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

Part two 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 part one of Grace’s interview, check it out here.

Lars Nittve (Image: Magasin3)

Jing Daily (JD): I remember from 2006-2008, Art Basel had a special “Art Conversation” program discussing the future of the museum. It was done by region: future of museums in USA, in Europe, in Asia, in Latin America. You were one of the panelists in some of these programs, and now you are really creating a museum for the future. What kind of example would you like to set for the future?

Lars Nittve (LN): I think there are many answers to this. I think that a museum has to be aware of where it is. I don’t think you build the same museum in Hong Kong as you build in Rio de Janeiro, and I don’t think you build the same in Minneapolis. You have different traditions, different audiences, and different contexts, and that, to some extent, should also shape what the museum should be, how it should put itself together. It has to do with what this museum has to do, what is critical about this museum, in Hong Kong, in this part of Asia right now.

I think it is critical that we create something that, from a museological point of view, is top standard. That means, in terms of how we manage the works of art, how we present them, how we light them, in terms of climate, and security, and art handling, and storage, and registration, is absolutely top-class, to start with. And I think there are museums in Asia that are good at this, but there aren’t many. Even on that basic level, there is a need for role models and some who set the standards and show how things should be done in order to preserve the works for the future and to respect the artist’s intentions.

The next aspect is to create a museum which respects the artist’s intentions in terms of how it shows, how it talks about art, how it presents the works of art. But at the same time, being aware of the fact that a museum creates a meeting place between the art and artist and the public. You try to optimize for two parties. To optimize for the artists and their work is one thing, and at the same time, that’s about being uncompromising and really not be too comfortable. It’s about excellence, really, and never compromise.

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)

At the same time, making everything accessible for the public is absolutely critical. There can be some perceived conflict between making things very accessible and understandable, and the vision of the artist. Something that I talked about before: that as a visitor, you should feel that it is actually for me. It is not actually for the others, but I have a right to be here.

That has to do with so many details in a museum, and I think that, generally, Asian museums are really bad at this. You have a feeling that either they’re created because some one has the idea that a city or a society should have a museum, so let’s build a museum. Or they’re built in some cases because a property developer wants to create a jewel in their crown; a museum could be a good marketing tool for that to make it a really up-market area. Or you do it for some sort of political prestige reasons, [for example] if a mayor is about to retire. And usually you feel that museums are not there for public service reasons, they’re not built for the art and for the public, they’re there for other reasons. So you have to create a sense that this is for the people who live and work there.

And the next step in creating that sense– and this is the really big challenge– is to create a museum which has public trust. Where people believe that we who work in the museum, what we do, what we collect, and what we show, and what we say about the work that we show are using our expertise to say that this is the most important thing to show at this particular time.

JD: Did you feel this challenge when you were working in Western museums?

LN: Everywhere. But I think public trust is the single most important factor for a success of a museum.

JD: Do you think in Hong Kong that’s particularly important? I have heard public here were against this project because they don’t feel they need such a museum. Unlike in Beijing, it seems people in general feel such a need.

LN: I think you can feel that here as well, now and then. I think the critical thing here is to create public trust.

JD: [Trust around] how their tax money is spent?

LN: No, but it’s not about that. What is important is that people feel that if we decide to make a certain exhibition, we say that this is really important, this is super important and we’ve put a lot of effort into this – that we don’t do it because there has been political pressure for us to do it, or we do it because we need to earn money, or because the sponsors want to support this, or they didn’t want to support something else. They shouldn’t suspect that we did it because someone paid me off, the gallery paid me off, so I got a sum of money.

Famed collector Uli Sigg donated over 1,000 works to the M+ Museum last year

I think that things like low levels of corruption, freedom of expression, rule of law – these are absolutely critical, key factors for creating public trust. But also that you have a governance that is independent enough that there is sufficient transparency and accountability, so people understand why we are doing what we’re doing. So there are ways to criticize us, and there is some one who is visible, and who is responsible.

I’ll just take a Hong Kong example. If you are, for some reason unhappy with what the Hong Kong art museum is doing, it’s very unclear who is responsible for what they are doing. There is a chief curator who, in a way, holds their own as a director. But if the chief curator really is not totally responsible, because he or she reports to some one in the Leisure and Culture services department, who reports to some one in the Leisure and Services Department higher up, who reports to someone in the Home Affairs Bureau, who reports to the Chief Secretary, who reports to the Chief Executive. And of course you can never say that the Chief Secretary is responsible for what the museum does, so you have no transparency. There is not a single person who is responsible for what happens. In a situation like that, it’s very hard to build public trust.

