Pansy Ho out to restore some of Macau’s lost elegance with art going on show at new MGM Cotai casino resort
Interior design of Cotai resort opening this year will incorporate an eclectic collection of art, including newly commissioned works – part of efforts, Ho says, to promote Macau’s ‘more spiritual aspects’
MGM Cotai, the HK$24 billion casino resort that opens its doors in the second half of this year, will be more than a mere palace of easy-come, easy-go wealth thanks to its acquisition of a large art collection – one which, according to the woman driving it, will help forge a more sophisticated image of Macau.
The collection, overseen by MGM co-chairman Pansy Ho Chiu-king, comprises 300 works, among them 28 rare Qing dynasty imperial carpets and a commissioned collage called Eight Views of Macau by Chinese artist Xue Song.
Ho, with a personal fortune of US$4.2 billion according to Forbes’ rich list, is a seasoned collector and high-profile supporter of the arts. A daughter of gaming tycoon Stanley Ho Hung-sun, she has also been heavily involved in the large art gallery inside MGM Macau – the first casino she opened as a joint venture with New York-listed MGM Mirage – which has shown works by Botticelli and Degas.
The design of the new Cotai property reflects the colour scheme and stacked look of the sister resort in mainland Macau, but is much bigger, with 4 million sq ft of floor space and 1,400 rooms, compared to 600 at MGM Macau. Unlike the latter, which has a dedicated art gallery, MGM Cotai will present the art as part of the property’s decor.
“In addition to our annual art programmes at the existing art space in MGM Macau, we want the new property to have a permanent collection,” Ho says.
These works will be fully integrated with the interior design, she says, and 25 highlights that form the Chairman’s Collection will be placed in prominent positions.
“These are the ones that have been chosen with my participation. We want them to be talking pieces,” Ho says. Her personal collection does not come into it, as these are all newly acquired, she adds.
“People ask how much money we have spent on the art, but that’s not the issue. The art collection is invaluable because it will help nurture art appreciation in the long term and is also a platform for artists,” she says.
Art consultant Calvin Hui Kim-lung has been hired to put the collection together, with a remit to promote the works of a wide range of artists – Ho’s taste are, by her own admission, eclectic.
“I am not deemed a collector. I was told once a collector needs to specialise in certain categories. I cannot qualify because I have just varied interests. I can be interested in Islamic art, sculpture, even miniatures,” Ho says.
The Chairman’s Collection does have a certain emphasis, however: works by modern and contemporary Asian artists, such as a commissioned work by Taiwanese artist Hsiao Chin. The abstract painter who founded the influential Ton-Fan art movement in the 1950s has created a painting nine metres wide called Dancing Light 2016 for MGM Cotai, Ho says.
Other highlights include Song’s Eight Views of Macau, who recreates collage works made of burnt fragments of paper, and works by well-known artists such as Liu Kuo-sung and Liu Dan.
Macau artists are also given a chance to shine. Calligrapher Ung Si Meng has been commissioned to produce a large work that will accompany the imperial carpets – made using silk, gold, silver and copper – that used to adorn the Forbidden City in the Qing dynasty.
Ho says: “The Macau government has done lots to preserve the city’s heritage, such as getting Unesco heritage status for many historic sites. But what do you then do to instil in other people the more spiritual aspects of Macau? To show them that Macau is not just about the postcard landmarks? “Macau has other unique qualities. For example, we should promote that fact that it played a major role in the development of Chinese calligraphy and ink painting when it became a centre for the Lingnan school of artists.”
Besides the art, MGM Cotai will also house a large multi-purpose theatre with 14 seating configurations that can sit up to 3,000 people.
As someone who grew up between Hong Kong and Macau, Ho has had a front-row view of the dramatic changes Macau has undergone.
In the 15 years since the casino industry was liberalised – by depriving Stanley Ho of his monopoly – massive casinos have popped up everywhere. Gambling revenue rose from around US$2.5 billion in 2002 to a record US$45.2 billion in 2013, seven times more than in Las Vegas that year. Gambling tax, at a hefty 35 per cent, has been paying for nearly every public service, and the city has been transformed from a serene, elegant former Portuguese enclave to a city of over-the-top bling.
Ho says she wants to put back some of the elegance that the city may have lost through rampant development.
In practical terms, the art theme at MGM Cotai also helps its operator tick some regulatory boxes. Macau casinos have been told by the government, which is reviewing all casino licences and which determines how many gambling tables to allocate new properties, that they have to do their bit to diversify the economy.
That means making their resorts more family-friendly and offering non-gaming facilities such as convention centres and cultural venues. Non-gaming revenue in 2015 made up less than 10 per cent of the total at Macau casinos, according to the most recent government statistics, but Ho believes that eventually, MGM properties could make more than half their money outside of the casino floors, from hotel rooms, meeting spaces, retail, entertainment and food and beverage offerings.
“We don’t know how long it will take but ultimately, that is the objective,” she says.
Those activities are also helping to attract more middle-class visitors to the casinos and filling the gap left by VIP gamblers, whose ranks have been thinned by Beijing’s anti-corruption crackdown and slower economic growth. The absence of high rollers, who used to account for two-thirds of Macau’s gambling revenue, has seen the market shrink for three years in a row and new casinos such as MGM Cotai plan to target mass market gamblers.
“The demographic of Macau visitors has changed. The people who come frequently are those who come for the cultural events and think that this is a place worth exploring,” says Ho.
“The hardware has been developed now, but we need content that promotes the city’s essence. I really believe that customers themselves are going to make their demands and we have to come around to their needs.”