Lars Nittve stuns Hong Kong art world with exit from M+ museum he built from scratch
Five-year chief of museum in the making stuns the art world with plans for January departure
The art world was left reeling in shock last night as the West Kowloon cultural hub announced the departure of its museum leader, triggering fresh questions as to why world-renowned cultural leaders would leave the mega project one after another.
Lars Nittve, executive director of M+, the visual culture museum to open in 2019, will step down after his contract ends on January 9, according to the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority.
Arts hub chief executive Duncan Pescod said Nittve would continue to support the project as an external adviser.
Nittve, a heavyweight of the art world, will be the second top executive to exit in just over half a year following the premature departure of Pescod's predecessor Michael Lynch, who left his job in August. The talk within the arts community was about whether politics had gotten in the way of the arts hub's administration.
"It's disastrous," gallerist Pearl Lam said. "Why does Lars want to leave? … Is there such an inherent problem in Hong Kong that we don't know how to keep these cultural leaders?"
That question appeared to be answered by art critic John Batten, who said Nittve's move was understandable given the tremendous political pressure facing West Kowloon.
"It is a political job under the spotlight … dealing with [the Legislative Council] and some people are not very supportive," he said, urging the government to "take a few steps back" if it had been interfering with artistic independence at the hub.
Artist Stanley Wong, also known as anothermountainman whose works were in the M+ collection, described Nittve as "a very visionary, fair and open-minded fellow, with a super positive attitude to learn to engage in the Asian/local [context]".
Earlier, Nittve told the Post he intended to stay until the museum's opening, though he could not make any promise.
He said yesterday that his decision to leave four years before the museum was to open was "not an easy one to take".
"We have reached a point when … we have a truly world-class museum under way, with an excellent team in place, a collection of growing significance and an extraordinary museum building under construction," he said. "But I have to accept that after five years here, there are still another four years of very hard work … I should either commit to all those years - or accept that this is the right time to hand over to someone else."
The authority's chairwoman Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor praised Nittve for his "tremendous contributions" in developing the cultural district and putting M+ on the world map.
In five years, Nittve built M+ from scratch with a team of curators, setting up its collection and overseeing its design. M+ now manages more than 4,300 works.