Making Do With Less: Hong Kong’s Art Development Council Faces the Future

The gap between the Arts Development Council’s goal and its resources is striking. The council has the broadest remit of any arts body in Hong Kong: establishing the city as “a dynamic and diverse cultural metropolis.” As well as promoting and supporting the development of the literary, performing, visual, film and media arts, it must also strive to raise artistic standards, foster a thriving arts environment, facilitate arts education, boost community-wide participation, encourage arts criticism, improve the standard of arts administration and strengthen work on policy research – and more.

Yet, when it comes to resources, the council is very much the minnow. In the 2017-18 financial year, support from the government was just three percent of all arts and culture spending – less than a tenth the amount the Leisure and Cultural Services Department spends on public arts performances and venues.

Most of this money goes to small and medium-sized projects and organisations. Several tens of thousands of dollars here, a few hundred thousand there; for a lucky few, a million or so. In 2017, the council’s handouts totalled HK$143 million, divided roughly between grants paid over periods of one to three years and funds for specific projects.

The biggest single recipient was the 11th Fresh Wave International Short Film Festival, which got HK$5 million, followed closely by the Hong Kong Art Development Awards (HK$4.7 million). Between them, the 36 recipients of the Arts Administration Internship Scheme shared HK$6.1 million, and HK$4.8 million went to support the council’s school ambassadors scheme.

Other funds went to support various research projects, some overseas trips and other activities, and subsidising venue rentals. But accounting for most of the few hundred items listed in the council’s annual report are what obviously must have been small-scale ventures. Picked pretty much at random, for instance, are the Hong Kong Puppet and Shadow Art Center (HK$124,800), Hung Kwong-jin’s Dejembe in the 13 Streets (HK$88,200), Fung Ngai Cantonese Opera’s Salute to Great Dragon and Phoenix Cantopera Troupe (HK$96,200), and Choi Yick-wai’s literary criticism (HK$24,000). There are a few better-known names – City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong, Videotage, Edward Lam Dance Theatre – but I suspect that beyond the immediate milieu of Hong Kong’s arts community, most people would know at best a handful of the recipients.

Yet interestingly, though handing out money is clearly what occupies the ADC more than any of its roles, that’s not what its chairman, Wilfred Wong Ying-wai, names first when asked to outline the council’s key tasks. “We have several functions,” says Wong. “One is advocacy. We advise the government on policy formulation – what arts policy should be, what artists are looking for, what the community wants. Second, we facilitate arts development. If we see a bottleneck in arts administration or arts curation we seek government funding, then try to help by arranging internships, scholarships, and so on. And third, we distribute funding to art bodies and individual projects.”

Wong is an insider’s insider. After graduating from Hong Kong University in the mid-1970s, he joined the government, serving over the next 17 years as deputy secretary for the civil service and deputy director general of industry. In the early 1990s, he moved into business, working for a variety of Hong Kong’s leading property developers, as CEO of Hsin Chong Group and, since early 2016, as president and chief operating officer of Sheldon Adelson’s Sands China. From 1997 to 2012, he was a Hong Kong delegate to China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress. Alongside all this, he’s maintained a longstanding interest in the arts, principally as chairman of the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society since 2004 and of the Asian Film Awards Academy since he founded it in 2007.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Wong sees Hong Kong’s arts scene as having developed significantly since he was appointed ADC chairman in 2011. “We’re seeing a very vibrant arts scene now, much more so than seven years ago,” he says. “Every night, if I want to, I have maybe five shows to see – drama, music, dance, Chinese opera. That wasn’t the case before.”

He attributes this change as principally due to stepped up government support – from the highest level down. “They see the value of a community that is more attuned to the arts,” says Wong. “In the past it’s always been education, medical care, security and all those daily-life necessities. But now, with its financial strength, the government can afford to look at arts and sports, and so it’s up to us – people like the ADC – to tell the government where to spend the money.”

The ADC operates through a 27-member council. 17 of these members, including the chairman, are picked by the government, and ten are elected by arts constituencies, each representing one of either seven art forms (dance, drama, film and media, music, the literary arts, the visual arts and xiqu) or three arts functions (arts administration, arts criticism and arts education). Each of the ten elected members chairs an “Arts Form Group” whose primary task is deciding who gets what funding.

