Trends Fairs Museums China

Museums for the many is Hong Kong’s new mantra

M+’s pop-up inflatable sculpture park in West Kowloon is part of a wider push to make contemporary art more popular and accessible

Paul McCarthy's Complex Pile, 2007, has helped generate a buzz about the planned West Kowloon Cultural District (below)

Two days of heavy rain late last month flattened Paul ­McCarthy’s just-unveiled 51ft-high, 110ft-long Complex Pile, 2007. Installed on the site of what will become the West Kowloon Cultural District, a US$2.8 billion project, this inflatable sculpture, in the words of the curators, “mocks its picturesque surroundings and pokes fun at the prudent qualities of public sculpture”. Deflated, it looked like a brown mess on the ground, and images quickly began circulating on Hong Kong Facebook accounts, making people even more curious about what was going on at the stretch of reclaimed waterfront.

Alongside the ersatz excrement were other inflatable works, including Jeremy Deller’s Sacrilege, 2012, a Stonehenge-shaped bouncy castle that visitors could jump around; Cao Fei’s House of Treasures, 2012, a huge suckling pig; and Tomás Saraceno’s colourful solar dome, Poetic Cosmos of the Breath, 2013. These were all part of a pop-up project by M+, West Kowloon’s planned museum of visual culture. The exhibition, “Mobile M+: Inflation!: A (Con)temporary Sculpture Park”, which runs until 9 June, weather permitting, is big, bold and eye-catching enough to draw crowds keen to find out what the fuss was all about.

The show did accomplish its mission of getting Hong Kong talking about M+, reminding people that culture can be fun, and in a way bringing the territory’s residents closer to contemporary art.

At school Hong Kong children learn only about traditional Chinese arts, such as ink painting. With no contemporary art museum in the city, the question about M+ has often been: who is this art for?

“In Hong Kong, as in many other Asian cities, visiting museums is definitely not an everyday activity for the public. And the public has good reason for this reluctance since, in Hong Kong, ­museums remain spaces reserved for esoteric interests,” writes Oscar Ho, a critic and the director of the Cultural Management programme at the ­Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“The works collected and displayed, whether Chinese antiques, ink paintings or Western art, have little if anything in common with the cultural experience of the general public,” Ho continues. “To estab­lish a museum with sufficient meaning culturally so as to generate public engagement represents an important challenge.”

As metro­polises around the region build museums and fund cultural events, more effort is being put into priming the public to become the audience for contemporary art. Museum authorities too are increasingly having to think about audiences, both current and future.

In Hong Kong, efforts to whip up an appetite for new kinds of art have been made by a variety of ­government and private bodies.

Hong Kong has an Art Promotion Office, which is a part of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department that runs all the existing museums. (The department will not operate M+, which will be under the quasi-independent West Kowloon Cultural District Authority.)

Hong Kong’s culture community recognises that audience-building for art is an urgent task if it is to have the more dynamic future envisioned by the ambitious investments using public money.

After M+, Oi! in North Point, a district where many factories used to be located, is one of the most high-profile projects to be supported by the Art Promotion Office. A Grade II historic building that was originally the clubhouse of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, Oi! will be a location for youth-oriented art activities and education. It is administered by the Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation in collaboration with the Hong Kong Women Workers’ Association.

The independent not-for-profit organisation Asia Art Archive has a staff member dedicated to education and student outreach activities. One of AAA’s initiatives has been a series of workshops for students and teachers to set up a framework for discussing contemporary art. Over the years, this free programme has not only been ­exposing teachers and young ­people to current thinking about art but also sponsoring talks by artists and exhibitions. In April the archive held the first of its monthly “Learning Labs” workshops for students aged 15 to 18, readying them as a peer support group to spark conversation about the visual arts and facilitate exploration of contemporary ­practices.

One of Hong Kong’s most eagerly anticipated initiatives is the Central Police Station Revitalisation Project. The colonial British compound, which included a court and a prison, is being restored and repurposed by the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust in collaboration with the government. The project has already invited expressions of interest from arts groups to run the new Herzog and de Meuron-designed spaces for culture programming due to open in 2015. The plan specifically calls for education and outreach to be an integral part of the Central Police Station art centre, which occupies a rare large plot of land in the central entertainment district.

Stodgy and bureaucratic as Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department might be, it has been doing its best to make its museums more accessible. When the Hong Kong Museum of Art presented “Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal” extra care was made to involve young people. Working with the University of Hong Kong, the ­museum organised two “night camps”, which kept the show open to students from 8pm to 8am on designated dates. The response was strong—over the course of its run (16 ­December 2012 to 1 April) the exhibition drew an impressive 200,000-plus visitors.

The organisers of big art events such as Art Basel Hong Kong, are also providing education activities and talks to give context to what visitors are seeing. Getting ­people through the door in Hong Kong is in itself an achievement, given how alien the concept of museum-going-for-fun has been until very ­recently.

For art to be a vital and relevant part of Hong Kong life, the city will have to expand and elevate the interests of the general public. Growing the taste for art, or at the very least giving the public the opportunity to, cannot happen fast enough.

The planned West Kowloon Cultural District
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