No matter who's in charge, Hong Kong's West Kowloon Cultural District won't thrive without a vision

Vivienne Chow says although the West Kowloon Cultural District has been a CEO carousel, the leadership to launch Hong Kong as a global art centre has to come from within

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 July, 2015, 3:05pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 July, 2015, 4:54pm

Last week on Tuesday was the day of musical chairs in Hong Kong politics. Not only did the departure of two government ministers spark much political speculation, but so did the appointment of former housing chief Duncan Pescod as the CEO of the West Kowloon Cultural District.

Pescod, currently the chief operating officer of the arts hub, will become the third CEO since the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority was established in 2008 - the same year the Legislative Council approved a HK$21.6 billion upfront endowment. Rumours of Pescod taking over had been circulating for a while, but it still raised eyebrows when the news was announced: will the cultural district become a mere infrastructure project?

Pescod has 32 years of experience working for the government, but his lack of an artistic background raised concerns over his commitment to upholding artistic freedoms and creative independence. Worse, will a retired government official bring back the bureaucratic red tape that the arts hub was intended to avoid with the establishment of a statutory body operating at arm's length from the government?

What Hong Kong needs is someone ... who understands how West Kowloon fits into the bigger picture to justify the billions of dollars we are spending

Having a third CEO even before the arts hub opens is somewhat unfortunate. First CEO Graham Sheffield, formerly the artistic director of the Barbican Centre in London, walked out in 2011 just five months into the job. Australian arts administrator Michael Lynch took over after heading the Sydney Opera House and Southbank Centre in London, but decided to return home this year for personal reasons.

Seen in this light, Pescod's experience might come in handy at this time, particularly when he has been at the helm of the infrastructural and commercial and operational plannings as chief operating officer.

The design and construction of some major first-phase facilities - including the park, Xiqu Centre and Freespace - on the 40-hectare arts hub are finally under way, and the city is looking forward to opening these facilities in the next few years. The opening of the visual culture centre M+ in 2019 will certainly be the biggest highlight.

Many just want to see the buildings built, but the buildings are just vehicles. What Hong Kong needs is someone with the vision to lead the city into the 21st century, and who understands how West Kowloon fits into the bigger picture to justify the billions of dollars we are spending.

The examples of Berlin and Oslo, two culturally rich cities in Europe, may be instructive. Both are currently building major infrastructure to elevate their statuses.

In the heart of the German capital lies the construction of Humboldt-Forum. Billed as one of the biggest cultural endeavours in Europe, the €600 million (HK$5.1 billion) project - located in the Museumsinsel, a Unesco World Heritage site - is the reconstruction of the Berliner Schloss, which was heavily bombed during the second world war. Set to open in 2019, the building will house the non-European collections brought together by four museums. Cultural leaders and government officials in Germany say the Humboldt-Forum will be a centre of world culture.

Oslo is building a new National Museum also set to open in 2019. The city that is home to Edvard Munch's painting The Scream hopes this HK$5 billion museum will strengthen Norway's position of visual arts on the global stage.

Do we want Hong Kong to be part of the game? If so, the West Kowloon Cultural District has an important role to play, but it is the city's leaders whose job it is to craft out a vision - not just for the next decade but the next 50 or even 100 years - and see where the arts hub fits. It is their responsibility to map out cultural policies in areas including arts development, education, heritage conservation, development of creative industries and social innovation and urban planning.

Pointing fingers is easy. Our city's leaders must have a clear and sincere vision for our future instead of turning everything into another political scandal.

Vivienne Chow is a senior reporter at the Post. She has been awarded the IJP fellowship to reside in Berlin, Germany, to research cultural policy