A Bid for Culture in a City of Commerce

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

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Ed Jones | AFP |Getty Images

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.

While most overseas museums have small gift shops or cafes, it is hard to imagine a Guggenheim or Tate being officially linked to a mall.

West Kowloon: HK's New Art Center

The justification is that revenues from the restaurants and shops will feed back into the project as arts funding. Unlike overseas cultural facilities that receive long-term government support and grants, West Kowloon will get one lump sum and then be left to its own devices.

“Most art projects in the world basically lose money and require subvention,” said Mr. Tang, who formerly was Hong Kong’s finance secretary. “We have a financing model in which the retail, dining and entertainment income will be under the management of the authority and help fund the arts side.”

The plans have sent nearby property prices soaring, while local artists complain of being priced out of studio spaces in neighborhoods like West Kowloon. There is also unease over what is seen as a cozy relationship between the government — which technically owns all of Hong Kong’s land — and tycoons and property developers.

Alice Poon, a columnist and author of “Land and the Ruling Class in Hong Kong,” has written about West Kowloon from the viewpoint of its being a property deal.

“In the case of West Kowloon,” she said, “the government is seeing arts facilities as a way of enhancing land values in this area — or, at least, that is the perception many people have.”

Then there’s the eye-popping price tag.

“In the context of building an arts and culture hub, it is a large amount of money. Other places in the world don’t talk about those kinds of sums,” Mr. Tang said. “But compared to other infrastructure projects in Hong Kong, it is not expensive. The high-speed rail costs more than double.”

The new train line — which, at 66.9 billion Hong Kong dollars, is projected to be the world’s most expensive per kilometer — drew wide protests over its price and the fact that a local village would be demolished to build it.

The line is part of a grand plan to create a direct link from the Chinese mainland to Hong Kong’s new arts-shopping-dining-luxury-hotel extravaganza.

The government envisions an attraction for the greater Pearl River Delta region, which includes Shenzhen and Guangzhou, two Chinese cities with populations pushing 10 million each. The idea is that Chinese tourists will come out of the terminal and see a glittering cultural center with the water behind it.

“There will be a 270-degree view of the harbor. No other site is more spectacular than this one,” Mr. Tang said.

There is general agreement that Hong Kong’s existing arts facilities are inadequate.

“There are not enough venues, not nearly enough,” said Tisa Ho, executive director of the Hong Kong Arts Festival, which sold out 160 of its 180 performances in advance this year. “There are acts we would love to bring to Hong Kong but cannot.”

“There is no major performing arts group in this city with its own dedicated venue,” said Yip Wing-sie, the Hong Kong Sinfonietta’s music director, who also sits on one of the West Kowloon district’s boards.

Still, some worry whether the city has the artistic bent to fill all the new buildings with meaningful content.

“There has been much concern over whether we’re just building hardware instead of software, and in that regard, we’ve done relatively bad P.R. work in telling people what this museum should be,” said Mr. Nittve, the new executive director of West Kowloon’s 40,000-square-meter, or 430,000-square-foot, M+ museum, which will display international contemporary visual culture.

Mr. Nittve, who started work in January, will have four or five years to hire and train 400 staff members and build a collection of artwork.

“I’ve never built a collection entirely from scratch,” he said. “It’s really fun. Very few museums have this much money, but when you’re building something new, your needs are endless.”

Mr. Nittve said he was at liberty to collect what he wanted from auctions, galleries, other museums and even new commissions. And he noted some of Hong Kong’s advantages.

“We have the freedom of speech here. We can show things that can’t be shown in mainland China or Singapore,” he said. “We’re connected to the international scene. And in terms of customs and taxes, this is a much easier place for moving artworks in and out.”

The overriding feeling is one of anticipation.

“The train is going to be starting to move,” Mr. Nittve said. “This project has been so long in the coming — 12, 13 years — and now it’s starting to happen.”

“We needed these venues yesterday,” said Ms. Ho, the arts festival director. “That said, I’d rather we get it right than get it fast.”