Monday, 23 September 2013

Hong Kong stepping up its game as South East Asia's art hub - Interview with Dr. Lars Nittve

Ever heard of the West Kowloon Cultural District? – If you haven’t yet, it is about time you do! The WKCD is located in Hong Kong and one of the most ambitious large-scale art projects worldwide that is currently in its first realisation stages.

Hong Kong and art, you are wondering? Well, there might not be much at the moment but once this project is in a mature stage, we are pretty confident that there will be a lot of talk in the art world and a lot to explore and talk about for art aficionados.

The project dates back to 2006, when a consultative committee was founded by the Hong Kong government to analyse the HK art scene and facilitate the long-term development of the city as an international arts and cultural metropolis. After 15 months of consultation and close examination, what they came up with, naturally goes way beyond dusty museums with creaking wooden floors. Within the next decade, under the project name “West Kowloon Cultural District”, 15 performing arts venues and at least 3 hectares of piazza areas, as well as a cultural institution with museum functions (temporarily called the M+) focusing on 20th to 21st century visual culture, and an Exhibition Centre with focus on arts and culture and creative industry will be constructed. 
The entire district located in prime location at Kowloon’s west harbour was designated as a low-density development with ample open space embracing a vibrant harbour front for public enjoyment and closely connected with neighbourhood community. This major infrastructure project was approved in 2008 by the Hong Kong Legislative Council.

Executive Director, M+

Dr Nittve was appointed Executive Director, M+ of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority in June 2010 and he took up his post in January 2011. Dr Nittve has over 30 years of experience as a director, curator and educator of the arts. In the following interview, he gives insight into the unprecedented project, current challenges and his opinion and outlook about Hong Kong as an art hub:

In Hong Kong, space is one of the most precious resources. A huge space in a prime location was made available to the West Kowloon Cultural District. How does that make you feel? Does it have any meaning to you that the space dedicated to this extraordinary art project is built on reclaimed land?

The generous space given to culture and its audiences in West Kowloon is first and foremost a strong signal of the importance culture is given in contemporary Hong Kong. This sense of generosity is also fundamental for the spirit we want to achieve in the M+ project – a welcoming, open and democratic institution. Big parts of urban Hong Kong – especially on Hong Kong Island, are built on reclaimed land – this sense of artificiality is in a way central to Hong Kong urbanity. I hope that both the M+ architecture as well as the park design will take this into account and even thematise it.

How do you think/hope this project will influence the population of Hong Kong and beyond?

It will first and foremost give the people who live and work in Hong Kong a new level of access to world class visual culture – art, design, architecture and moving image. The consequences from this will of course be deeply individual– some will see their lives changed – others will be happy to have learned something new. For our first Mobile M+ event ‘Yau Ma Tei’ in 2012, we found that over 40% of the visitors were first-time exhibition goers. But the consequences for people of a cultural project can never really be predicted – beyond its economic impact. We hope that M+ will set a new standard for how museums operate in our part of the world – and how we meet our audiences and talk about and present our content.

What to your opinion is the biggest challenge of your project?

The possibility of M+ being benchmarked against other institutions in the region.  What we hope to do is set a new standard for how museums operate in our part of the world – and how we meet our audiences and talk about and present our content.

What qualifies Hong Kong to become the No. 1 art location in Asia?

I could never say that it is definitively “the No 1 art location in Asia”… But Hong Kong has some advantages, such as freedom of speech, an open, international climate with its “double” cultural identity, a great location in the region and comparatively good finances.

What impact does such a project have in the global art scene? Is the impact foreseeable? What factors does it depend upon?

To a large extent is this not something you can predict. But already now can we sense that the major museums in the West – and elsewhere – are interested in M+ as a potential future collaboration partner, representing a growing global recognition for the project as well as for Hong Kong’s art scene.

Do you think it is a challenge to prepare Hong Kong's peoples' mindsets for such a gigantic art project after having lived in an urban environment that put crudely was a vacuum for arts accessible to the wide public.

In some way it is. Compared to performing arts, the Hong Kong public has had more limited exposure to visual culture – at least to contemporary art. But there is a great curiosity – which can be seen from the extraordinary visitor numbers from both Art Basel and our own Mobile M+ projects. Inflation! received over 150,000 visitors during its run – which I believe shows a remarkable hunger for contemporary art in the city. In a way we are in the same position as those who started to create a museum scene in Los Angeles in the 1960-s – with the only difference that due to a number of factors the situation in Hong Kong will develop so much faster.

You have been founding and directing several of the most influencial art museums of Modern and Contemporary Art worldwide. To what extend is the WKCD/ M+ project different from what you have been doing previously? How does the fact that this is the first major art/museum project that you are directing in Asia influence you in your work?

It is extremely exciting, because I have to constantly challenge the existing models that I have been part of developing. I have to listen to my staff (who is 75% Asian) perhaps even more than ever before, and to the artists and collectors here in Hong Kong and be very humble. When working in Europe it was about tweaking the existing models – here we try to create something new while remembering best practice from the West.

During the press conference before the opening of Art Basel Hong Kong you implied that it was crucial not to force an already existing museum or cultural space concept upon the WKCD/ M+ but to "look at the world from an Hong Kong perspective". How will you ensure that your approach is new and original and suitable for Hong Kong?

There is no true answer. All we can do is to be as open-minded as possible, have big ears and constantly question our own trains of thought.

The M+ approach is about a very strong public service ethos. Is that a new approach to museum culture? Do you think this will make museums/art/culture more approachable? Is this your proposition for museums of the future or do you think the M+ is unique in that respect?

No it is not a new approach – but it is not developed in all parts of the world, or even of the West, and definitely in all museums. The U.K. for example have a more public service oriented museum culture than generally in the Germanic world. But in the museums I have lead I have always underlined the importance of remembering that what you do in a museum is basically to try to optimize the meeting between the content (art, design etc) and the public – you have to make two very different parties “happy”. A museum is about excellence and access – and both are equally important. It should be a proposition for all – or at least most – museums in the future.

How do you assess the momentum Hong Kong gains as an art hub through the establishment of Art Basel Hong Kong? Will Art Basel Hong Kong influence your project?

The establishment of Art Basel in Hong Kong is of course both a consequence of a process that has been going on for a number of years while at the same time giving further momentum to this development. What it does for M+ and West Kowloon is to both help bring contemporary culture to the attention of media and a wider public in Hong Kong. The arrival of a new fair also underlines the importance of the establishment of major non-commercial institutions as a counter balance to the commercial development in culture.

Interview conducted by Dorit Papenheim

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