MISSIONARY MAN It was obvious when I was growing up that my parents would have liked me to go into the church, in an unstated way, because both my parents came from churchy families. It was quite an academic family, too. I'm not really an academic but I'm doing a reasonably respectable job of it. From the age of 15 or 16, I was passionately interested in art history. I didn't think I'd necessarily work in a museum, although I always had a sense there is something very particular about having access to art in that way, which gives one a different level of expertise rather than just studying it in books or on colour slides. If you teach art history in university, you tend to be rather detached from the experience. I've always been interested in the aesthetic and experiential side of art. I'm interested in running arts institutions successfully, creating a good, diverse, creative public programme and, through that, attracting people who have an interest in the subject. I suppose it comes back to my churchy upbringing, I have a slight missionary aspect: I want to preach not only to the converted but to the unconverted as well. DUMB AND DUMBER I accept the fact that in London art circles I am regarded as having dumbed down the National Portrait Gallery, mainly because I put on a [Peruvian fashion photographer] Mario Testino exhibition. That was regarded as beyond the frontiers of dumbing down because it was fantastically successful, particularly with young people and teenagers: non-traditional museum and gallery visitors. Traditional arts people thought this was beyond the pale. Nobody had batted an eyelid when we included Annie Leibowitz, Richard Avedon or Bruce Weber [but] the Testino exhibition hit some nerve and suddenly I was viewed as somebody who was doing something culturally unacceptable. PERFECTLY POPULIST I'm perfectly happy to be viewed as a populist; a non-traditionalist interested in expanding what can be done within arts institutions. It is right to try to push at the frontiers. If I'd done nakedly populist exhibitions, I would be more resistant to the stereotype but the alternative is to play safe and do exactly what traditionalists want. In the arts you should be adventurous and diverse. It's important to expand the repertoire of people's interests. GOOD CALL [Sir] David Tang [Wing-cheung], who's on the board of the Royal Academy of Arts, rang me and told me Hong Kong was developing this most unbelievably ambitious project (the West Kowloon Cultural District). His idea was to ask people from the UK and the United States to attend a forum [which took place on April 18] to give advice and assist in the process. I had slight anxieties that it might be seen as patronising - the idea of lots of people from other countries flooding in and giving lots of advice - but the sense I had as soon as I arrived was that actually there is fluidity in the process. It was my hope that the people involved in planning the project would find it interesting; that they may benefit from the discussion that arose from the forum. SUCCESS STORIES [Similarly ambitious projects] have been done before in other cities. Presumably there was a moment in Sydney when people were sceptical about the Opera House, which was created as an international emblem for Australian culture. More recently there has been Bilbao [Spain] - many other cities have tried to recreate the Bilbao effect. Doha, in the Middle East, has created a museum of Islamic art which feels as though it's been rather successful, too. The difficult aspect of the [West Kowloon] programme is trying to include so much in one area, simultaneously. It's a scale of ambition for which I don't know any obvious precedent. [Although] Abu Dhabi is trying to do it on Saadiyat Island and, in a way, London's Southbank Centre does it. Then there's the Lincoln Centre in New York. So it's not unheard of to create a cluster and I think the idea of having arts venues which are both collaborative and in competition with one another is a perfectly viable model. DANGER SIGNS My impression is there has been a great deal of discussion about finance, architecture and project management [of the cultural district] but less about what the programme, the content and the audience is going to be. There is the sense that it may all be designed by the same architect. My view would be that it's important to have a master planner to lay out the site - where the various buildings will be placed - and then to sub-contract the design of each of the individual venues so that you have a sense of diversity within the project. The arts benefit from a plural, diverse environment and, in general, from a sense of competition between venues. If you have one monolithic structure where everything is done by a single cultural impresario, the danger is it becomes too rigid.