December 27th, 2015

In Hong Kong, fears for an Art Museum

By: Amy Qin            Source: The New York Times      Date: 25/12/2015

An interior rendering of the so-called M+, an art museum planned for Hong Kong. CreditHerzog & de Meuron and WKCDA 

HONG KONG — At the waterfront site destined for a vast new center for the arts here, the view across Victoria Harbor is one to marvel at — an urban jungle of high-rises that together make up the city’s famous skyline.

The vista from the other side of the harbor could not be more different. Mostly barren land. A small construction zone. Some temporary buildings. And a sign announcing in big orange capital letters: “West Kowloon Cultural District.”

This is where a “museum of visual culture” called M+ (for “museum plus”) is scheduled to be built as a key part of the new complex, a mammoth government-sponsored project budgeted at $2.8 billion. By the end of 2019, according to the current timeline, many of the area’s components, including the 650,000-square-foot museum, will be ready to open to the public.

But as plans for M+ move forward, questions are mounting about whether the original vision — a wide-ranging art museum that would put Hong Kong on the global cultural map — can ever be fully realized.

In recent years, both M+ and the larger project have been troubled by delays and the departures of high-level staff members. More worrying now are concerns that M+ may not be able to maintain the curatorial independence and distance from politics necessary for a world-class museum to thrive. Many members of Hong Kong’s art community describe a growing feeling of “nervousness,” especially among Hong Kong government officials, about art and a fear of provoking Beijing.

In February, the first show of works from the museum’s already extensive collection of Chinese contemporary art will open at a Hong Kong exhibition space after previous runs in Umea, Sweden, and Manchester, England. It will include a large-scale installation by the Beijing government’s artistic bête noire, Ai Weiwei, as well as a series of photographs by Liu Heung Shing of the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. The show is being promoted as the first to recount the chronological development of Chinese contemporary art without rupture. But it will have a less challenging title than the one it bore abroad — “Right Is Wrong” — and a different catalog.

Unlike mainland China, Hong Kong has maintained Western-style protections for freedom of speech despite its return to Chinese rule in 1997. Still, worries about China’s growing influence on the territory have taken on greater urgency in the aftermath of the Umbrella Revolution last year, when thousands of protesters took to the streets to demand greater electoral freedom from the government in Beijing.


A rendering of an exterior view of the M+ contemporary art museum, scheduled to open in Hong Kong in 2019. CreditHerzog & de Meuron and WKCDA 


“I have no concern that the building will not be delivered,” said Uli Sigg, a former Swiss diplomat who in 2012 donated a large part of his collection, widely regarded as one of the most important and comprehensive of contemporary Chinese art, to M+. (Selections from it make up the coming exhibition.)

But, he noted, “Then there is also the question of what the mood will be in Hong Kong in a few years.”

Plans for the building, designed by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, have been completed; the contractor has been chosen; and the museum’s core team is in place. The museum has also been building a collection. According to its own estimates, it has spent $62 million on acquisitions so far and received donated works valued at more than $175 million. But none of this has come easily.

“We have achieved everything we set out to do so far,” said Lars Nittve, 62, the executive director of M+ and previously the founding director of the Tate Modern and the Rooseum Center for Contemporary Art in Sweden. “But it’s probably taken four to five times more work to make it happen compared to my experience in the London and Scandinavian situations. Almost every day and night is spent arguing.”

Much of the reason for this wrangling with bureaucrats and government officials, Mr. Nittve and others said, is the lack of a developed museum culture in Hong Kong and, more generally, Asia. Only in recent years has mainland China had a sudden increase in contemporary art museums. Many, like the Himalayas Museum in Shanghai and the M Woods Museumin Beijing, were spearheaded by real estate developers and private collectors and are privately run.

Although M+ is not directly under government control, the museum has scarcely been insulated from politics. Currently, it is financed wholly by public funds. Representatives from government departments have been appointed to the cultural district committee responsible for overseeing it, and its chairwoman is Carrie Lam, the Hong Kong chief secretary and the city’s second-ranking official.

The involvement of the government, some say, has made the museum vulnerable to political pressures.

“The problem in Hong Kong is not censorship,” said Pi Li, the Sigg senior curator at M+. “The problem in Hong Kong is self-censorship. It’s self-censorship hidden in the procedures, so it’s difficult to distinguish.”

Mr. Pi said that procedural delays cropped up over the summer during discussions about plans for the exhibition opening in February. It will be the first time that the Sigg collection will be shown in Hong Kong since Mr. Sigg donated or sold more than 1,500 works to the museum.

Because the exhibition had already been on a European tour, Mr. Pi said, bringing it to Hong Kong should have been a straightforward proposition. Instead, he said, museum committee members took issue with not only the “Right Is Wrong” title but also some of the show’s educational aspects, which they said were insufficiently tailored to Hong Kong viewers.

“I think the officials here are still trying to half-guess how Beijing would feel when an exhibition is mounted, so they tend to be very, very cautious,” said Ada Wong, a community cultural advocate and a member of the museum committee.

All the works in the show were retained. But in Hong Kong, it will be called simply “M+ Sigg Collection: Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art.” Mr. Pi and other curators emphasized that if there were any censorship of content, in the Sigg collection show or in future exhibitions, they would quit.

“We came to Hong Kong because here, unlike in mainland China, you have freedom of speech,” said Mr. Pi. “But it’s not like freedom of speech in the United States. You don’t have it all the time. Here you must continually test it, maintain it and protect it.”

Still, the most immediate challenge facing M+ is clear. In September, Mr. Nittve said he would be stepping down as executive director in January, when his contract will expire.

Mr. Nittve has been with M+ since 2011. But after delays in the schedule for the museum’s completion, he said, he felt unable to commit to an additional four years.

Though he will continue as an adviser for the project, the search for a successor is underway. Among the many attributes required, most of those involved seem to agree that one quality will be especially important: a willingness to deal with politics.

“Politics are real here,” Mr. Nittve said. “It has real consequences, and you have to take it very seriously.”

He added: “In Europe, it’s like this or like that. But actually, nothing fundamental really changes. Here they can.”