PRINT Summer 2010

Oscar Ho Hing-kay

TRADITIONALLY, THE CHINESE believe that true wealth must be accompanied by culture, and so, as our nation has become richer, we have in recent decades seen the cosmetic masking of affluence. It is noteworthy that among the most active supporters of new art spaces in China today are real estate developers. There is even a specific category of property, “arts real estate,” that reflects the role of culture in creating value. This is not to say that the relationship is entirely harmonious. Though real estate agents frequently use the presence of an art gallery in a building to advertise luxury apartments—interweaving wealth with cultural elitism in a single business deal—a recent demonstration against the redevelopment of the artists’ village Caochangdi in Beijing makes it clear that tensions do exist.

An object lesson of sorts for these issues arose in 2006, when the Hong Kong government launched a grandiose project called the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD): a hundred-acre complex in the city center, right by the dazzling Victoria Harbour. As conceived by the city administration, the plan was for grand venues that would make Hong Kong into Asia’s cultural hub: seven theaters, four museums, and an exhibition center, along with shopping malls, hotels, and office and residential buildings (plus a giant canopy by Sir Norman Foster covering 55 percent of the area). A defining quality of this venture, however, was that the site was to be sold to, developed by, and managed by a single developer, which would also run all the cultural activities. When the plan was unveiled, the public was outraged, openly declaring the project to be real estate development disguised as cultural endeavor. (The fact that the WKCD would be located in what was already among the most expensive residential areas in Hong Kong—and yet right beside one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods—only amplified the sense of misplaced interests.) Accusations of secret deals between the government and developers forced planners back to the drawing board.

Central to this renewed effort was an advisory group—of which I was a member—assembled to rethink the plan. This was both an opportunity and a challenge, because property value is only one of the complicated matters facing any new cultural institution in Hong Kong. The history of the Western-style museum in China is short—it was introduced by missionaries in the nineteenth century—and going to the museum is still an uncommon social activity. What’s more, the public is unfamiliar with the idea of “modern and contemporary art,” which evolved in the West. One must also be cognizant of the colonialist tactics of belittling the colonized and cultivating indifference toward local culture. Hong Kong, far from being a cultural wasteland, has a rich and colorful culture; any new institution should take that culture into account, making itself meaningful to the local populace even as it finds its position in the global landscape.

After months of meetings, the advisory group proposed replacing the four museums of the original plan with a 650,000-square-foot art space. Since we hesitated to call it a museum, we settled on the provisional name Museum Plus (or M+), conceiving it as an institution devoted to the visual culture of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with emphasis on a Hong Kong perspective and a “now” curatorial approach. Many aspects of M+ have intentionally been left ambiguous in order to make space for the ideas of the future staff. But, clearly, the “plus” is intended to suggest that the new space is more than a museum. It needs to address the inadequacies of the traditional museum as a place for research, education, collection, and exhibition. The plus is also a recognition of the fluidity of cultural development and, more specifically, of the widening definition of art. The decision to focus on visual culture instead of visual art is partly a result of recognizing that some of Hong Kong’s most outstanding cultural achievements, such as its popular culture, are outside the traditional arena of the visual arts. Considering that most people do not understand what “visual culture” means, the advisory group proposed four areas: moving images, popular culture, visual art, and design. Expanding the scope in this way also implies new curatorial approaches: The rubric visual culture reflects a desire to go beyond the understanding and experiencing of exhibits toward investigations of the process of viewing and attempts to apprehend the dynamic between viewers and the objects being viewed.

What M+ is trying to do is nothing new. The rethinking of the role of the museum and the exploration of new possibilities have been happening since at least the late twentieth century. And yet the project assumes special importance here, if for no other reason than that Hong Kong faces a lack of “cultural software.” If an understanding of Western-style art is not widely held here, neither is there an administrative structure of directors, curators, conservators, etc., who would be readily responsible for conveying such knowledge. Even so, M+ is slated to open in 2015. Now that the directions are defined, and the path is mapped out, will it work? In this part of the world, you never can tell.