Vision of West Kowloon Cultural District cannot be realised without the artists

Jingan Young says it's the artists, not the buildings, that need the funding to turn the West Kowloon Cultural District into an artistic hub

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 August, 2015, 1:07pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 August, 2015, 1:07pm

The seemingly accursed West Kowloon Cultural District project will be getting a new CEO, but as for receiving more funding from the government, it's still a big fat "no" from Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. But is that such a bad thing?

Since 2008, the project has received a total of HK$21.6 billion from the government. To put it into perspective, given that the Hong Kong Arts Development Council awarded an average of about HK$45,000 for an emerging artist (drama) in 2014, that money would fund about 480,000 artists.

When plans for the project were first announced, a bemused optimism hung in the air among artists over whether the authorities could even pull it off.

But we are equally to blame in this farce, as we failed to question the clear lack of vision from the onset

First roping in Graham Sheffield, formerly of the Barbican Centre in London, to headline the operation appeared to quell the scepticism. That is, until he abruptly threw in the towel five months later. Then came Michael Lynch, a former chief of the Sydney Opera House and the Southbank Centre, who also quit before his contract ended.

But we are equally to blame in this farce, as we failed to question the clear lack of vision from the onset. Because if its future artistic direction is anything like its current one, there seems little point in debating whether it can achieve its only publicly vocalised aim as Hong Kong's answer to London's Southbank.

Its community projects are poorly promoted, its "workshops" pointless exercises in how they can tick the "cross-cultural exchange" box and demonstrate a "worldly knowledge" of global practices. The annual Freespace Fest offers limited platforms for artists (and now apparently skateboarders). This is not the answer to supporting and showcasing our burgeoning creative talent.

If the cultural district does eventually find its footing, the artists of Hong Kong desperately implore them: why not build rehearsal spaces within new theatre complexes? Also, why not implement an artist residency programme that funds four to six artists, allowing them to collaborate and create an actual piece of work over the course of a year? If this "hub" indeed takes its inspiration from Southbank or the Barbican, we need initiatives to create, not just "rent and play".

The authorities may argue they cannot find the artists to facilitate these programmes. They'd be wrong.

Sadly, many Hong Kong artists will happily agree to these terms, including what, I'm afraid, will also include exorbitant venue rental fees.

Perhaps the government's refusal to continue funding is a sign it is finally realising that putting the money into the artists is a more worthwhile and profitable venture than investing in a hollow shell.

Jingan Young is a freelance writer and playwright