CITYFESTIVAL, which for almost 20 years has been the most anticipated alternative arts festival in Hong Kong, is no longer. Instead, the Fringe Club will stage a smaller series called City JanFest. This time last year, the Fringe Club was going full throttle with press conferences and live drama demonstrations for CityFestival 2002. But backstage, whispers about financial difficulties were growing louder. Fringe Club director Benny Chia warned last year that the club was thinking about pulling the plug in 2003 if sponsorship did not improve. 'We have had the Fringe Festival for many years, from an all-access festival to its evolution into a much more curated CityFestival,' says Chia. 'We just decided we don't always have to squeeze so many programmes into one month, but maybe do a series of events for the entire year.' But Chia also says the cost of staging the month-long festival - which last year had almost 50 events - was more than $3 million. 'The money is enough for us to start a new venue such as the Fringe Club,' he says. 'Today, it's hard to say to someone, 'Can you sponsor a festival and dole out seven figures'.' City JanFest, featuring about a dozen programmes in performing and visual arts with a mixture of local and international acts, will bring costs down to less than $1 million. It will include Raymond To's Three Women Of Hong Kong, the Philippines' New Voice Company and Taiwanese play Black Hole, Beyond. Since the SAR's economic downturn began, some of Hong Kong's biggest charities - such as the Jockey Club and the Community Chest - have reduced donations, leaving art groups languishing at the bottom of the pecking order. 'Even people who have supported the arts religiously in the past aren't doing it any more,' Chia says. It's a pitiful situation for Hong Kong, a city with a dozen or so government-funded museums and a commitment to transform West Kowloon into a culture hub costing billions of dollars, while many smaller art groups are living hand-to-mouth. As Christmas and New Year approach, many art organisations are revving up their fund-raising efforts. For some, it will be a final bid for survival. At Sheung Wan's Asia Art Archive, director Claire Hsu has just overcome a budget crisis. 'We often wonder whether we will still be here next year,' she says. 'But we try not to think about it and just do our work.' The archive was set up about two years ago as a depository for visual arts material from Hong Kong, China and Southeast Asia. Fortunately, the archive was able to make up for its cost shortfalls when one of its directors, tycoon David Tang Wing-cheung, sponsored a dinner/auction recently at his China Club for 150 people. Britain's Prince Edward and his wife, the Countess of Wessex, were visiting and Tang, an acquaintance, invited them as special guests. But even with that impressive clout, dinner tickets were just $500 a head - lower than most charity balls. 'We priced the dinner low to entice people to spend more on auction pieces,' Hsu says. After much coaxing from Tang and Jockey Club chairman Ronald Arculli, the auctioned paintings raised $500,000 for the archive. 'A lot of right things happened at the right time,' Hsu says. 'But I don't know if we can do it again next year.' Not far from the archive is the not-so-fortunate Para/Site Art Space. This small alternative gallery, which showcases multimedia and experimental art, is on life-support all year round and its operating deficit is more than $100,000. Gallery co-ordinator, Leung Po-shan, and the space's two employees are busy preparing for its biggest annual fund-raising event - ArtSUPERmarket. Much is riding on the donation drive, which takes place tonight. For the $100 entrance fee, there is unlimited wine and food and the chance to buy works donated by local artists and photographers. All works are priced at $1,000 each. 'We are really counting on the success of ArtSUPERmarket,' Leung says. 'We sent out 100 letters asking for help but so far have only received $20,000 in donations, and this is from people who have previously given us money.' Many of the works, donated by acclaimed artists such as Chu Hing-wah and photographer Almond Chu, have a higher retail value but Leung didn't dare think of pricing the works above $1,000. 'In this economy, we don't want to take a chance,' she says. 'We wanted to make the prices as attractive as possible. I think people are reluctant to give to art causes because they can't see how art helps society.' And the list goes on. Even the Hong Kong Arts Centre - one of the SAR's most established art organisations - sounds desperate with its creative fund-raising concept, Adopt A Chair. For $3,500, $5,000 or $15,000, donors can have their name plaque attached to a seat at the Lim Por Yen Theatre. So far, it has achieved one third of its target of $1.2 million, which will be used to renovate the theatre and fund art programmes. The drive ends on January 17. Most front-line art workers lament that Hong Kong's inherent indifference to the arts has made survival difficult. 'In Chinese history, there's always been established patronage for the arts, but somehow that concept has not caught on in Hong Kong,' Hsu says. 'Maybe it's a lack of art education, and the very little interaction between arts and society.' The Arts Development Council (ADC) is the city's main public art funding body and its backing is fiercely sought. There are seven art groups applying for the ADC's one-year grant - with funding of $3 million. As for private art philanthropists, they are a dying breed. 'It's the same few people who give to the arts,' Hsu adds. She has a point. Looking over the sponsor lists on various art-organisation pamphlets, the same names crop up - Allan Zeman, the Annie Wong Art Foundation, Christine Loh, Alice King and Arculli, among them. The situation wasn't always as dire. In better times, the Fringe Club had backing from big airlines such as Ansett Australia and Star Alliance. And for years, the Hong Kong Arts Centre, for instance, hasn't seen donations such as the one by business magnate Lim Por-yen for more than $3 million in 1989. 'In stressful economic times, donors focus on hospitals or education, and the new money class that emerged after 1997 doesn't really want to support the arts,' Chia says. He contrasts the situation with the United States where there are foundations set up by rich families such as the Guggenheims, the Rockefellers and the Fricks, who have a history of donating to art causes. 'You don't see that in Hong Kong,' he says. Most art groups see no improvement for the coming year and are trying to find new ways to survive. Larger organisations such as the Fringe Club hope the income generated from food and beverage sales at the bars will help cover some costs while the Asia Art Archive is readying itself for its public opening (the archive currently operates by appointment only for researchers), with Hsu hoping public access will encourage more people to use the archive, and maybe help support it too. 'I think it's about getting the message out to more people,' she says. 'I can see what the archive can do, but other people have to know that as well.' ArtSUPERmarket, tonight, 6.30pm, at Para/Site Art Space, 2 Po Yan Street, Sheung Wan.