How Asia Society Hong Kong has grown its audience - with Caravaggio's help

Asia Society director Alice Mong looks back over three years in Admiralty HQ

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 February, 2015, 10:49pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 February, 2015, 4:51pm

When Alice Mong oversaw the grand opening of Asia Society Hong Kong's new state-of-the-art site in Admiralty three years ago, she never imagined the society would be playing host to leading international musicians such as Joshua Bell, or exhibiting the works of master painters such as Caravaggio.

"I've been astounded by the quality of the programmes and the people who want to work with us," says Mong, who returned to Hong Kong from New York in November 2011, a few months ahead of the centre's February opening. By August 2012 she was serving as its executive director.

Born in Taiwan, Mong immigrated with her family to the US in 1973. She majored in international relations at Ohio State University and worked with the Ohio Department of Development, a job that brought her to Hong Kong in 1992. She returned to the US in 2003 and worked for two non-profits: as executive director of Committee of 100, founded by architect I.M. Pei and cellist Yo-Yo Ma; and then as director of the Museum of Chinese in America (Moca). She helped transform the New York Chinatown institution into a leading national museum.

"The Chinese community was initially reticent, but they came to realise that by being open you don't lose yourself. In fact, you get a bigger audience," says Mong.

That lesson translates to what she hopes to achieve with the Asia Society Hong Kong. When the organisation was founded in 1990, its mission was to maintain Hong Kong's place as a global centre.

Until 2012, the focus was on business and policy, but with the move to Admiralty, the focus has shifted with 60 per cent of programming focused on arts and culture. The centre was made possible thanks to the government - which provided the land - and donations from the Hong Kong Jockey Club. Mong is keen to stress that it's a space for everyone.

"We're a membership organisation, but non-members can come. We really want to make this place accessible, to get the word out to the local community that an organisation like this is for them; we are not a club," says Mong.

Two recent exhibitions have helped reach out to an audience beyond the society's membership. In March last year, a month-long exhibition of Italian baroque master Caravaggio attracted 27,000 people. Admission was free, thanks to the sponsors.

Then in November, a three-month exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls drew more than 32,000.

I’ve been astounded by the quality of the programmes and the people who want to work with us

"'Temple Scrolls and Divine Messengers' brought us a large local audience with a lot of church groups and community groups. Without Caravaggio, I don't think we would have had the success of the Dead Sea Scrolls. These two exhibitions in one year really put us on the map," she says.

Before Asia Society moved to the Admiralty site, it never put on more than 70 events in a year - and almost none involved the arts or culture. In 2013 it put on 162 programmes and that number grew to 182 last year. With a staff of 40, Mong believes that is about the limit. Now the focus is on selecting artists, writers and filmmakers, nurturing partnerships that have helped them pull off some of their most successful events.

The Leisure and Cultural Services Department has also helped bring in some big names. In June 2013, it hosted classical and flamenco guitar maestro Pepe Romero at the Concert Hall at City Hall on a Sunday night and the following evening he performed at Asia Society, a low-key event, rounded off with a discussion.

"We were able to do something more intimate. You can't have an informal conversation like that in a big concert hall," says Mong.

In November, Tisa Ho - of the Hong Kong Arts Festival - and the Women's Foundation approached Mong about hosting leading opera singer Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. "We have a beautiful theatre, a beautiful venue, we can collaborate to put on events," says Mong.

The next big exhibition will open in early March and feature the work of one of Japan's most popular contemporary artists, Yoshitomo Nara, known for two-dimensional drawings of big-headed, sulky cartoon-like characters.

There will also be more reasonably priced film programmes - tickets are usually priced at HK$100 and often include a discussion with the director afterwards.

The site is open to the public. A two-minute stroll up the hill from the British Council building and you reach the leafy surrounds of Asia Society's roof garden - a beautiful site to relax in.

"In the beginning, we were learning. There was a fear of the unknown. Three years on, we know our site and what we can do, and we want to tell the community that we are here and you are welcome and can come," says Mong.

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