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Can Hong Kong pull off its grandest arts project?

An inflatable sculpture called 'Complex Pile' by American contemporary artist Paul Mccarthy on display at West Kowloon Cultural District, Hong Kong.
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An inflatable sculpture called 'Complex Pile' by American contemporary artist Paul Mccarthy on display at West Kowloon Cultural District, Hong Kong.

A 51-foot high replica of dog excrement and a gigantic blow-up cockroach may not have seemed the most auspicious figures with which to launch Hong Kong's ambitious West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) project.

But based on the 150,000 visitors that flocked to the waterfront spit of reclaimed land to view the provocative sculptures at a 2013 teaser exhibition, the signs were good for WKCD, the huge infrastructure and architectural project Hong Kong is building to promote the arts.

The friendly public reception would likely have come as a welcome relief to the WKCD Authority, the body that oversees the project, because it had endured some trying years since the WKCD vision was announced in 1998 as a way to help Hong Kong shake off its image as a shipping port where generating cash was the only attraction.

A taste of just how tough it had been to bring the project to that point in 2013: The initial plan unveiled by Foster & Partners, the celebrated London-based architecture firm that won the tender in 2001 to design the WKCD, was dumped in 2005 amid public criticism of its extended canopy.

The WKCD has also battled construction delays. The first substantial building works began only in 2014, on the Xiqu Centre for Chinese opera, the M+ modern-art museum, a park and an Arts Pavilion. A year later, they remain largely construction sites. A second round of construction is now on hold while a high-speed-rail terminus at the WKCD is built.

And facilities envisaged for a third stage of construction, including a concert hall and musical theatres, have no definite timetable for completion. A 15,000-seat arena has been shelved due to the lack of money, according to reports.

Leadership has been another trouble spot. The project's first executive director, Angus Cheng Siu-chuen, appointed in 2009, resigned less than two weeks after taking up the role. His replacement Graham Sheffield, former artistic director of London's Barbican Centre, was appointed chief executive in 2010 but quit just five months after starting the job in 2011.

Michael Lynch, the former Sydney Opera House boss, succeeded Sheffield as CEO but resigned earlier this year, citing personal reasons. The task to run the construction show and appease critics and artists now falls on Duncan Pescod, who replaced Lynch to become the WKCD's third CEO in six years.

Pescod, formerly the WKCD Authority' chief operating officer, is an experienced Hong Kong civil servant, familiar with the territory's political arm-wrestling and administration. And unlike his two predecessors, he does not have an arts background.


Pescod notes that commentators should remember the project's starting point.

"We are not going to compete with London, Berlin or New York," he told CNBC. "They have been established for many years. They have been developing their culture and arts for centuries not just decades. We have got to be looking at what we are doing in the context of which we are developing."

Funding had also been a sore point. In 2008, the Hong Kong legislative council approved a HK$21.6 billion endowment to pay for construction of the project's performance venues, but the cost estimate more than doubled to HK$47.1 billion after the authorities re-evaluated the project in 2013.

"Funding is going to be tight, it is going to be difficult," Pescod admitted in a recent interview, but added that bold moves were on the cards to generate additional capital. These plans include cooperation with other organizations, plus sponsorships and fund raising programs.

"Frankly I am more interested in working with skeptics because if we can convince them we can convince anybody," Pescod added.

The WKCD's troubled background has allowed questions to swirl as to whether such a monumental enterprise could ever stimulate original art, or whether it would end up only as a legacy of overarching state ambition.

"As the district struggles to materialize, the questions grow as to what it is going to be and what it is going to do," Michael Keane, a researcher on Chinese media and creative industries at Perth's University of Curtin, explained.

"There is a real risk that it will become an iconic place but artists won't identify themselves with it. As time goes by, local residents are losing interest and getting tired of the whole thing."

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Some prominent local arts commentators, including Mathias Woo, who is the arts director of theatre company Zuni Icosahedron, and arts blogger Vivienne Chow, have pointed out that the large sums being spent on the WKCD's eye-catching venues would be better used as funding for arts projects.

In fact, the Hong Kong government has been successful in transforming buildings that had fallen out of use into arts spaces. The Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre now houses 140 artists in a former factory, while 2016 will see the opening of the old police headquarters and an old fruit market as art centers.

Desmond Hui, a management consultant who worked on the original WKCD plan, attributed the project's difficulties to flaws in the original management plan. Hui did not, however, rule out eventual success for the WKCD.

"If you look at the world cultural capitals, it is always a continuous and organic process of growth and additions of art facilities," Hui told CNBC. "That doesn't mean it is not possible to have a kind of all-for-all, comprehensive project like the WKCD. But we still need to see how successful they will be in delivering their vision of cultural development to the city."

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Acclaimed British artist Luke Jerram recently launched a city-wide campaign called Our Hong Kong, Our Talents - Play Me, I'm Yours, that offers free access to 16 pianos in public locations until the end of the year.

Jerram said that no matter where an arts hub was located, government support was key - an element that still needed some work in Hong Kong, he added.

"It is more about the authorities, what they support and what they might allow to happen within a city," he said. "Public art often needs curators, it needs risk-takers to commission and support large scale public works that can really transform and take over a city and I think that is probably something that that can be improved on in Hong Kong."

However, there are green shoots of growth already evident in Hong Kong's cultural scene.

"In Hong Kong, the creative and cultural industry is one of the fastest growing sectors of our economy," Pescod told CNBC. "Since 2010 to 2013, something like 9.5 percent growth, that's fantastic and honestly it shows the government's commitment, it shows that this is something that Hong Kong really does very well."