It’s reassuring to find the Hong Kong government has not forgotten the city’s arts and culture sector at a time of coping with a major health crisis that seems to have far-reaching economic implications. In times like these, when the priority lies in fighting a highly infectious and potentially lethal disease on a war footing, probably no one would have complained if culture had to take a back seat.
However, the generous grants apportioned toward supporting arts development in Hong Kong in the SAR’s new annual budget, announced on Feb 26, must have come as welcome news to the city’s arts community. For many artists, arts managers and arts entrepreneurs, the last several months, since the anti-government demonstrations began in June, have been fraught with great uncertainties. Event cancellations and indefinite postponements were routine. Wakeful hours were spent stressing over whether shows could be held as scheduled.
The local government’s budget promises are meant to alleviate some of the tension suffered by the city’s arts community on account of the months of chaos on Hong Kong’s streets as well as the losses due to a virtual moratorium on cultural events in the city in a bid to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading in public gatherings.
For instance, a whopping HK$900 million (US$116 million) in additional funds was allotted to the Art Development Matching Grants Scheme under the provisions of which cultural organizations and artists who have already secured grants from private sponsors can approach the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC) to contribute one and half times the amount.
Moreover, HK$150 million from the government’s Anti-epidemic Fund has been set aside to help mitigate the financial impact of event cancellations. Part of this amount will be spent to pay front-line and temporary staff in different cultural groups who need to keep the home fires burning until they can start generating revenue again — once the exhibition and performance venues reopen following an all-clear signal from the Health Department. And the good news is that the HKADC, which is administering the distribution of a substantial part of this fund, channeled through the Home Affairs Bureau, will consider applications from arts groups and artists they do not subsidize on a regular basis.
The Hong Kong government’s decision to give HK$10,000 cash handouts to all its permanent residents has drawn flak for various reasons, one of them being that its impact will be short-lived. The HKADC’s plan to give a one-time payment of HK$7,500 to individual arts practitioners affected by the recent crisis could be faulted for the same reason. It’s not the kind of money that can go very far in Hong Kong.
However, it probably makes sense to see the handout to artists for what it is: a token of appreciation for those who continue to engage in creative pursuits against the odds.
In these cynical times, the real challenge facing the HKADC and other funding agencies, public and private, is in being able to offer long-term sustained support to arts groups, arts projects and arts practitioners. It’s up to them to ensure artists can continue to work at creating new works of art, whether or not they have a chance to present these to an audience just yet.
The author is culture editor of China Daily Hong Kong Editon.
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