Man on a M+ssion

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 September, 2011, 12:00am


It is 10.30am and Lars Nittve has just parked his white Mini outside an Ap Lei Chau factory building.

'You pick up a lot when visiting artists,' says the bespectacled museum boss as he approaches the studio of Kacey Wong. 'I like to listen and learn. I like to talk and communicate.'

Paying calls on local artists as they are in the process of creating has become part of Nittve's routine since the beginning of the year, when he came on board as the executive director of M+, the museum of contemporary art planned for the West Kowloon Cultural District.

The gigantic white door swings open as Nittve enters the 2,000sq ft studio, which boasts a large terrace overlooking the ocean. Inside stands Forever Absolute Emptiness, a work in progress that features a winged bicycle with speakers playing a collection of melancholy Canto hits from the 1980s. Wong explains to Nittve how it works as a conceptual time machine.

He tells the 58-year-old Swede: 'Your presence has already triggered some changes in Hong Kong's museum scene. People have been ringing me up discussing a change in direction of existing museums.'

The calls have come from staff at the city's 18 government-owned museums, which include the Museum of Art, in Tsim Sha Tsui, and the Heritage Museum, in Sha Tin. It is a measure of Nittve's reputation. He was the founding director of London's Tate Modern, which has become one of the world's most influential contemporary-art museums.

A smiling Nittve is led out to view more quirky works of art on the terrace. 'It's hard to create a museum because you don't know what will happen,' says Nittve, as he squeezes his more than six-foot-tall frame into one of Wong's sculptural huts. 'There's something I've noticed - there's a lack of trust in the audience ... [but] people are smarter than you think.'

Nittve has spoken of his hopes of seeing the city become an 'arts hub'. He cites the level of talent operating here: 'Take Stanley Wong and Alan Chan, for example; they are artists as well as designers. This couldn't have happened in Stockholm. This is something uniquely Hong Kong.' But he also believes Hong Kong can be a regional arts leader because it can stand as a champion of free speech.

He was asked recently whether M+ would display work by politically controversial artists such as Ai Weiwei, who was released in June after more than two months' detention on the mainland. 'We should be showing the best art in the world, and Ai Weiwei is one of the best artists,' Nittve responded. 'This can be done in Hong Kong, because we have freedom of expression.'

He added later: 'This is the pride of most Hong Kong people. Hong Kong should build on it [because] censorship exists not just in China but other parts of Asia. Museums should be a safe place for ideas.

'If you are a museum director but you are told not to show some artists, you should resign immediately,' Nittve continued. 'I haven't felt any pressure and my professional integrity has been totally respected.'

Compromise was akin to career suicide, he said, adding: 'I don't expect that to happen.'

Nittve is showing no signs of following former boss Graham Sheffield in making a hasty exit. Sheffield took a holiday at Christmas from which he never returned, claiming he was sick. The resignation put an end to his five-month stint as chief executive of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority and sparked debate as to whether he was broken by bureaucratic pressure or, having never lived outside Britain before, was homesick.

With his six-month probation period behind him, Nittve is settling into the Hong Kong way of life. He's finding it easier to pilot his urban-appropriate car around Hong Kong's roads; he is getting experimental with the city's cuisines - having sampled his first hot pot - and he even seems to have adopted the local way of waving goodbye, with his hand held close to his chest.

'When you move to a new place, it can feel quite unsettling,' says Nittve, who has been joined in the city by his wife, Iranian architect Shideh Shaygan. 'I did this several times before. It's a very exciting experience but, for others, it can be quite unsettling.'

Born in Stockholm in 1953, Nittve served as chief curator at the Moderna Museet in his hometown between 1986 and 1989. He then spent five years as the founding director of the Rooseum Centre for Contemporary Art, in Sweden's third-largest city, Malmo. He later took up the directorship at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, in Humlebaek, Denmark, curating a series of acclaimed exhibitions, before moving to London to lead the development of Tate Modern as its first director, in 1998. In 2001, he returned to Stockholm and to the Moderna Museet, as its director.

Given his CV, you'd be forgiven for assuming art was in Nittve's blood, but that isn't the case. 'I was a lazy bugger for a long time before I realised what I wanted to do,' he says.

It was while studying at the Stockholm School of Economics that a friend, who came from a family of art collectors, opened the door to the world of art for him. Together, they began attending art exhibitions and fairs. 'It blew me away,' he recalls.

Nittve went on to study art history at Stockholm University, later joining the faculty as an art history lecturer while writing for Stockholm's daily Svenska Dagbladet and contributing to New York's Artforum magazine. In 1997, he served as a member of the Venice Biennale and as a juror for the Turner Prize.

Despite his background, not everyone agreed with the choice of Nittve to lead a Hong Kong museum.