In the council’s last elections, held in November 2016, anti-establishment candidates took eight of the ten arts form posts. That does not appear to have led to a more confrontational council. Rather, it appears to have further confirmed the council’s role as an advocate for greater support for the arts from the government. “In the end, we can’t change anything. We’re not policy makers, all we can do is pass on ideas and suggestions,” says Indy Lee, head of performing arts education at the Academy for Performing Arts, who defeated pro-establishment film actor Anthony Wong Chau-sang to become the drama representative.

Like his chairman, Lee sees the ADC’s role as centred on finding ways of making arts activities more sustainable in Hong Kong, be that by expanding audiences, increasing the number of venues and work spaces, finding new sources of funding or simply persuading the government to spend more. “It should all be about investment for future development – how to initiate new projects, how to collaborate with others to get resources,” says Lee.

Looking to the future, both Wong and Lee see similar challenges. One is space: affordable studios for artists, more venues and rehearsal room for performers, somewhere to store equipment and props. Another is finding further ways of securing funding, be that by extending the current one- to three-year schemes perhaps to five years or by giving groups the skills needed to find their own funding from sponsorship or other sources.

Neither explicitly mentions politics. When probed, Lee suggests that self-censorship could be an issue, but finding new audiences and coping with Hong Kong costs rank higher. Wong offers a more robust view. “As chairman, one of the things I have to do is to protect freedom of expression,” he says. “I do not censor any artistic developments. I do not pick themes,” he continues, striking a personal note. “It’s artistic value [that counts]. The examiners are told to look at [projects] from their artistic value, not their theme, not on what they say.”

Government-set boundaries, such as advocating Hong Kong independence, do exist. “But apart from those, we exercise no control,” says Wong. He also thinks Hong Kong is not coming under pressure to change from the mainland. “So far so good,” he says. “We have been allowed to develop at our own pace, and I’ve never come under any pressure as chairman about what I should or shouldn’t do,” he says.

The council’s biggest controversy of recent years may have tested that commitment. In 2016, the ADC suspended a light show installed on the outside of West Kowloon’s International Commerce Centre after its creators, Sampson Wong Yu-hin and Jason Lam Chi-fai, changed it to feature a countdown to 1 July 2047, the day when China’s commitments to maintain Hong Kong’s pre-handover way of life expires.

But Wong doesn’t see it that way. He passes responsibility for the decision to the head of the art form group which commissioned the work and the show’s curator – who in turn blamed Wong and Lam for putting at risk future possibilities of working in such public spaces.  

Wong also suggests that Hong Kong’s existing freedom of expression has allowed Hong Kong artists to extend their reach further afield than before. “This degree of freedom has enabled our younger artists to shine overseas,” says Wong, pointing to the increased involvement of artists in events such as the Venice Biennale, Seoul Performing Arts Market and Australia’s OzAsia Festival. “If there’s anything I would wish to be remembered by, it’s that I helped to push for the internationalisation of Hong Kong art. We’re no longer orbiting in our own universe. We’re in touch with China, we’re in touch with other countries, we have an international perspective.”

Playing up such opportunities seems like a shrewd move. Unlike the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, whose support for projects is mainly directed at one-off events, many of them by artists visiting Hong Kong from overseas, the ADC has managed to concentrate its far more limited resources on local projects and groups likely to exist for a while to come. High on that list is its Arts Space studios in Wong Chuk Hang, opened six years ago, due to be followed in the next few years by a community arts centre at the former Tai Po government school and an arts complex at the former Wong Chuk Hang fire station comprising studios, exhibition space, archives and a dedicated headquarters for the ADC.

By convention, a person can only serve as chairperson for two three-year terms. Wong was persuaded to stay on for a third. But he’s adamant there won’t be a fourth. Replacing him at the end of next year will not be easy. Finding someone at home with officials as he is but also able to push the general interests of the many different kinds of groups and individuals involved in the arts in Hong Kong will be tricky. An adventurous choice could help nudge Hong Kong towards a more exciting and demanding arts future. A more conservative pair of hands might better shield cultural pluralism in the city’s current political climate. Or perhaps the choice will be for something different. Whoever is chosen will tell Hong Kong a lot about the government’s vision for arts and culture in the city.

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