his 15-year career.

If things go to plan, he will be remembered not as the man who brought stability and prosperity to the Arts Centre during his tenure or even as the founder of the Hongkong Arts Resource and Information Centre, but the joint architect of a visionary project called Arts Indo China.

Mr Philip Soden, who has been technical director of the Academy for Performing Arts since 1988, is his collaborator. Their project has won the backing of UNESCO and is now able to go full steam ahead.

''It started with a brainwave Phil and I had in 1991,'' Mr Doling said. ''Both of us have a great interest in Vietnamese culture and I'd been hugely impressed by the success of the Shanghai Centre.'' What intrigued Mr Doling about the glamorous trident-shaped complex in the heart of what used to be Shanghai's French concession, was the ''special deal'' its American and Japanese developers had been able to secure: essentially a free land grant providing their commercial venture also incorporated a cultural facility for the general public.

The response was a state-of-the-art centre including a 1,001-seat multi-purpose theatre and a sizeable exhibition hall that have proved immensely popular.

''Phil and I thought it would be great if we could sell that idea - that is, a cultural centre funded by commerce - to the Vietnamese,'' said Mr Doling, who was even more convinced of its feasibility after he and Mr Soden toured Vietnam from end to end.

They discovered a country bursting with creative talent, but almost devoid of facilities - ''you name it, they need it'' - and wrote a lengthy report which they submitted to UNESCO.

It got a warm reception, but there was a proviso: UNESCO would give them official backing - if their project also included Cambodia and Laos.

So began Arts Indo China, the Hongkong-based, non-profit-making cultural development agency which aims to spearhead a renaissance of the arts in three of the region's neediest and most challenging nations.

Fund-raising is the big task now. Also formidable is another project Mr Doling has taken on in his capacity as a consultant to UNESCO: an arts directory covering the entire Asia-Pacific region.

The Bristol-born arts administrator can't wait to get cracking, but four years have left their mark.

One problem that bothers him is the physical state of the 15-year-old Arts Centre. True, it's structurally sound and its foyer recently enjoyed a facelift thanks to the personal generosity of Mr Kaye, but keeping up with the wear and tear is becoming increasingly expensive.

''The problem,'' Mr Doling explains, ''is that the Arts Centre needs the rentals from its tenants - as an independent organisation it doesn't get public funding - but in order to keep and attract good tenants it has to maintain a certain standard.

''Each year that's costing more and more, and it must be asked: should the money be going to arts presentations instead of patching up the place? ''The solution could be a new building for the Arts Centre. I don't know the legal implications and clearly nothing is going to be done in the next five years, but that could be the answer.'' The immediate future of the Arts Centre concerns Mr Doling more. Last summer, he recalls, he was asked to provide a job description ''and after that, my participation in choosing my successor ceased.'' If Mr Doling needed further proof that his expertise was of scant interest to the decision-makers, he got it on Tuesday.

''There was a sort official handover to John Pain which was slightly unexpected. I was told about it only half an hour before it happened.'' WHAT if the right person can't be found within the next six months? Might Mr Pain consider taking on the job himself? ''Good God, are you kidding? Me, running the Arts Centre? Absolutely not!'' spluttered the acting executive director on Wednesday.

It's not such a crazy idea. After all, Mr Pain has been involved in the Hongkong arts scene for some 30 years - 18 of them as chairman of the Arts Festival's programme committee, to say nothing of more than a decade's worth of ''intimate knowledge of theArts Centre's structure and working philosophy'', to quote Mr Kaye's press release.

It might also be remembered that for almost a year, Mr Pain was acting general manager of the Hongkong Arts Festival (until present boss Mr Tseng Sun-man took over) and - to quote Mr Kaye again - was the Arts Centre board member ''primarily responsible for the selection of the last three executive directors''.

That's all academic, insists Mr Pain. ''I'd actually planned to leave for England because my mother hasn't been well and definitely have no interest in this job long-term.'' Only qualified arts administrators - preferably with knowledge of Hongkong and even better with fluency in Cantonese - need apply, is the sentiment in the local arts community.

Ms Walters feels likewise. ''John Pain may well be an able administrator,'' says the deputy chairman, ''but what we need is an arts professional.'' Others like elected board member Ms Molly Soltay agree. She made that very clear at a board meeting on March 22 when it was announced that Mr Pain would be filling in for the key job.

Both Mr Kaye and Ms Walters were away on trips at the time. Acting as chairman at Mr Kaye's request was Mr Quick.

''In my opinion,'' says Ms Soltay, ''that meeting should be declared null and void, because according to our constitution, only the board can nominate a chairman in such circumstances.'' At an earlier executive meeting in March - ''only called because I insisted on it,'' Ms Walters says - the board was informed that the field had been narrowed down to five candidates.

One stood out head and shoulders above the rest, but turned down the job at the last minute, says Mr Pain.

The reluctant candidate, revealed a source this week, was Tisa Ng, ''an outstanding arts pro'' who once worked for the Hongkong Arts Centre and is currently general manager of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

Apparently, Ms Ng backed out because her plan to remain based in Singapore was deemed impractical. So what of the others on the short list? The experience of one leading local arts administrator who was approached by headhunter Mr Au is revealing.

''What I found very odd,'' he recalls, ''was Mr Au's extreme reluctance to discuss any details of the package being offered.

''Naturally, you want to know about things like salary and fringe benefits, but Mr Au wouldn't say.

''Even more off-putting was his insistence that if I wanted to be considered for the Arts Centre job, I'd have to first be interviewed.

''I can understand a discreet lunch, but a formal grilling? I didn't even bother to follow it up and haven't heard from Mr Au since.'' Assuming others were similarly deterred, it's little wonder that the year-long hunt came to nought.

Now it's up to Mr Pain who, says Mr Kaye, who will be ''overseeing the day-to-day operations and ensuring the financial viability of the Centre, as well as conducting the search for a new executive director''.

This onerous task has raised yet another conundrum for the board of governors: what's Mr Pain's package? As the interim chief executive stepped into the breach, the deputy chairman had to admit she honestly didn't know.