West Kowloon Cultural District

Profile: Lars Nittve, director of Hong Kong's M+ museum of visual culture

Lars Nittve has faced a constant battle laying the groundwork for the museum of visual culture. But he may not stay to see it launched, writes Enid Tsui in the second in a series on influential figures in the cultural scene

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 March, 2015, 6:30am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 May, 2015, 11:40am

The glacial progress of the West Kowloon Cultural District, first mooted by former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa in the days when he still sported a little black hair, is likely to prompt either loud guffaws or much rolling of eyes.

Not so one vital element in the project. M+, the museum of visual culture due to open in 2018, has garnered more respect. Construction of the district's star attraction has only just begun but an international team of curators has been churning out offsite exhibitions and other activities since 2012 while scouring the world for acquisitions. By the time it opens, M+ will have a collection worth more than HK$2.5 billion that will finally put the city on the world map as a cultural destination.

Lars Nittve, executive director of M+ since 2011, has meticulously laid the groundwork for an institution so laden with anticipation that anything less than greatness will be a letdown when it opens.

So far, the prognosis is pretty optimistic. "I think M+ is going to be stunning. Lars has got a great team," says businessman and art patron Adrian Cheng Chi-kong, who sits on the WKCD board and the museum committee.

And yet, Nittve may not stay long enough for the ribbon cutting. "I've always said that I am not going to run a museum again. I spent 25 years doing that in three different countries. By 2018, I'll be too old anyway," says the 61-year-old Swede. He may stay beyond 2018 but is "taking it a year at a time", he says.

Nittve knows something about quitting while the going is good. The founding director of the Tate Modern left the iconic London museum a year after its stunning debut in 2000. But confidence in the fledgling Hong Kong project will undoubtedly suffer if he leaves early. The gravitas he brings to the HK$47 billion project - which many still fear will become a white elephant - has become all the more crucial after his boss, WKCD chief executive Michael Lynch, suddenly announced his resignation in February.

"So far, the steps Lars has taken are all admirable: the tenacity of the team he has put together and the way he works with other local art bodies," says Cosmin Costinas, executive director of Para/Site Art Space. "It would be a great loss if he goes. I'd like to see Lars stay beyond the opening of the physical building."

And what a building it is going to be. The Herzog and De Meuron-designed museum will feature a slim, semi-transparent vertical tower housing education space, offices and restaurants that sits atop a vast horizontal slab where most of the gallery space is situated. The minimalist structure - a colossal upside-down "T" - will provide twice as much exhibition space as the Tate Modern.

Gazing out of his windows at the WKCD office in Tsim Sha Tsui, Nittve gestures excitedly towards a cluster of tower cranes just by the waterfront. "That's where it's going to be. You can see that construction has started."

On his desk is a fat volume of architects' drawings and computer-generated images which he flicks through with familiarity to explain the future layout of M+.

It is the first time Nittve has been involved in a museum where the collection is being built at the same time as the building that will house it. At the Tate Modern and at the Moderna Museet in Sweden, where he spent nine years before coming to Hong Kong, he worked on reviving and expanding an existing collection.

"M+ is being built inside-out. The building is being custom-made for the content. It is the most ambitious and complex museum in the world since Centre Georges Pompidou opened in 1977," he says.

This brought some advantages; the museum has been able to tell the architects, for example, that it wanted a room mainly for shuimo (Chinese ink wash) works, that the space should reflect the intimacy of a classical Chinese study, and that the entrance should help visitors mentally "slow down" before arriving in the space.

This blank slate is what makes M+ such a heady proposition.

The museum of visual culture is a fresh concept in itself: combining visual art, design, architecture and moving images.

Nittve's team is also trying to resolve perennial problems that have plagued galleries all over the world, such as how to present Chinese handscrolls in a museum setting (one proposal: having an army of well-trained staff who will unroll the work for you on request) and what to do with the bulk of a museum collection that sits in storage (the solution: introducing a "jukebox" room, where visitors can call up works using a system based on automobile robotics that Nittve first experimented with at Moderna Museet).

But most importantly for Hong Kong, M+ will be the first major international museum to promote local art.

The tenacity of the team Nittve has put together and the way he works with other local art bodies are admirable
Cosmin Costinas, executive director, Para/Site art space

The bedrock of the museum's collection is the 1,510 pieces of contemporary Chinese artwork that came from Uli Sigg, the former Swiss ambassador in Beijing. "It would be impossible for any museum to acquire such a collection from the market today," Nittve says of the largely donated collection, the bulk of which is mainland Chinese art.

But of the 4,000-odd pieces that M+ has in its possession today, a third are by Hong Kong artists - mostly acquired through purchase.

Prices of Hong Kong art have risen because M+ has been buying and the Museum of Art has a new budget for local acquisitions, Nittve says. But local works are still undervalued - shown by the disproportionally small amount M+ has had to spend to buy them - he adds. A little more than 10 per cent of the sum of approved purchases since 2012 has been spent on Hong Kong art.

Recent additions to the museum's collection include another 500 pieces from donors such as Guan Yi, one of the mainland's most influential collectors, as well as artists such as Hong Kong's Stanley Wong and Antony Gormley from Britain. The latter's Asian Field (2003), a huge work featuring 210,000 clay sculptures made by villagers in Guangdong, was acquired with a US$1 million donation from an anonymous local patron.

The acquisitions don't go unchallenged. Nittve says he has never worked in a museum where decisions come under such constant scrutiny. "In my previous jobs, I was never asked to defend individual acquisition in front of legislators," he says.

He has also been surprised by the level of "friction" surrounding the WKCD project.

His clash with pro-establishment legislator Christopher Chung Shu-kun over the recent purchase of a Japanese sushi bar is probably the most memorable.

Writing in the Wen Wei Po last March, Chung, who chairs a Legislative Council panel to monitor the WKCD project, said he objected to how M+ paid HK$15 million for the Tokyo eatery designed by the late Japanese designer Shiro Kuramata. The snug restaurant has been dismantled, to be rebuilt with the original furniture in M+ as a major landmark in interior design.

Demanding greater transparency over the acquisition process, Chung warned that a team of curators with what he described as a "shallow" understanding of Chinese culture might turn the museum into a collection of foreign "cast-offs" - a comment which might bemuse Lesley Ma, the head of ink art at M+ and daughter of Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou.

Chung is notorious for his opposition to having foreigners at the helm of WKCD, but in this case, many observers would have been puzzled by the acquisition. A museum using taxpayer money to buy a sushi bar that has been closed for years, and then not even serve any sushi in it, is the perfect way to get a rise out of "Outraged of Mid-Levels".

But Nittve's team came back with a robust and intelligent defence of the acquisition and the matter has been dropped. But he is wary of politics playing a role in the museum's selection, even if it does reflect the opinion of the masses. "It is a very sensitive thing for politicians to be involved in cultural content."

Chung's fellow legislator in the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, Chan Kam-lam, also raised a few eyebrows when he told a Legco meeting in 2013 that M+ should avoid works that were obscene, indecent or containing political, insulting messages since they should not be considered as art.

Whoever heads M+ will always have a battle on their hands defending the museum's decisions.

So far, Nittve has managed to safeguard an ambitious vision for M+. Much of the local art community is counting on having him lead the fight for a lot longer.