Upcoming Kowloon art museum faces concerns

An artist's impression of the M+ museum (foreground) that is slated to open in 2019.
An artist's impression of the M+ museum (foreground) that is slated to open in 2019.PHOTO: HERZOG & DE MEURON

HONG KONG • At the waterfront site destined for a vast new centre for the arts here, the view across Victoria Harbour 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 harbour 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 US$2.8 billion (S$3.94 billion). By the end of 2019, according to the current timeline, many of the area's components, including the 650,000 sq ft 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 realised. 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 bete 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 catalogue.

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.

"I have no concern that the building will not be delivered," said Mr 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+. 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 US$62 million on acquisitions so far and received donated works valued at more than US$175 million. But none of this has come easily.

"We have achieved everything we set out to do so far," said Mr 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, he 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.

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 chairman is Ms 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 Mr 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."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2015, with the headline 'Upcoming Kowloon art museum faces concerns'. Print Edition | Subscribe