Illustration by Ping Zhu.

After an Education in Art, What Next?

Hong Kong
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

As the academic year begins, and students arrive at, or return to, their chosen institutions with high hopes for their pursuit of knowledge, I feel a sense of anxiety that some might consider inappropriate at this time of such promise. 

I have been professor of Fine Arts at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) since 2001, and currently also serve as the director of its art museum, which acts as a teaching museum for the university. For over a decade, I have witnessed each September’s entrée and each June’s exit. Our department trains undergraduate and postgraduate students in different areas of creative art, including both traditional Chinese and Western art, as well as in art history, focusing on the study of historical traditions in Chinese art in particular. Although we are one of the smallest departments in CUHK’s Faculty of Arts, we still graduate more than 30 students each year.

I am not overly anxious on behalf of our BA undergraduates, who form the bulk of each year’s departing class. They have invested a relatively short time (usually three or four years) toward their studies, and have reasonably realistic expectations about their options after university, which include further studies or work. Nor am I too worried about our MFA postgraduates—as aspiring artists, who are undertaking only two additional years of training, they tend to be aware that a long and arduous road lies ahead. Similarly, young MPhils in art history may continue to study, or join commercial galleries, auction houses or art publishers for years of paid apprenticeship, without feeling unduly compromised. 

But what about those doctoral students who have spent an additional four or five years (and sometimes even more) in rigorous academic seminars, field research and conferences, and in completing the dissertation that is the summation of all their years of hard work and critical thinking? What does Hong Kong have in store for them when they leave university with their PhD diplomas tucked proudly under their arms? Very little, I’m afraid.

Unlike larger countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom or many European states, Hong Kong’s late start in the development of art history as a discipline means that career opportunities for trained art historians are limited. Among Hong Kong’s eight tertiary institutions, only two have dedicated programs in art history. The Fine Arts department at CUHK employs four full-time professors, and a number of adjunct and honorary professors, and all these positions are in Chinese art only. The University of Hong Kong comes a close second in faculty numbers, although positions include non-Chinese artistic traditions. Other institutions embed art history within the broader disciplines of cultural or East Asian or Chinese studies, often accommodating just one or two art historians. The total for faculty positions in art history within Hong Kong is thus severely limited, and this problem is further compounded for local graduates by these institutions’ preference for employing PhD graduates who have been trained abroad. Young scholars often have to wait decades for positions to open up, usually when current members of the faculty depart or retire. 

Another career option is museum curatorship. Hong Kong has just one government-run art museum, the Hong Kong Museum of Art (the future M+, which is due to open in 2018 as part of the West Kowloon Cultural District, does not yet fall into this category). The local practice of recruiting curators as civil servants means that holders of PhDs and BAs are treated alike in their initial recruitment and appointment, with similar salaries and duties. No recognition is given to the added years of training in research and critical thinking that come with a PhD degree. Curators are seen as administrators, not scholars; they are valued (and often promoted) for their ability to navigate the labyrinth of bureaucratic procedure, not for their ability to conduct original research. This practice is also followed by university museums. There is little incentive for an administrator-curator to conduct research and initiate exhibitions or related programs—they are not expected to do so, and bureaucratic barriers may even prevent them from attempting to do so.

By contrast, Hong Kong’s graduates are highly regarded elsewhere. Mainland Chinese students compete ferociously for the few PhD places at Hong Kong institutions because they are welcomed back home with open arms upon graduation. Our department has placed PhD graduates at Fudan, Zhejiang, Suzhou and Sichuan universities, as well as at the Palace Museum, Beijing. Another PhD graduate is currently senior curator at Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum.

To promote awareness and understanding of art in Hong Kong, we must remedy this dearth of opportunities for local graduates. It may not be easy for universities to expand art history programs overnight, but an easy fix would be for museums to give PhD art historians due recognition, recruiting them as the intellectual equals of university teaching staff. Museums teach, just like universities. And, unlike universities that educate only a select minority, museums teach through exhibitions and related programs that are open to a wider public. One of the world’s largest public educational bodies is a collection of museums—the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

As Hong Kong strives toward an enhanced identity in the arts, and devotes huge sums of money in developing the West Kowloon Cultural District, it needs to invest as much in building up a local audience for these cultural institutions. Increasing recognition, respect and rewards for scholarship in the arts would be a fine beginning.