Interview: Lars Nittve, Executive Director Of HK’s M+ Museum (Part Three)

The final installment of Jing Daily contributor Grace Rong Li’s exclusive interview with Lars Nittve, executive director of Hong Kong’s highly anticipated M+ Museum, which is slated to open in 2017. If you missed the first two parts of Grace’s interview, check out part one and part two here.

Lars Nittve (Image: Magasin3)

Jing Daily (JD): You once said in an interview, “M+ is Asia’s answer to New York’s MoMA.” It seems that New York back then was on a more sophisticated level when MoMA was built. What are the challenges or any conflict between keeping M+ local but at the same time achieving international ambition?

Lars Nittve (LN): I think it’s like this: I don’t think New York in the 1940s was that sophisticated. It was probably rather unsophisticated, actually, and I think that the sophisticated art world in New York was no bigger than it is in Hong Kong now.

I think it was, rather, the other way around because people didn’t travel as much, and it wasn’t as international…so yes, I think that was a pretty backwards city, but they still managed to create this thing. And I don’t think that, in the ’40s, American artists were considered that important, but they were on the brink of something great.

But I do think that Hong Kong people have a tendency to overestimate Hong Kong’s lack of culture. I think there is a little bit more culture, and there is actually a better art scene, and there are better artists and a larger audience than one tends to thinks.

The site of the West Kowloon Cultural District will be the future home of M+, and along with it Uli Sigg’s extraordinary collection of Chinese contemporary art. © West Kowloon Cultural District.

I remember half a year ago, I met one of the legislators of the Hong Kong parliament, Legco, and she asked me, “Lars, do you think there are any Hong Kong artists of stature?” And to me, that was a really interesting question because she didn’t ask me if there were any good artists; she asked me if there were any “artists of stature.” And I guess she meant “stature” as being well-known or recognized by the outside world. When I started to think about it, I think I was quite clear that I think that there are just as many really good artists in Hong Kong within a population of 7 million as you would find in any European country of the same size. Finland is a little bit smaller, Norway is a little bit smaller, Sweden is a little bit bigger, but you know, you may find somewhere between ten-twenty really, really good artists, who, with the right exposure, could absolutely be in the world arena if all the other conditions were there.

If she asks, are there artists of stature- I would say, no, Finland has many more artists of stature than Hong Kong has. And then you have to ask yourself, why is that? Why are even the best Hong Kong artists under the international radar? I think that there is a number of reasons why that’s the case, but of course one of the obvious ones is that there is nowhere they can be seen, at least easily. The gallery structure has until recently been very weak, there is no museum or art hall or Kunsthalle that has any international recognition that shows them. You know, if an unknown artist gets a show in Tate Modern, everybody in the art world basically goes: “Who is that? Never heard of him or her, but we have to take a closer look.” There is no such place here.

JD: So you think there is great art, it just needs to be seen?

LN: I think there is really good art, there is a number of really good artists, but there are few ways for them to be seen properly and professionally in places that are internationally recognized. I think that’s one aspect of it. I must say, I have been really, really positively surprised by a number of artists in Hong Kong.

But then I think the other side of it is that there is this belief that the Hong Kong audience, they just care about money and shopping and eating, basically. [Laughs] And they do care about money and shopping and eating, there’s no doubt about that, I’ve noticed! But at the same time, I think it has to do with a lack of places which are attractive for a wider audience, or a sense of a moment that, yes, let’s go and do that, let’s go and look at that.

Fang Lijun

JD: Yes, and I agree with you. I think in general, in Asia, there are a lot of people who are interested.

LN: And they learn fast.

JD: Yes, they learn fast, especially the collectors. But when I was in China, artists tell me when there was no money for art, Chinese artists complained. Now there is so much money for art, and Chinese artists complain again. Why? Because too much money come to art to speculate only. Art needs support from money. But it seems the power of money in China is much bigger than art. Between art and money, hopefully we find a way to keep the art in the center with its integrity.

LN: I absolutely know what you’re talking about, but I also think that one of the problems is that money is so unevenly distributed in the arts system in China. A handful of artists can be incredibly successful, but lots of artists have enormous difficulties sustaining themselves and making a living. And of course, if as an artist you make a lot of money, or there are areas of art that can make a lot of money, the risk that you run is that the art is fit for, or adapts to, the money.

But those things never really worry me, because I know that somewhere else, there is good art being made. And it just is that, when you have this problem, it may not be that it is the commercial system is the best at finding good artists; that’s why you need good institutions that are independent of the money and the market. Because that has happened again and again and again, especially in the last hundred years; the market has gone in one direction, but actually the great artists are somewhere else. And then, with some delay, it turns out that they are the ones that made art history.

Marcel Duchamp wasn’t the greatest person on the market, right, but he was probably one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century.

JD: But there seems always a time lag.

LN: That is why I think the institution’s very important. And the fact that the institutions have integrity and are independent and are not just driven by the market — it doesn’t have to be big museums, it can be small exhibition spaces — but that’s when they can really play a role.

West Kowloon Cultural District Authority Board Chairman Stephen Lam presenting a souvenir to Uli Sigg at the ceremony of Sigg’s donation to M+. (Image: Sotheby's)

JD: Niki de Saint Phalle once said her soul was an artist, not a museum director. It seems today, to be a great museum director, one has to have great business mind and skills as well. You studied economics, did you find that helpful?

LN: [Laughs] Well, of course, for a long time I felt that it had been a waste of time. As it turns out, now, of course, some of the things I learned, the realistic relationship to finance and money definitely was helpful. Economics came first for me, and then I moved from that into art history. So I think it was helpful.

These jobs as a museum director are very strange. You have to bring together so many difficult things in one person: you have to be a scholar, you have to be a creative person, almost an artist — as a curator, it’s close — you have to be a good leader, you have to be a good communicator and writer, preferably, and you lead something like a mid-sized corporation at the same time.

JD: Are you interested in collaborating with museums in China? Do you already have some ideas that you would like to pursue?

LN: I expect that we will have collaborations with museums in China, just as well as with many other museums around the world. It is still too early to talk about any particular projects or plans. For the years leading up to the opening we will mainly focus on Hong Kong to build awareness and audience.

JD: How do you feel about the current state of contemporary art from China?

LN: I have seen many interesting things happening in the “shadow” of the excitement around a number of the “big names.” This is the great thing with art – you may think that a very strong movement may create a vacuum after it – but this is more a consequence of us looking in the wrong direction.

Zhang Xiaogang, from the Sigg collection

JD: What kind of approaches you will take in term of collecting and exhibiting contemporary art from China?

LN: At the moment our main strategy is to see if we can attract any major collectors of Chinese contemporary art to think of M+ as a good future long-term home for their collections. But we will of course also collect in all possible ways – through galleries, auctions through commissions and so on.

JD: How do you see the future of HK on the international art scene?

LN: The obvious driver right now is the rapidly growing position for Hong Kong as the main art trade hub in Asia. In the wake of this I think that the great Hong Kong artists will be more visible than before on the international radar. With the realization of M+ we might experience something of a “London after Tate Modern and the YBA’s” moment. I simply think that there are so many things that speak for Hong Kong as the art hub for Asia in the coming 10-15 years.

JD: What kind of advice would you give to many private museums that will be opening in China in the future?

LN: Don’t forget that a museum is about long-term relationships… Have a long-term perspective! And remember that public trust is the key to success, not the big building.


Art & Design, Market Analysis