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HongKongEcho: Is M+ the global museum Hong Kong needs?

Great cities have great cultural institutions. In that regard Hong Kong has been lacking. That’s about to change, says the woman behind the M+ museum project, who unveils her ambitions to catapult the city into a new era as a global culture capital.


“We will be the global museum in Hong Kong and we will transform the cultural landscape as a result,” says Suhanya Raffel, Executive Director of Hong Kong’s highly anticipated premier museum project M+.

Perched in the South-West corner of the enormous chunk of reclaimed harbourfront, known as the West Kowloon Cultural District, sits the humble M+ Pavilion. It’s the temporary, much smaller base for the museum’s exhibitions in the lead-up to the opening of the main museum building set for 2020.

The M+ Pavilion has been open since 2016.
(Courtesy of West Kowloon Cultural District Authority and M+, Hong Kong)

We are on location at the Pavilion where the Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint exhibition has overtaken the modest space. Earthy browns, cool beiges, neutral charcoals; a minimalist celebration of two artists and their objects. A towering artefact commands much of the space – an open wooden hexagon which feels like a stripped-back homage to a traditional Chinese garden pavilion. Raffel suggests we take a seat inside the structure for our chat.

“Despite being a great city, Hong Kong has lacked large scale cultural infrastructure,” she says in her typically hushed tones, the softness of which belies a fierce optimism. “The West Kowloon Cultural District is addressing that through the world’s most ambitious cultural infrastructure project across performing arts and museums. The government has realised that in order to be a cultural capital, as well as a financial one, this sort of investment has to be made.”

At a cost upwards of HK$21.6 billion and a total area of 40 hectares, she might just be right.


The Guggenheim of our times

What is currently a messy jumble of construction sites, the District is slowly, inevitably rising out of the ground. Aside from the M+ Pavilion – which has been operating since 2016 – and the recently opened Xiqu Centre for Chinese opera, the District will play host to a cluster of institutions unlike anything the city has seen before.

Art from above:
A birds-eye view of the West Kowloon Cultural District

(Courtesy of West Kowloon Cultural District Authority)

An Art Park – which includes a ‘Freespace’ catering to live performances – has been progressively opening to the public since 2018 while the Lyric Theatre Complex and the Hong Kong Palace Museum will ultimately complete the puzzle.

The Australian – who took the reigns as Director in mid-2016 – is assured as ever when outlining her vision for M+’s role in all this. “We’re a global museum and a very ambitious one at that.” She cites the Museum of Modern Art (New York) and the Pompidou Centre (Paris) as examples of institutions which have radically influenced the cultural narrative of their cities. “M+ will not only do that for Hong Kong, but for Asia as well.”

M+ will place Asian influences front and centre as a showcase for 20th and 21st century visual art, design and architecture, and moving image. “As an institution, we’re essential to the process of reflecting on our time and place in the world. On that note, especially in our highly globalised world, Hong Kong voices and Asian voices are not given the privilege that they should on the international stage.”

The Xiqu Centre for Chinese opera
is one of the few landmark projects that has been completed.

(Courtesy of West Kowloon Cultural District Authority)

Exactly how these voices are showcased implies a significant curatorial responsibility. That is especially the case in the politically-charged context of Hong Kong, where worries over an encroaching presence of (self-)censorship have come to the fore in recent months. But Raffel affirms that her ability to curate freely in the state-funded project remains intact. “We have total independence to bring our curatorial ideas and vision into place,” she says.

Much of that vision will see Hong Kong art inhabit the same space alongside the most prized pieces from around the world. “Until now that has never been done before on this scale,” she says. Its founding collection – the M+ Sigg Collection – is a 1,500-piece-strong selection of some of the most renowned and relevant Chinese contemporary art, the vast majority of which was donated by its Swiss collector namesake Uli Sigg.

From there, Raffel and her team have built their overall collection to some 6,000 objects with over 15,000 archival items.


Build it and they will come?

“Hong Kong is already home to a handful of museums with high quality collections,” remarks Raffel. “What the city hasn’t cultivated, however, is a culture of attending museums.”

Suhanya Raffel, Executive Director of M+, believes the project will deliver
the world-class museum Hong Kong needs.

That is despite Hong Kong’s noteworthy progress in developing a highly active international art market. Art Basel is the obvious jewel in this crown with the art world’s movers and shakers descending upon the city every March to cut deals worth tens of millions of dollars. “That’s not a bad thing, by the way,” she adds. But a museum’s role is nonetheless critical in giving balance to the cultural ecosystem.

“How we think about ‘value’ in art and culture needs to be more complex than just the financial element. That’s where a museum comes into the conversation – it’s a way of engaging with the broader public.”


Slow burner

“An active approach has to be taken to engage a local audience base, which hasn’t grown up with a world class museum on its shores,” says Raffel. The institution launched the M+ Rover in 2016 – a customised trailer, which operates as a travelling creative studio and exhibition space touring local secondary schools and community spaces.

2019 will also be the fifth year that M+ runs a summer camp for young people on the cusp of entering university to stimulate their thinking about the role of art in society and beyond.

You sense the task of cultivating and engaging an informed audience won’t faze the quiet but resolute Raffel, who was instrumental in her previous role at the Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art in taking the institution from regional backwater to international player.

“For me success will mean transforming this city. It will be a slow process, which will require some patience. But it will happen and we’ll feel it.”

Useful links

HongKongEcho: Changing the art world, one mall at a time HongKongEcho: Tourism Board plays the culture card for Hong Kong