Nov 06 2012

Woofer Ten Tenancy Dispute

by Andre Chan

Entrance to the Shanghai Street Artspace, run by Woofer Ten, during the group exhibition “Yau Ma Tei Self-Rescue Project and Demonstrative Exhibition,” Hong Kong, 2012. Courtesy Woofer Ten.

Property disputes are always dangerous affairs. The altercation between the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (ADC) and Woofer Ten, a local art group that currently runs the Shanghai Street Artspace, a ground floor space in Yau Ma Tei, is no exception. This location is one of many in the area that ADC has secured from the Lands Department since 1999 to provide free exhibition space for various art groups, subject to a renewal review every two years. Woofer Ten was given stewardship of its current space in 2009, on the condition that it manage the second-floor space above them for an “Artwork on Loan” project—in which artwork reproductions were lent to the public free of charge. “Artwork on Loan,” a joint project between ADC and Hong Kong Central Library, was unpopular and so was quietly terminated during the 2011/12 season. Since the project ended, Woofer Ten has been petitioning the ADC for the right to use the extra space, having operated it since 2009.

In late October, Woofer Ten’s proposal was rejected by ADC. It was rumored that one of the ADC committee members campaigned hard against the motion. Local media quickly turned their attention to Chung Shu-kun, chairman of the Arts Support Committee that allocates grants from the ADC, who is also a member of the pro-China political group, Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong. Chung told media that Woofer Ten should return the keys to the second floor since the tenancy agreement for the upper-level space had expired. Lee Chun Fung, the curator of Woofer Ten, disagrees. Speaking with ArtAsiaPacific, Lee justified his stance: “Woofer Ten has been archiving the work of local artisans and craftsmen and has been requesting extra space in a project review submitted to the ADC. Why should the ADC leave the space empty until next year while Woofer Ten has the legitimate and urgent use for the space now?”

In an open letter addressed to ADC, dated October 25, Woofer Ten characterizes the ADC’s decision as an act of oppression. Woofer Ten further demands that records of the meeting, during which Woofer Ten’s proposal was rejected, be made available for public scrutiny. There are suspicions among members of Woofer Ten and elements of the broader arts community that the retraction might be a retaliation against Woofer Ten’s emphasis on activism and political awareness in its programming.

Indeed, during the previous renewal meeting, it is reported that Chung Shu-kun warned the artists of Woofer Ten to stay away from politics. Lee told AAP that he believes the current situation marks the beginning of government attempts to prevent political scrutiny from the arts scene. Others, like artist like Him Lo, who runs the community art space Blue House in Wanchai, link it to an attack on the office of the non-government news website Hong Kong Independent Media in August, and consider these incidences evidence that liberal voices are being shunned in the territory.

The ADC declined to comment to AAP on the tenancy dispute with Woofer Ten, citing the non-disclosure clause of their meeting. Lee suggested to AAP that such black box decision-making may profoundly damage the ADC’s credibility as a government body that provides subsidies to the arts community in order to support freedom of artistic expression, cited as one of the ADC’s core values on its website.

Although Hong Kong is an art market hub in Asia, it is felt that the ADC’s substantial budget has not trickled down to local artists and the local arts community. “This should be where ADC and other government bodies invest in because they attract the least money from the private sector,” Lee told AAP. Instead, the ADC cut funding to independent and struggling organisations, such as Ying E Chi in 2011, which has promoted independent film locally and abroad since 1997.

Artists in Hong Kong constantly struggle with the ever-climbing cost of rent. It is especially true for a community art space in a prime location such as Woofer Ten. Without the government’s Shanghai Street Artspace project, Woofer Ten would never be able to operate on the scale it does now in Yau Ma Tei. When asked whether he is worried about next year’s renewal meeting regarding Woofer Ten’s current ground-floor space and if the artists have ideas for a new location, Lee said they have not planned that far ahead yet because they only have the resources to function on a daily basis.