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A Bid for Culture in a City of Commerce

HONG KONG — This is a fast city, where skyscrapers go up in a blink and neighborhoods are transformed overnight.

It is also a rich city. The budget set aside for new cultural development would be the envy of any arts administrator: 21.6 billion Hong Kong dollars, or about $2.8 billion, to build 15 performance venues, a museum, an exhibition center and a giant park on some of the world’s most valuable undeveloped waterfront property.

And yet the 40-hectare, or almost 100-acre, site reclaimed from the South China Sea in the 1990s for this purpose is still empty, except for a walkway and an orange sign advertising a “West Kowloon Cultural District” that does not exist.

The years have seen international attention come and go. The heads of the Pompidou Center in Paris and the Guggenheim Museum in New York once visited with charm offensives, hoping to build branches here, but interest petered out. Endless plans were rejected, like one by the architect Norman Foster to build the world’s largest canopy.

Hong Kongers rolled their eyes at the delays, red tape, bloated budget and executive shuffling. But finally this year, the government seems to have jump-started the moribund project.

During the Hong Kong International Art Fair last month, more than 100 visiting art-world luminaries were taken on a cruise to see that promised plot of land, guided by Lars Nittve, a founding director of the Tate Modern in London and now the new head of West Kowloon’s proposed contemporary art museum.

Two days later, it was announced that Michael Lynch, the former head of the Sydney Opera House and the Southbank Center in London, would be West Kowloon’s new chief executive.

He replaces Graham Sheffield, formerly of the Barbican in London, who was appointed the project’s head with great fanfare last year but quit after only four months.

Most important, the government decided in March on a concrete plan — another one by Mr. Foster, minus the canopy — and a deadline. Construction should begin in 2013, with the park opening by 2015 and the first phase of the art facilities later that year. Performance venues are not expected until 2017.

The idea for a grand artistic overhaul emerged around the time this former British colony was restored to Chinese control in 1997. Amid criticism that the city was a “cultural desert,” the new Hong Kong government countered with a plan for a money-making, prestige-building “cultural hub,” a catchphrase that has lasted through the project’s twists and turns.

Hong Kong has no facilities that come close to the iconic theater districts, opera houses or museums of New York, London, Paris or Tokyo.

Cultural infrastructure planning really began only in the 1970s, with concert halls built in the 1980s. The last major performance venue to go up was the Hong Kong Cultural Center, which opened in 1989 to criticism that it overlooked one of the world’s great skylines but lacked windows.

“This will put us on the same stage as New York and London,” Henry Tang, Hong Kong’s chief secretary and the chair of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, said in an interview. The fact that Mr. Tang is also the region’s second-ranking government official reflects the prominence of the project.

One criticism is that part of the government funding will support newly built shopping, dining and entertainment facilities, with the expectation that their management will go to one of the city’s rich developers. The arts area will also be connected to a controversial new rail line, as well as the International Commerce Center skyscraper and a luxury shopping mall, both of which opened in the past few years.

This unusual bundling of state arts funding and commercial enterprise plays into Hong Kong’s image as a shopping haven, not a center for high culture.

- Joyce Hor-Chung Lau, New York Times
June 6, 2011

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