One voice of dissent was that of Mathias Woo Yan-wai, executive director of experimental theatre company Zuni Icosahedron and a critic of the local arts scene. He has been fond of saying that the West Kowloon Cultural District should be renamed the 'British Cultural District', because of the authority's seeming preference for Westerners with 'colonial values' and little understanding of local culture.

Nittve doesn't seem to be bothered by the accusation. 'Luckily [Woo] is the only person I have heard openly expressing such [sentiments].

'Neither in the UK nor in Denmark did I hear anything like it when I was brought in to lead some of their major museums. I was asked to take this job simply because there are very few individuals in the world who have the kind of experience in setting up and running museums of visual art and culture on this scale that I have - perhaps [there are] four or five others.'

However, Nittve says, he does recognise the need to 'make an extra, if not extraordinary effort' to bridge the cultural gap.

'You need to immerse yourself in that place, have very big ears and listen to many voices - colleagues, artists, collectors, even journalists,' he says. 'But I am not building M+ alone. It is very much a team effort, and the great majority of the team is, and will be, from Hong Kong.

'When we built Tate Modern, no one believed in it. People did not grow up with the idea of going to museums. But people shopping on Oxford Street suddenly started going to the Tate Modern. In the first year, we had 5.6 million visitors and then the number stabilised at about five million per year.'

Nittve has his supporters in Hong Kong, too. Oscar Ho Hing-kay praises the Swede's knowledge, vision and outgoing, relaxed personality. 'He's well respected in the field without doubt,' says Ho, who is programme director of Chinese University's master's degree in cultural management and has been a member of the museum advisory group for the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority.

M+, which will have 20,000 square metres of exhibition space when completed in 2015/16 (there may be additional space added in phases), will be much bigger than Tate Modern's 13,000 square metres. It will increase Hong Kong's total public museum space by 52 per cent.

As well as being an art museum - covering a broad range of disciplines, from ink art to architecture - it will serve as an educational facility.

'Some 70,000 people went to the Hong Kong Art Fair in three days. Tens of thousands of people went to Fotanian Open Studios [an annual art show held in Fo Tan]. There are also art buyers [here]. Hong Kong people should be more optimistic about Hong Kong people. If we do this right, we will be surprised,' Nittve smiles.

'You can find [museums built specifically for tourists] in Las Vegas but they are failures,' he says. 'A museum must have a unique identity in order to attract people, both locals and tourists.'

Nittve's five-strong team includes German curator Tobias Berger, who served as executive director of independent local art space Para/Site between 2005 and 2008, and senior assistant curator Yan Tung, who will focus on education projects. A sixth member will be joining the team next month.

Ho says Nittve will benefit from a local team's 'cultural, artistic and aesthetic perspective', because 'M+ is very local oriented ... you need someone who does not despise local culture'.

But Ho worries about bureaucratic obstacles. After all, the building of the arts hub will involve close dealings with a number of government agencies. 'Professionals care about their reputation and will not hesitate to leave if it is damaged,' Ho warns any potentially meddlesome civil servants.

NITTVE EMERGES FROM the little hut on the terrace and pauses to take in the view before following Wong back into the studio.

He has a lot to think about.

The third round of the public-engagement exercise begins this week and Nittve will face questions about M+, one of the key features of the modified version of Norman Foster's 'City Park' development plan for the Kowloon cultural hub.

Nittve also has to make plans for a nomadic M+, which will stage exhibitions around Hong Kong while waiting for its premises to be completed. Then there is the building of a pavilion in the arts hub where temporary sculpture shows can be displayed.

Most importantly, of course, is the acquisition of an art collection. Of the HK$21.6 billion upfront endowment the arts district has been allocated, HK$1 billion has been earmarked to build the museum's collection - with an annual HK$20 million set aside for further purchases.

The total cost of M+ is estimated to be HK$4.7 billion, while the museum will be responsible for 78 per cent of the arts hub's operating deficit, according to government calculations.

Nittve acknowledges he's been given a generous budget, but what worries him most is not inflation, or art prices hitting the roof or a devaluation of the Hong Kong dollar.

'I'm more worried about not getting it right, because what we do now will be set as an example for the future,' he says.

Nittve folds himself into his white Mini and hits the road, heading back to his Tsim Sha Tsui office. The robotic voice of his car's GPS system seems to scream directions at him at every crossroads.

At Bonham Road, Nittve decides not to listen and turns the steering wheel in the opposite direction to that suggested by the mechanical know-it-all.

His hunch turns out to be correct - he finds a shortcut to the Western Harbour Tunnel.

'I had lots of warnings before I came [to Hong Kong]. But it turns out that we are continuously surprised,' says Nittve. 'My home is Hong Kong now. I have a very good life here.'