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An open letter about the proposed museums at the West Kowloon Cultural District
13th June 2006

1. Introduction

The International Association of Art Critics (AICA) is a respected professional international organisation representing art professionals, art writers and critics with its headquarters and secretariat in Paris, France.

The International Association of Art Critics, Hong Kong (AICA-HK) comprises academics, writers, critics, artists, cultural workers, gallerists and curators actively involved in Hong Kong’s visual arts scene.

2. General Comments

2.1 There has been substantial debate, public comment, legislators’ enquiries and reports, and public consultation about the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) over the last two years. There is a wide range of opinion (much of it, unfortunately, self-interested) and most is on public record and available to your Committee.

2.2 Considerable time and expense has been spent by property developers (cost estimated to be HK$300 million) and public officials (any cost estimates?) in preparing plans and ideas for WKCD. If this project is to go forward, then rational and sensible proposals need to be made so involved parties can make rational and sensible future plans.

2.3 The Consultative Committee (CC), under its Terms of Reference, can only make recommendations about the WKCD to the Government – recommendations that are not binding. It is disappointing that the statutory authority that will eventually oversee the WKCD has not yet been incorporated and that the current consultations will not necessarily lead to substantive decision-making.

If there is political will to make WKCD a reality then the Government needs to urgently take responsibility for formulating a vision for WKCD, or, delegate that responsibility to an independent statutory authority responsible for the WKCD comprising of a committed group of Hong Kong citizens who are passionate about art and culture (and supported by a tight secretariat separate from the Hong Kong civil service).

The present situation of allowing the development of the WKCD project to be led by the Administration – Hong Kong civil servants – is, frankly, not working.

AICA recommends the immediate setting-up of the WKCD Statutory Authority with a Board of Governors comprising enlightened art and culture professionals, architects, business-people, government representatives who are passionate about art and culture.

2.4 There is a diverse composition of members sitting on the Museum Advisory Group (MAG) – we therefore urge individual and groups of members of the MAG to, if necessary, issue a minority report/s if your Advisory Group reaches no satisfactory consensus.

3. Comments on the WKCD in reference to the MAG’s Terms of Reference

3.1 The MAG is asked to make recommendations “…based on the existing arts and cultural policy and having regard to the current provisions in Hong Kong…”

AICA-HK strongly believes that the Government at present does not have a clearly articulated ‘arts and cultural policy’. It is, in part, for this reason that the Government’s previous plans for WKCD were cancelled.

AICA-HK recommends that the MAG should clearly state their dissatisfaction with the lack of an arts and cultural policy as it makes its task in making specific recommendations on the WKCD very difficult as these recommendations should not be made in isolation, but rather, should holistically consider Hong Kong’s entire arts and cultural makeup.

It is disappointing that there has been little meaningful Government initiative in trying to develop an arts and culture policy for Hong Kong. It is particularly lax considering the Culture and Heritage Commission issued its Report in 2003. For example, the recent Legislative Council Report on the WKCD stated a similar concern:

“….Members also raised the concern as to how the future arrangements (including the institutional setup and the funding arrangements) for the WKCD could promote the development of arts and culture with local characteristics and could ensure that the six principles advocated by the Culture and Heritage Commission, namely People-oriented, Pluralism, Freedom of Expression and Protection of Intellectual Property, Holistic Approach, Partnership and Community-driven, would be upheld.…”. (LegCo Report on WKCD, 2005)

AICA-HK acknowledges that such ideas are outside the scope of the MAG’s Terms of Reference, however, your Committee needs to express the difficulty in making proposals about the WKCD’s proposed Museum facilities when the Government itself has a directionless arts and cultural policy and one that does not allow for a thorough and necessary examination and overhaul of our publically-funded Museums who are stifled by being part of Hong Kong’s public service without any independent governance.

3.2 AICA-HK believes that the original proposal to have four museums in the WKCD is an arbitrary and illogical number based on no analysis of Hong Kong’s need for museums.

AICA-HK believes that the proposed four themes (ink, design, modern art and moving image) are also arbitrary – again based on no analysis. Unfortunately, these four themes hint at (artistic) media bias as it has never been clear why these particular four themes were ‘suggested’ as possible themes in the original WKCD tender documentation (and, again appearing for your Committee’s consideration in the MAG Terms of Reference!).

AICA-HK therefore recommends that the MAG:

- should categorically reject the idea of having four museums.

- should categorically reject the idea of having ANY themed museums.

AICA-HK’s recommendations for which facilities should be built at the WKCD are in Section 4 of this Submission below.

