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More than money: How Hong Kong can become a global arts destination

Wealth Planning

More than money: How Hong Kong can become a global arts destination

Feb 6, 2023

Cultivating a sustainable and vibrant ecosystem requires rethinking how we invest in the sector

Hong Kong’s bustling arts scene is far from a recent phenomenon. Over the last 10 years it has grown to a new level of urban sophistication. The recent opening of two world-class museums are prime examples, along with international art fairs and trade events, attracting enthusiasts and collectors from around the world. With a flourishing arts community, how might private capital and philanthropic funds accelerate the development of a sustainable and vibrant ecosystem to realise the city’s cultural hub ambition?

Embedding a culture of appreciation for the arts

According to industry stakeholders, museums, performance and other cultural groups are heavily dependent on public funds due to a lack of appreciation for the role art and culture plays amongst the public.

This cultural perception was seen recently by the public’s reaction when the M+ started charging visitors after providing free entry for the 12 months prior. While most people were still keen to visit, many did not wish to pay the full ticket price for world-class exhibitions in Hong Kong, yet they tended to not have such hesitations when travelling overseas.

There is a general misconception that museums are well funded. “For the longest time, the most prominent museums were run using public funds. We have yet to establish a culture of giving to museums in Hong Kong, and we must cultivate that” said Chloe Suen, a philanthropist who founded the Sun Museum, a private museum dedicated to promoting Chinese arts and culture in Hong Kong. 

The reality is that while public museums receive support from the government, private funding is equally important in enabling museums to stage new exhibitions regularly and to sustain their operations.

According to Bernard Chan, Chairman of the M+ Museum, the main operating costs for museums relate to managing collections, which includes leasing, insurance, display and storage of a collection. This is on top of the general running costs of wages, building repairs, curatorial duties, conservation, and research, just to name a few. 

A viable career choice?

Despite Hong Kong having cultivated internationally renowned artists and creatives such as Fan Ho, Alan Chan and Shirley Tse, building a career in the arts is still not widely accepted as a respectable career choice.

When Bernard returned to Hong Kong after his university education, “it was so embarrassing telling my parent’s friends that I was a studio arts graduate”. Although he had a passion for this course of study, he started to hide his major to avoid conversations about whether this curriculum would result in a reliable livelihood after graduation.

This anecdote reflects a cultural view of art and culture – one that often diminishes its value, and questions those who would take it as a career path. This is why it is important to examine the value art and culture brings to Hong Kong and how society benefits.

The social benefits 

Art and culture are not only meaningful on a personal level, but are also beneficial to the broader society – from learning and understanding history to supporting mental wellbeing and personal growth, the arts can inspire people in ways that many other industries cannot. For these reasons the sector plays an important part in bringing people together, shaping new perspectives, and solving societal challenges in creative ways. 

Art is also an excellent way to promote cross-cultural exchange as highlighted by Claire Johnson, Head of Partnerships at the French May Arts Festival, an annual arts festival put on by the Association Culturelle France. The event not only provides a platform for promoting French culture in Hong Kong, but also celebrating local artists. 

Transforming Lives

Anca Chung, who leads the performance team at the Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation (HKYAF), one of Asia’s leading performing arts education organisations shared the way the arts creates opportunities for disadvantaged and underprivileged young people in the city.

From a local girl who was given a scholarship to study performing arts in the United Kingdom to an actress who was recently cast in a leading role in a Netflix series, not only could the arts nurture talented individuals, it also enables participants to strengthen self-esteem and build vital soft skills.

One of HKYAF’s former students, a self-taught beat boxer, was always late for rehearsal because he was sneaking out against his parent’s wishes - they didn’t see the value in him pursuing a creative passion. After a phone call with HKYAF’s teachers, his parents agreed he could stay on and were later rewarded by their son’s stellar performance at the Foundation’s concert. “The boy may not pursue a career in beat boxing, but the fact that someone stood up and believed in him, instilled a sense of belonging and confidence that will be with him for years to come,” said Anca.

This shows how the arts can have a positive impact on the confidence and emotional development of young people, especially those in their most formative years.

Creating change by investing in arts education

According to Lynn Yau, CEO of The Absolutely Fabulous Theatre Connection (AFTEC), a bilingual learning organisation established in 2008 that works with grassroots schools in Hong Kong, “we need to invest in quality arts education experiences to cultivate creative thinking and enhance appreciation, enabling a higher ROI for the public and private investment in the arts.”

AFTEC has evolved a creative learning system over the years with the latest as an arts-based cross curriculum creative learning project for 10 local primary schools as well as a scheme that uses playscripts as a framework for discussion and critical thinking among secondary school students. The organisation is working with a grassroots primary school in Tin Shui Wai, in the north western New Territories of Hong Kong, where children have been inspired by Along the River During the Qingming Festival, a historic handscroll painting, as part of a project to encourage creative thinking and extend Chinese language learning via costume-making. More initiatives like these, that focus on making arts education experiential and exploratory, are needed if the prevailing perception about the arts is to change.

Alternative ways to invest in the sector

While education is the overarching framework for a sustainable arts ecosystem, it’s also important to support our local artists and galleries.

One way of doing so is for those profiting in the sector to reinvest in local talent to help emerging artists further build their profiles. Examples of how this could work include providing gallery space for aspiring artists, mentoring talent and creating opportunities for the next generation of artists to engage in creative collaborations.

Wealth owners can also explore blended finance options to accelerate the development of the sector. For instance, through the build-operate-transfer (BOT) model, they could finance the development of large-scale cultural institutions, leverage their experiences in marketing and audience development to attract patrons, and transfer their operations back to the government once those projects become more commercially viable. 

Promoting a vibrant and lasting cultural scene

Hong Kong has become a unique meeting place for the arts and a crossroads for the international community to converge and collaborate.

According to Daphne King-Yao, who has been operating Alisan Fine Arts, a gallery that focuses on promoting Chinese artists in Hong Kong and overseas, for the last 20 years, many overseas curators and collectors are excited to return to Hong Kong to connect with local and regional artists. This sentiment is exactly why Hong Kong is a hub for art, and why more needs to be done to preserve our reputation.

On the one hand, private capital is needed for education, to change mindsets about the arts from the ground up. On the other, existing cultural institutions require financing to support their operations, outreach more effectively to the public and create programming that reflects this city’s potential for cultural exchange.

With its unique heritage and strategic location, Hong Kong has an incredible opportunity to develop into an international hub for arts and culture between China and the rest of the world. The possibilities are endless and the time to support the sector’s sustainable growth is now.

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