From Hong Kong to the world: money men vow to help artists tour more

Arts Development Council chiefs tell Enid Tsui of their plans to make the funding body a more active partner in helping local artists gain greater international recognition

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 November, 2015, 6:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 November, 2015, 5:59am

Money can't buy you love. And, in the case of Hong Kong's Arts Development Council, neither can democracy.

This strange beast - a rare, public art funding body that outsources most of its decisions to local arts practitioners - is often attacked by those same people: some say it hands out money willy-nilly, others say it is too passive. Confronted with these accusations, the council's new chief executive, Winsome Chow, and chairman, Wilfred Wong Ying-wai, vow to win over sceptics with new schemes to help local artists.

Specifically, they want the council to step up from being a mere funder to become a more active conduit to help local artists secure greater international exposure.

"I think as a whole, the standard of Hong Kong artists has reached an international level," says Wong, chairman since 2011. "We are really interested in bringing them to the next level by helping them perform or go on exchanges abroad," he says.

The 20-year-old organisation ought to be in a position to understand what local artists need. Out of the 27 people on its ruling council, 10 are elected by local arts practitioners. In 2013, the number of eligible voters was expanded to make it more representative.

The government now gives us a total budget of HK$150 million, including HK$30 million for special trips to promote Hong Kong artists abroad
Wilfred Wong, ADC chairman 

Meanwhile, more than 100 examiners and advisers are picked from the art world each year to assess applications for grants and places on overseas tours, creating a peer-review system that decentralises decision-making at an organisation with around HK$150 million to spend each year. Wong says that the government is investing more in local artists and their overseas projects because of the council's lobbying.

"The government now gives us a total budget of HK$150 million, including HK$30 million for special trips to promote Hong Kong artists abroad," he says. When he started as chairman, the budget was around HK$90 million.

At home, critics are unhappy that the council rarely explains how it allocates funds, and why it rejects certain applications.

Wong and Chow both insist the council is an administrative body that should not interfere too much in the professional judgments of its advisers and examiners. "We have 10 elected members, each one representing one art form. Normally, the chairman of each art form knows the field very well. If we interfere too much, people will say, why this group and not that group?" he adds.

Arts groups in Hong Kong are generally in favour of the peer-review system, since, in theory, it acts as a buffer between them and any political interference. But never to know why you've been turned down is frustrating and unhelpful, they say.

Para Site is well acquainted with the bureaucracy of applying for grants in Hong Kong. In 2012, it graduated from being a council grantee to getting the Home Affairs Bureau's more substantial Springboard grant, which doubles any income and private donations obtained by the organisation and can be worth up to HK$4.5 million.

"We stopped applying for ADC money because you are not allowed to get both. But when we failed to get our Springboard grant renewed in 2014, we went back to the ADC and it also said no. What's absurd was that the ADC gave no explanation apart from saying that once you're out of the system, it's hard to get back in," says Cosmin Costinas, executive director of Para Site.

Luckily for the King's Road art space, it was back on the Springboard grant the following year.

Chow says the council does not treat these returning applicants differently. She also thinks that organisations that have managed to get direct bureau grants are unlikely to want to go back to the council because the grants will be too small by comparison.

Leanne Nicholls, founder and artistic director of the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong, says her ensemble has had a 12-year relationship with the council. "There has been some progression with ADC over the years as we have gone from getting yearly grants to a three-year grant. This is good, as ours is an established organisation and as such we should focus on long-term artistic plans rather than being bogged down in paperwork. The three-year grant allows us to do that," she says.

However, the grant is not enough for her to further develop the well-respected orchestra's potential and there are no other development grants on the horizon to enable the 16-year-old orchestra to move to the next level or funding tier.

"At the moment, the three-year grant covers basic operational expenses and fees for musicians and artists and a handful of staff who must multitask at many jobs. You need however specialised staff to work in fund-raising, marketing, stage management and library work. Funding does not stretch that far at market rates," she says.

Chow says the bureau is launching a new grant that matches what medium-sized art groups can raise themselves, dollar-for-dollar, which should help.

"Like it or not, the 'big nine' are there. Talk to the secretary for home affairs about it. The government has just given HK$300 million for matching grants to look after the middle ones," says Wong. This sum, issued by the bureau, doesn't all go straight to the practitioners, since some of it will be dispensed by the council.

"The ADC offers quality assurance to private donors. We can better explain what the groups do and convince the private sector to give money," he says, adding that the council will also start pursuing private donations.

As it becomes better funded and hence more powerful, there will be calls for more transparency. Apart from not giving enough feedback to grant applicants, the council has also come under attack for its unilateral decision to partner with M+ in the past two editions of the Venice Biennale, rather than through open calls for proposals from independent curators, as it did in the past.

Wong stands by that decision and says that the council is open to working with other organisations to take Hong Kong artists to Venice. However, it is unlikely to go back to working with individual curators.

"With independent curators, because it's just a one-off project, it's hard to retain experiences normally. That's why we have switched over to [partnering with] institutions. Honestly, the last two occasions [with M+] have been very good," says Wong.

The Venice Biennale is all about telling the world what being a Hong Kong artist means and he and Chow are keen to do more of that. They have just returned from leading the Hong Kong contingent to Seoul's Performing Arts Market where local artists gained valuable exposure to overseas events organisers. Next year, they will offer to take local performers to Germany's Internationale Tanzmesse, a gathering for dance professionals, and the OzAsia festival in Adelaide.

The council will never be able to please everyone, Wong says, and members - appointed and elected - have always found ways to compromise.

"Five years as chairman and I have never come across any problem. They reason it out, they talk. There may be different views, but it's OK," he says.