The mission to build Asia’s MoMA

HONG KONG, March 23: Hong Kong’s art week has come to an end, and for the majority of the 223 participating galleries at this year’s Art Basel Hong Kong, the artwork is packed up and spirited out of the city for another year.

Like much in this money-oriented town, commerce rules Hong Kong’s art scene.

With an influx of satellite branches of some of the world’s best galleries, including London’s White Cube and New York’s Gagosian, zero export taxes and a wealthy elite at home and across the border in China, there is clearly a market for art here.

Art Basel, which wrapped up Tuesday, is the jewel in the city’s art calendar.

A four-day extravaganza that packs in tens of thousands of visitors, it is one of the world’s most visited art events. They get to gaze at the best the world’s commercial galleries can offer — for the few days it’s in town.

The event, along with the galleries that line the city’s Hollywood Road and populate its Sheung Wan district, is hugely popular, but there is a difference between seeing a work that is essentially transient — when some rich person buys it it will be gone from public view forever — and feeling a sense of cultural proprietorship over works that are here to stay.

“Imbalanced ecology”

The director of M+, a contemporary art museum being built on a prime spot on the city’s harbor front, wants to give Hong Kong a collection of world class art that can be seen day in and day out.

“If we look at the art world as an ecology, it’s a very imbalanced (one). And imbalanced ecologies aren’t good — they usually don’t last long,” Lars Nittve, former director of London’s Tate Modern gallery, told CNN on the fringes of Art Basel.

One collector, quoted in a Quartz opinion piece about Art Basel sums it up.

“It’s like being given this huge buffet banquet and being told ‘you have two minutes — eat all you want.'”

Nittve, however, is quick to see the positives of even having the buffet to begin with.

“It’s much better to eat than not eat at all, right? And I think you acquire a taste for things that you might not have had before, because it is a big buffet.”

He says Hong Kong’s appetite for art has been whetted, largely thanks to these commercial ventures, and now there is “clearly” a need for other types of venues, where what’s on show isn’t dictated by the market.

Reaching a balance

“It’s really to reach a balance, to make it possible for people to look at art without the price tag, that’s the trick. There has been a market for art for 200 years, it’s part of the system but here it’s imbalanced.”

Luckily, however, for the city’s culture vultures, there is a permanent solution on the horizon, and may change the way the city sees itself.

The long-awaited West Kowloon Cultural District was first announced back in the late 1990s and its centerpiece, the M+ contemporary art museum is designed to be the preeminent collection of 20th- and 21st-century art in the region, with Nittve at the helm.

He says that he was approached in 2010 with the brief to create the “museum that Asia doesn’t have.”

It is hoped, not least by Nittve, that it will rival Tate Modern, New York’s MoMA and the Centre Pompidou in Paris in terms of the breadth and importance of its collections.

“If you look around Asia there are some good museums, especially in Japan but there is no museum that has that standing.”

Art ambition

Funded by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) government and supplemented by donations, it is an ambitious project.

Its collection — funded from a HK$2 billion ($258 million) public purse — will be housed in a brand-new, purpose-built Herzog and DeMeuron designed structure on the waterfront, and will boast twice the floor space — 60,000 sq m (646,000 sq ft) — of the already-cavernous Tate Modern, allowing for some truly ambitious projects.

Ground broke six months ago on the HK$5 billion ($645 million) site, which is expected to be completed by 2018 — two decades after the plan was first mooted. It will open to the public the following year.

The focus, naturally, will be on contemporary Chinese artists, says Nittve, but will cover art and wider visual media, including architecture and design, from around the world.

Global, local — and Chinese

“We’re a global museum but obviously rooted in China,” he says. “You look at the world from where you are. Here I hope you won’t doubt that you’re in Hong Kong, in China, in Asia, but also in the world.”

Nittve’s team of curators has already acquired the beginnings of the permanent collection, around 4000 objects, art, design and architecture for the permanent museum.

Nittve says they have spent about HK$350 million already, and have have received donations of substantially more — HK$1.3 billion.

Endowments so far include, thrillingly, the Uli Sigg collection, “universally recognized” as the largest, most comprehensive collection of Chinese contemporary art from the 1970’s to the present. It contains works by leading artists including Ai Weiwei, Yue Minjun, Zeng Fanzhi and Zhang Xiaogang.

Innovative collections

The space will also house the first architecture and design collection of its kind in Asia, and the Shiro Kuramata-designed Kiyotomo sushi bar, de-installed from its original Tokyo location, will be an eye-catching element to this.

Hong Kong has long touted itself as a “world city,” but in reality operates in somewhat of a cultural vacuum, with the city’s museums coming second to commercial ventures like the art fair, galleries and auction previews — Hong Kong is one of the world’s preeminent centers for art auctions.

It is hoped that M+, along with a number of other cultural projects, will right this — and hopefully pave the way for Hong Kong to truly embrace its cultural side.

“I don’t think M+ or West Kowloon (can make Hong Kong into a world city) on its own. I think you need a rich cultural fabric, because that’s really what’s lacking, because besides that Hong Kong is a totally amazing city, I would say.

“It’s great to get a museum of this caliber, concert halls, but you need other voices.”