3.3 The proposal for the WKCD to also have a large “Art Exhibition Centre” appears to be suspiciously similar to many inappropriately large exhibition spaces currently found in Leisure and Cultural Services Department “Municipal Services Buildings” – e.g. the exhibition hall at the Sheung Wan Market. Such exhibition halls tend to be too big, inflexible in not having moveable partitions; low ceilings; grey covered wall fittings etc.

The rationale for such an art exhibition centre has never been articulated – why ‘art’ exhibition centre? Maybe, however, there is a need for a multi-disciplinary trade exhibition hall. Why the need to have an ‘art exhibition centre’ – how is it related to other WKCD cultural facilities, which organization controls its use etc?

AICA-HK recommends that provision of this ‘Art Exhibition Centre’ on the WKCD be rejected as there appears to be no rationale for having one nor exploration about how it could be managed.

3.4 The MAG has been asked to recommend on the “scale and requirements” of the WKCD facilities. This seems – again – an arbitrary request and superfluous when the policy decisions related to WKCD have not yet been decided. e.g. to decide to have or not have an art collection (and thus the need for storage space) in one of the arts facilities will affect the amount of space required.

AICA-HK recommends that the MAG clearly states that it will not comment about the “scale and requirements” of the WKCD arts facilities as this is premature while the artistic and financial parameters for the project are still being formulated.

4. AICA-HK’s Specific Recommendations for the WKCD:

- AICA-HK recommends that an arts and cultural policy for Hong Kong be formulated. This could be undertaken by appointing an independent Enquiry – an excellent model is the Australian Report of the Contemporary Visual Arts and Craft Inquiry presented to the Australian Federal Parliament in 2002.

This recommendation (even though strictly outside the Terms of Reference for the MAG) should be included by the MAG in its own recommendations to both the CC and the Government as it of such fundamental importance.

- AICA-HK recommends that a holistic approach be adopted in assessing the museum needs of the WKCD and that the role, governance and curatorial direction of the Hong Kong Museum of Art and the Heritage Museum be thoroughly reviewed. Setting-up new museums at the WKCD without assessing our present publically-funded museums would be scandalous.

- AICA-HK recommends that the WKCD Statutory Authority be immediately set-up (after due statutory and legislative process) with a Board of Governors comprising art and culture professionals, architects, business-people, government representatives etc.

- AICA-HK recommends that an independent Contemporary Art Space be set-up on the WKCD and that it has an educative, curatorial and exhibition role – it will not collect nor have a collection.

This contemporary art space will be independent (with an independent Board of Governors) but will receive adequate funding from the WKCD Statutory Authority. There are many successful worldwide models that can be followed in setting up this contemporary art facility – see Switzerland’s various Kunsthaus; the Australian Centre of Contemporary Art (ACCA); the Serpentine Gallery in London, UK etc etc

- AICA-HK recommends that the preferred ‘museum’ that should be built at the WKCD should be modeled on the Pompidou Centre in Paris, France (officially: Centre National d'Art et Culture Georges Pompidou).

AICA-HK believes that such a WKCD Art Centre should be multi-disciplinary, multi-media (in the sense of covering many art forms), multi-functional and be flexible – and run by an independent Board of Governors, funded by the WKCD Statutory Authority.

This Art Centre would have educative, curatorial and collection responsibilities. It could include such facilities as:

- A centre to exhibit new media (video, sound etc).
- A multimedia arts library (a facility that is immensely popular at the Pompidou Centre).
- An anchor museum within this Art Centre could be a Museum of Contemporary Asian Art (modeled on the contemporary Asian art collection; residency projects; and, Fukuoka Art Triennial functions of the Fukuoka Art Museum, Japan).
- A flexible temporary exhibition space that allows (similar to the Pompidou Centre) large important exhibitions (e.g. the major retrospective exhibition of artist Jean Debuffet at the Pompidou).

Such an Art Centre at the WKCD would, consequently, allow the Hong Kong Museum of Art to become – for example – a Museum of Chinese Culture (covering the artistic heritage of the Chinese people – including ceramics; bronze; ink painting; folk arts etc) and the Heritage Museum to become – for example – a Museum of Contemporary Design (covering all aspects of design: graphic; industrial; applied; engineering; architecture etc).

AICA-HK believes such a flexible WKCD Art Centre would be ideal for Hong Kong and allows for our present publicly-funded museums to be effectively rationalized with functions that are focused and complimentary to those that will be initiated within the West Kowloon Cultural District.

This submission prepared by John Batten, Member of AICAHK and Convenor of AICA-HK’s West Kowloon Cultural District Interest Group.

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