So that’s a lack of accountability, because you don’t know who’s accountable. So anyway, all these things are absolutely critical to success for a museum. And most of these things, I think, are very hard to achieve in most parts of Asia, actually, and I think that Hong Kong is very well-positioned to do this, because we do have rule of law, we have very little corruption. We have freedom of expression — even though we have to fight for it now and then, we do have it here, and it’s in our basic law. And there is a chance that this museum can have, also, another level of transparency and accountability and have a governance that’s similar to, say, Tate, or something like that.

JD: The museum is funded by the government entirely?

LN: In terms of funding, it’s the Hong Kong government that has given a sum to the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, which is an authority that is arm’s length’s distance from government. And the plan is that the museum, in its turn, will be an independent subsidiary to the authority, with its own board and its own sort of government.

JD: Meaning you have to do private funding later?

LN: No, the funding model is put together like this: that government has given the authority, the land, and HK$22 billion to build the buildings. Then we also have the right to develop and build restaurants and shops, entertainment spaces, and cinemas, and to use the revenue from the rents to subsidize the museum and the theaters.

So there is now a very, very elaborate financial or economic model where we define what will it cost to run the museum in 2017, when we open with a staff of 400 and an exhibition program like this, so we’ve budgeted everything. And then we sort of put that into the economic model, and at the same time, there are shops and restaurants and so forth that generate these rents, and then that becomes the whole economic model.

It’s put together so that the museum should be able to run on its own without outside funding, but I’m sure we will look for corporate sponsorship, for example, for exhibitions, in the same way as any other Western museum does. I’m sure we will have HK$1.7 billion for the collection, but the collection is a black hole, you can spend endlessly on it. Even though $1.7 billion is a big sum of money, there is basically no museum in the world, besides Qatar, probably, that has that kind of money right now. So we’re quite well-funded, and we will always go and look for more money, but it’s not like we’re not heavily dependent on it.

Zhang Xiaogang’s Hong Haizi is one of the works Sigg donated to M+. (Sotheby's)

JD: So the income from the restaurants and shops, to great degree, will cover the operating costs, even acquisitions.

LN: Yes, future acquisitions.

JD: And do you have to take care of all of that?

LN: No, I just have to take care of the museum part of it.

JD: So some one else will take care of it?

LN: Yes, well, West Kowloon Cultural District Authority is a big operation with lots of theaters, and opera houses, Cantonese Opera houses, experimental theaters, and dance companies, and so forth, and the other part will function in a quite different way. But because they are a little bit like garages for existing venues. So the concert hall will, of course, be used by the Hong Kong Symphony Orchestra, and the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, and by the Hong Kong Chinese orchestra. And the Lyric Theatre will be used by the Hong Kong Ballet, but also by other companies and other orchestras and other dance groups. And they will be using them on a more ad hoc basis, but yes, that will be a big operation which manages the park, the retail dining and entertainment, the whole operation.

It’s somewhat similar to the Mass Transit Railway (MTR, Hong Kong’s subway system — ed.). The MTR is basically paid for by all the shops and restaurants in the stations.

JD: Do you think this model is very different from the museums in the West?

LN: Yes. It’s a quite different model, I don’t think there is any such model in the West, and I think there are two reasons for it. One is that it sort of fits Hong Kong’s traditions, with, as I said, the underground. The MTR costs almost nothing to ride, but it’s not paid for by taxes, because they pay so little taxes in Hong Kong. They build small shopping malls around the underground stations, and then they lease out these shops, and the income from that subsidizes the running and the continued construction of the subway. So it is a proven Hong Kong model that has tended to work, but also makes the authority, as a whole, and the museum more independent from shifts in the political climate.

If there’s a new government that’s not interested in culture, it doesn’t matter so much, because you have yourself contained, your financing is already working. So they made the decision to solve this in one go.

JD: That’s interesting, as it seems, in some ways, this new model will inspire the West. You are bringing the best experiences from building the best museums in the West, but in America or even in Europe, so many museums are struggling for budgets today. So maybe this model can inspire them in terms of future funding.

LN: It’s possible. What we’re trying to do, on one level, is bring the best practices from the West, but to expand and adapt that, and to shift that so it sort of works in a nation context, in the Hong Kong context. But at the same time, I’m sure that what we might sort of develop here in terms of operations and ways of presenting art may very well inspire other museums here and elsewhere, and also in the West.

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.


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