Square Feet: Amid Delays, Hong Kong’s Ambitious Museum Plan Takes Shape

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Some critics also wonder how much curatorial freedom M+ will be able to exert, as the Chinese government increases its sway over a former British colony that on paper is supposed to operate under its own laws.

On a broader scale, the authority that oversees the cultural district has had its share of problems. The latest surrounded the December announcement of the Hong Kong Palace Museum. Under fire is Hong Kong’s incoming chief executive, Carrie Lam, who started the project but bypassed the process of public feedback.

Officials from the authority declined to discuss the issue, but stressed that they had seen “continuous good progress on the construction of M+ over the past two years.”

The museum will look like a giant inverted T. “The upside-down T is simple,” Doryun Chong, M+’s deputy director and chief curator, said in an interview this year. “There is nothing fussy about this. There is something radically simple about having only a horizontal and vertical slab. We want to have a confident and friendly building that’s open to the public.”

The building’s name is meant to indicate that it is a museum and more. Starting with work from the mid-1950s, it will present 20th- and 21st-century Asian art, film, architecture and design with a Hong Kong perspective. It will bring visibility to Chinese and Japanese artists who are unknown today, Mr. Chong said.

Mr. Chong arrived more than three years ago from the Museum of Modern Art, where he worked as associate curator of painting and sculpture. Suhanya Raffel, the new executive director of M+, is the former director of collections at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Australia. (Ms. Raffel declined a request for an interview.)

The museum’s design team includes Herzog & de Meuron, the Swiss architectural firm behind the Tate Modern and the Bird’s Nest stadium built for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. M+’s concrete structure, with a horizontal base and a vertical tower, will total nearly 700,000 square feet with nearly 185,000 square feet reserved for exhibition space, according to Mr. Chong and cultural district officials. (That compares with MoMA’s allotment of 125,000 square feet for gallery space in 630,000 square feet of total real estate.)

Museum galleries will be in the horizontal slab while the 17-floor skyscraper will house offices, a members’ lounge and restaurants. The face of the tower will resemble a drive-in movie screen. At night the surface will glow with LED lights, displaying works of still or moving art, visible across Victoria Harbor. The edifice will be set in a grassy park with a waterfront promenade.

Public reactions to the design are mixed — some calling it sublime, others referring to it as bland. “Architecturally it doesn’t have that ‘wow’ factor,” said Fred Scholle, owner of Galerie du Monde, Hong Kong’s longest running contemporary art gallery, which has been in operation since 1974. “But it definitely conveys the fact it is a great museum that visually works extremely well with its location.”

So far curators have amassed about 6,000 items from Asia, with the majority coming from artists in China and Hong Kong. Uli Sigg, a former Swiss ambassador to China, donated 1,463 articles, and the museum purchased 47 items.

Lars Nittve, the former executive director of M+ and the founding director of the Tate Modern, secured the acquisition. He stepped down from his post in early 2016 after it became clear that the museum was going to be delayed by two years, but he remains as a consultant.


The M+ Pavilion is the first building of the ambitious West Kowloon Cultural District to be completed. Credit Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

“I have no doubt that M+ will be a museum of absolute world class,” Mr. Nittve said. “It already has an international top class team, and the collection is already amazing. Hong Kong will get the museum Asia does not have, which was the task I was given almost seven years ago.”

Citywide programs have been instilling the M+ message into public consciousness since 2012. The message reaches schools through the M+ Rover, a customized art trailer. Lectures, summer camps, exhibitions and films are also part of the promotions.

About 10,000 visitors viewed Communist Party posters and early Toshiba rice cookers in the museum’s inaugural design show last fall. Held at the 9,450-square-foot M+ Pavilion, it was the first project to be finished on cultural district soil.

M+ recently gave the public a sneak peek of its Hong Kong collection in “Ambiguously Yours: Gender in Hong Kong Popular Culture,” which examined themes of sexual identity in film, pop music and magazines.

Not all are happy with the museum’s direction. Among its critics is Mathias Woo, executive director of the experimental theater company Zuni Icosahedron and a former member of the cultural district’s arts and cultural advisory group. He said the museum did not reflect the Hong Kong voice because the executive staff was not from Hong Kong, and the bulk of the collection did not represent Hong Kong society.

“M+ is just a MoMA or a Tate, without a true Hong Kong soul,” Mr. Woo said, adding that top management had “no knowledge about Hong Kong society and Hong Kong arts.”

But Katie de Tilly, co-president of the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association, countered that few locals had experience in starting and running a world-class museum. “We need to rely on the experts,” she said.

At the same time, she added, “The Hong Kong point of view is as diverse and international as this city is.”

Also at issue is how much freedom of expression M+ will be allowed. Some in the art world say that the new entity will have more license for expression than any other museum in China.

In 2015, however, five Hong Kong booksellers involved with books that took jabs at government leadership disappeared and turned up in mainland China, with one saying afterward that he had been abducted.

“The threat to freedom of expression does exist, not only to M+ but all cultural institutions and media organizations in Hong Kong,” said Vivienne Chow, an art and culture critic and founding director of the nonprofit Cultural Journalism Campus in Hong Kong.

In her opinion, government censorship is not overt, but Hong Kong institutions often self-censor to avoid trouble.

Mr. Nittve holds a different perspective. “So far, Chinese censorship has not affected the cultural activities in Hong Kong, and hopefully that will not change,” he said. “But if it were to happen, that of course would severely damage M+. You can’t be world class under censorship.”

As a nod to its freedom, the museum previously showcased works from the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, known for his outspoken criticism of the Beijing government. M+ also displayed photographs of the bloody aftermath of the 1989 China pro-democracy demonstrations.

These same works would have been banned in mainland China, Ms. Chow said. “M+ demonstrated its determination in safeguarding artistic freedom when Lars Nittve was the museum’s executive director.”

For now, expectant eyes are focused on the swinging cranes and beams stationed on the M+ property. By 2019, it will have been 10 years in the making.

“If this proves to be what we are all expecting,” said Mr. Scholle of Galerie du Monde, “Hong Kong will have one of the finest contemporary art museums in the world, especially for Chinese contemporary art.”

Correction: April 19, 2017

An earlier version of this article contained incorrect caption information. The construction site pictured shows the future location of the West Kowloon Cultural District Art Park, not the M+ museum.

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