After a faltering start, there is a renewed spring in the step of one of the world’s most ambitious cultural projects. Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District, a spectacular plan to build 17 arts and cultural venues next to the harbour of Asia’s buzzing city-state, is, if not quite up and running, gently warming to its task.
Architects are already competing to design the complex’s first building, the Xiqu Chinese opera venue. And this month came the announcement of a large donation of Chinese contemporary art, which will become an impressive centrepiece of the district’s M+ museum of visual culture, due to open its doors in 2017.
The HK$21.6bn (£1.8bn) West Kowloon project has provoked the kind of scepticism from onlookers that seems to greet any grandiose cultural initiative. The championing of artistic excellence and cultural enlightenment can be an awkward conversation-stopper when the hard talk is of a world dipping in and out of recession and the need for belt-tightening. But finally Norman Foster’s elegant master plan is moving beyond the conceptual stage.
If there has been a turning-point in the perceptions surrounding the scheme, it perhaps coincided with the appointment of Michael Lynch as the district authority’s chief executive just over a year ago. “I have only ever worked next to water!” he tells me with a palpable sense of excitement, having arrived in Hong Kong after highly successful spells in charge of London’s Southbank Centre and the Sydney Opera House.
“In a sense, they are stealing the experience of all my previous careers,” he says, not entirely seriously, of his new employers. Lynch, an affable Australian who took over his post after the abrupt resignation of Graham Sheffield, former artistic director of the Barbican centre, knows all there is to know about the relationship between art and the majesty of a waterside view.
But he would be the first to admit that it takes more than bobbing boats and architectural sketches to make great cultural centres, and he hails the donation of more than 1,400 art works by Uli Sigg, the Swiss collector of Chinese contemporary art, as a “significant step” towards establishing the world-class credentials of the WKCD. The collection has been valued at HK$1.3bn by Sotheby’s and comprises the work of some 350 artists.
Lars Nittve, executive director of M+ and formerly the founding director of London’s Tate Modern, says he “pinched himself” when he heard of the award. “It is a phenomenal gift, and like a dream for me,” he says. “Ever since I started this job I have been thinking about how you start a collection for the museum from scratch. But if you think of all the world’s major museums, they have almost all started with the help of three or four major donations.
“Many collectors are happy to see their collections in national museums. It was my job to convince them that a museum which did not yet exist could be that place. Uli Sigg has put an enormous amount of trust in us.”
Sigg, deputy chairman of Swiss media company Ringier, has said it was always his hope that his collection would return to China, describing its accumulation as “an incredible journey whose most intense core has been formed by so many encounters with Chinese artists”.
His collection is notable for early pieces, created between 1979 and 1989, the first decade of the Chinese contemporary art explosion. Many works from this period have been destroyed due to lack of interest from collectors and institutions, yet they are highly sought after in a market that has become increasingly attracted to today’s Chinese artists.
“In many cases you see artists who are trawling through art history,” says Nittve of that first generation of Chinese practitioners. “They worked through the major phases like cubism and surrealism and then beyond. Pop art and [Marcel] Duchamp played an important role [for them] in conceptualising art, underlining that the image can carry meanings in many different ways.
“Uli is a collector who started with a deep interest in Chinese art because he saw it as a way of being able to understand China’s fast development. He first came to China in 1979 and started to collect, but it took him more than 10 years before he got a grasp of what was happening, and realised that this was art history in the making.
“His donation means that we are in a position to tell the world about the birth of contemporary art in China. We will have the definitive collection. It is not so dissimilar to the way that [New York’s] Museum of Modern Art tells the history of early modernism.”
Nittve says the Sigg collection will form the core of a museum that already has radical intentions. The opening of M+ is an opportunity, he says, to rethink how art is presented in museums. “The western history of art and its museum tradition is actually very short. There are different traditions of looking. For example, ink art was never looked at as paintings on a wall, only in scrolls. We want to exploit some of that freedom in rethinking presentation. It is uncharted territory.” He imagines that up to 80 per cent of the work in the museum will come from Asia, and half of that would be from China and Hong Kong. It is not mere parochialism, he says.
“This is a chance to look at the art world from a perspective other than Paris or New York, from an Asian perspective.”
Nittve uses the build-up to the founding of Tate Modern, which coincided with the giddy rise of the British contemporary art scene, as a reference point. “In some ways the situation here reminds me of London in the 1990s, when contemporary art was quite far down the cultural hierarchy. And then a group of artists had the self-confidence, the cockiness, to break through, and they became internationally recognised.”
He is talking of the Young British Artists’ generation, which suddenly pushed art on to the media’s agenda. “They used some tricks that hadn’t been seen before.” The attention of the public triggered the interest of collectors, and the die was cast for the extraordinary art market boom of the past 15 years.
The establishment of the WKCD also makes an existential point about Hong Kong itself. Its uneasy status since the handover from British rule in 1997 means that the eyes of the world are sharply trained on its artists.
“There is a very high political awareness among Hong Kong’s people, and its artists,” says Nittve. “It is not that they feel they have to do things that cannot be done in mainland China. But they tend to be cutting edge, politically and formally.”
He emphasises that, unlike some other grand cultural initiatives in the world that are blatant attempts to attract tourism, the WKCD will be there for the Hong Kong people. That priority can be seen in the objectives listed on the venue’s own website. High on the list is: “To uphold and encourage freedom of artistic expression and creativity”; in 14th, and last, place is: “To strengthen the position of Hong Kong as a tourist destination”.
“There is a very strong public service ethos here. The government never talks about it as a tourist project. It is for the people who live and work here. It made a strategic decision not to create a Guggenheim museum. It is something that has a clear Hong Kong identity.”