Published: 00:42, November 29, 2022 | Updated: 09:40, November 29, 2022
Hong Kong needs to drive its cultural-hub agenda forward
By Bill Condon

It is reassuring to see Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu drive the agenda in relation to the role that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region can play in becoming a vibrant regional and ultimately an international cultural hub. He has correctly identified the need for greater support for the creative industries that will undoubtedly pay dividends over time. 

He has also proposed developing a 10-year blueprint so that clear strategies evolve, targets are set, and progress measured. His idea of creating a dedicated fund to cover the cost of hosting more international and local events is also commendable, and if properly curated will have the potential to attract international visitors as well as encouraging greater support for culture and the arts throughout the community. These are solid concepts that will be defined by the quality, relevance and realization of the detailed plans and ultimately the execution of those plans and the results achieved.

Key to the success of the chief executive’s medium-to-long-term vision will be the ability of the government to create an environment that attracts artists across all disciplines and provides the infrastructure required to support young, emerging and established talent. Local artists need to be encouraged to develop their creative practices in the Hong Kong SAR and have the ability to fulfill their basic career aspirations from a base here. If government initiatives and funding can create such an environment and implement appropriate immigration conditions, the Hong Kong SAR will undoubtedly become attractive to artists from the Chinese mainland and farther afield.

In general, the high cost of living is definitely a major deterrent for many artists. In the early stages of their careers, many survive on very little income, require multiple jobs and support from family to simply exist. Factor in the exorbitant rental costs of studio space and very limited opportunities to exhibit or perform, and the result is that many overseas destinations become much more attractive options. As homegrown talent is one of the key components of a dynamic and vibrant cultural scene, this is surely one of the most important aspects of focus from a government perspective. If a solution is found, then the Hong Kong SAR really can become an attractive proposition and a base for artists from other countries.

Perhaps it is worth designating “special creative zones” to support and incubate local talent and attract international talent.

Consider Fo Tan, which has evolved as a vibrant cultural area over the past 20 years and is the result of the migration of artists driven by necessity to an affordable, accessible location, and their understanding of the value of repurposing industrial buildings that had fallen into decline. Artists had the vision, and Fo Tan fulfilled the need. It has subsequently evolved as a chic, vibrant cultural district, albeit low-key and all without government support. So perhaps an opportunity exists for the government to intervene and focus on an area like Fo Tan, where solid foundations have already been laid by the artistic community. Many of the artists there are currently finding it hard to survive, so any funding or support would go a long way to protecting their livelihoods and stimulate the continued development of a truly creative hub.

Inevitably, the prospect of redevelopment looms, and timely intervention could avoid parts of the area being swallowed by more soulless shopping malls of no intrinsic value to the Hong Kong SAR. Diverting funding to support the origination of homegrown talent and content would perhaps be a sensible use of funds over the medium to long term.

A boost to the chief executive’s announcement was the subsequent announcement from Art Basel Hong Kong that its next edition will take place in March at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, with an anticipated 172 galleries representing 32 countries and territories. It is extremely encouraging to see such overwhelming support from international gallerists, but the metric used to judge success will be sales revenue generated. Most of the serious business will be transacted before the event opens to the general public. Another of the key measures of success will be numbers of international collectors attending the event. A cornerstone of the success of pre-COVID-19 events has been the insatiable appetite of the Chinese mainland collector base attending and spending. The auction houses are continually seeing records broken over recent years, and much of this reflects fund managers’ view of art as an asset class, a tool to diversify investment portfolios and a somewhat safe haven in times of economic turmoil.

It will be interesting to see if the Chinese mainland collector base continues to be the regional driving force in the market and if it turns out in numbers or if it will be overshadowed by some of the other strong regional collector bases that Art Basel Hong Kong is here to service. Some observers fear that economic and geopolitical uncertainty may have dented their enthusiasm.

The success of Art Basel Hong Kong will probably be a good barometer with which to measure the appeal of the Hong Kong SAR as a destination at the top end of the travel market. It is hard to imagine the glitterati of the international art world turning out in force without the lifting of some of the draconian COVID-19 measures that still apply to those unfortunate enough to test positive. The prospect of being tagged and treated in the same way as a criminal, albeit in the luxury of their five-star surroundings, will continue to be a barrier. Without clarity and certainty on protocols and procedures, there is a strong likelihood that international travelers will continue to leave the Hong Kong SAR off the list, but hopefully, common sense will prevail between now and March.

There is much that needs to be done to stimulate a creative culture in the Hong Kong SAR, but importantly, it is high on the chief executive’s agenda. No doubt his pragmatic approach combined with an ability to listen and understand the nuances of the situation will shift the current focus from the hardware in the direction of the software that is required to create a world-class cultural hub.

The author is an international partner and Global Advisory Board member of MilleniumAssociates AG, and director of Ireland Funds China.  

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.