AS THE WEST Kowloon cultural hub row continues, a minor artistic revolution is quietly taking place on the other side of Victoria Harbour. When Tobias Berger arrives in Hong Kong in a fortnight to take up his new job at Para/Site Art Space, he will become not just the Sheung Wan arts collective's first paid curator, but also the first in the visual arts scene to have been recruited from abroad. Hong Kong has its fair share of locally born curators of international acclaim, such as Oscar Ho Hing-kay, for whom Para/Site recently held a retrospective. But it's significant that Para/Site has invested much money and effort to create a specific portfolio for Berger to help the gallery become a vibrant, outward-looking bastion amid an ever-growing regional arts scene. The gallery has already had artists represented at the previous two Venice biennales, in 2001 and 2003. Before his appointment, Berger was the director of Artspace, one of New Zealand's best-known and progressive art galleries, and was the curator of New Zealand's contribution to the Sao Paulo Biennale last year. Add to this his experience as the artistic director of the 8th Baltic Trienniale and his work as a curator at Kassel in Germany - home to international visual arts event Documenta - and Berger is well-placed to propel Para/Site forwards. 'In Hong Kong, the independent art institutions like Para/Site Art Space, 1a[space] or the Asia Art Archive positively surprised me,' says Berger. 'From the visual art point of view, there's a lot of potential in Hong Kong, but there must be a more professional and international approach,' he says. 'Hong Kong's institutions aren't well known internationally and it seems that there's not enough international art exhibited. For a city like Hong Kong, the art scene is under-represented. Many professional curators and critics, as well as important artists, pass through on their way to other Asian cities. I hear from a lot of friends that they visited Hong Kong but didn't see any art. 'Hong Kong hasn't developed an image as a cultural city. To change that, one could target professionals, establishing major exhibition museums and promoting the already active art scene. It takes a lot for a city to be recognised for its cultural ambitions in today's competitive environment.' Berger's views mirror the predicament faced by Hong Kong's visual artists over the past year. The dispute over the West Kowloon cultural district is seen by many grassroots artists as mind-numbing, given how little the debate is about art itself. Then there are the legal wrangles over participatory rights at the Venice Biennale, plus the abrupt cancellation of ArtsPort 2004, the Arts Development Council (ADC) flagship project designed to showcase Hong Kong's visual arts scene. The lack of a coherent strategy to promote Hong Kong as an artistic hub is in sharp contrast to the way the National Arts Council of Singapore describes its recent Singapore Season campaign in London as 'cultural diplomacy'. Having visited Hong Kong last year, Berger is aware of the complex issues he'll encounter over coming years - even if his candour reflects a certain naivete about local politics. 'I'm interested in places that are in transformation and like to actively be involved in that progress,' he says. 'I prefer to work in environments where the contemporary art infrastructure is still developing and the art and institutions have a great potential to grow. 'The situation in Hong Kong seems to be at an interesting turning point,' he says. He plans to be a 'resident traveller who stays for a longer period of time but somehow remains an outsider'. 'I read the local paper, eat the local food, but I will not become a native and will remain independent from local art politics,' he says. Still, he anticipates having an active role in promoting contemporary art in Hong Kong and Hong Kong's contemporary art on the world stage. His experience in New Zealand will stand him in good stead for handling problems that may be plaguing his new employers and peers. 'New Zealand's art scene is a very special case,' Berger says. 'The art scene is very good but quite idiosyncratic. Artists that could easily show internationally have three galleries in New Zealand, but no international contacts. In New Zealand, it was important to establish more international connections, bringing artists and curators in, helping artists to find international dealers and helping commercial dealers getting accepted to the big international arts fairs.' Berger says Auckland has a contemporary art museum, an independent art space, five university galleries, four art academies and about 12 good contemporary dealer galleries. All this is in a city of only 1.3 million people. 'Imagine how much potential there is in Hong Kong,' he says. Even though Para/Site decided on this year's programmes before Berger's appointment, he'll quickly set to work preparing for his first survey exhibition on contemporary Hong Kong art, due to open in September. 'It gives me a good chance to learn about the local art scene, meet lots of artists and get used to the new circumstances,' he says. 'I'm positive that, in 2006, we will realise ambitious projects inside and outside the Art Space, and we hope to make a considerable impact.' Next year will be when Berger flexes his artistic muscles, as he takes over Para/Site's curatorial reins with a pledge to deliver 'a combination of local art and some interesting international projects with an emphasis on the neighbouring countries'. Until then, Berger says he prefers to keep his cards close to his chest in the run-up to his first show at Para/Site. A look back at his work at Auckland's Artspace reveals a thing or two about his interests. His shows, underlined by a tendency towards the Fluxus movement that prevailed in the US in the 1960s and 70s, have pointed to a more political agenda, as he seeks to examine art as being linked to economics. His first show for Artspace was Money for Nothing, which featured pieces about the Samoan fascination with brands such as KFC, the privatisation of a bank in Lithuania, and the nature of work and its financial rewards as seen from Cuban and European perspectives. 'Communication is a main aspect of contemporary art,' he says. 'I think one of my achievements in Auckland was to open up the contemporary art scene - small steps like making our office very transparent so every visitor could see us working and could talk to us directly.' Berger says he's made Artspace openings more welcoming, and organised after-opening events at which people have more opportunity to communicate and get to know each other. 'I don't think it's about finding a niche in the global scene,' he says. 'We're not marketing a new consumer product. The aim is providing a good infrastructure to produce, exhibit and communicate attractive contemporary art - to create an appreciative environment that understands the value of great work.'