• Issue
  • Mar 20, 2023

A Better Tomorrow for Art Museums in Hong Kong: Looking Back at the 1990s

Full text also available in Chinese.

Archival image of an exhibition opening at the Hong Kong Arts Centre (HKAC), year unknown. Courtesy HKAC


In December 1991, Crossover, the leading independent art magazine in Hong Kong at the time, published a statement written and signed by a group of 22 Hong Kong artists and critics to voice their discontent about the lack of support from public art institutions. These creatives and art workers, mostly born in the late 1940s to the early 1960s, were the core members of the small but vigorous avant-garde art community in Hong Kong. Their disappointment stemmed from “Too French,” the inaugural exhibition at the new building of the Hong Kong Museum of Art (HKMoA), held from November 16, 1991, to February 19, 1992, in Tsim Sha Tsui. The show was a collaboration with the Paris-based Cartier Foundation, with little-to-no relation to Hong Kong art.

Exhibition banner of "Too French: Contemporary French Art" at the Hong Kong Museum of Art (HKMoA), 1991. Courtesy Ha Bik Chuen Archive, Asia Art Archive (AAA). 

The statement and subsequent series of discussions organized by Hong Kong artists may have prompted HKMoA—then helmed by director Gerard CC Tsang—to produce “City Vibrance: Recent Works in Western Media by Hong Kong Artists” the following year (1992), as its second exhibition in its newly renovated building. Featuring 49 artists with works of diverse styles and mediums, “City Vibrance” created the first opportunity for many young contemporary artists to exhibit at HKMoA, though the exhibition was criticized for its lack of a well-defined curatorial approach and discursive framework. Critic Nigel Cameron was also skeptical about the emphasis of “Western media” in the exhibition title: “Just what is Western about works in terra cotta that admits them to an exhibition of artists working in ‘Western media’ I fail to comprehend—but perhaps it doesn’t matter.” [1]

Along with the statement, in the same issue, Crossover also published short essays by artist-designer Siu King Chung and critic and curator Oscar Ho (writing under the pseudonym of Gum Gum) on the functions of a museum and the biases in Hong Kong’s cultural policies. These texts exemplify the artists’ strong engagement in shaping the museum practices and cultural policies in Hong Kong during the 1990s.


Photo of JOSH HON (second from right) with WILLY TSAO (first from right), founder of City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC), and dancers of CCDC, at Hon’s solo exhibition, HKAC, 1983. Courtesy Ha Bik Chuen Archive, AAA.

A Collective Artist Statement on Building a Better Museum


Following the opening of the Hong Kong Museum of Art (HKMoA), the new Hong Kong Visual Arts Centre is slated for completion next April. James So, minister for culture, sports, and broadcasting, has recently claimed to review the current policies for visual arts in Hong Kong, which have undeniably impacted the city’s arts development. Judging the situation, visual art workers in Hong Kong organized the “Art Forum,” a series of meetings to reflect on the government’s policies. The following statement summarizes our discussions, in hopes of providing a reference for policymakers and art museums:

1. We need an independent contemporary art museum for Hong Kong. [2] The Museum of Art, which costs HKD 40 million [USD 5.2 million] every year for its operation and maintenance, is in effect a museum that prioritizes the preservation of artifacts. The museum’s collection of Hong Kong art takes up less than one-fifth of their manpower, space, and resources; while the majority of it is occupied by antiques and cultural artifacts. If the government values Hong Kong as an international metropolis and truly sees the importance of local arts development, they should reevaluate the biases that exist in their cultural preferences and work toward improvement.

2. We would not like to see the monopolization of arts development by the cultural bureau in Hong Kong. The government should encourage private entities and companies to participate in arts development. [3] In addition, the government should establish art funds to diversify the development in arts [4] and to support its free and open environment for expressions.

3. The public cultural institutions should improve their level of professionality and transparency regarding their decision-making process and operation. They should introduce more channels for public consultation and monitoring. When it comes to their acquisition and organization of large-scale exhibitions, art contests, and public commissions, the institutions should publicize their selection criteria regarding their distribution of resources. Due to the ever-changing nature of the contemporary art field, the museum’s advisory committee has to be representational and renewed periodically to maintain its inherent balance.

4. The city is in need of a systematic archive that documents the years-long history of its visual arts development. We strongly advise the art and cultural institutions to conduct a complete, in-depth, and systematic approach to re-organize their data and informational materials, and establish an archive and a media center for Hong Kong artists.

5. To revise the previous policy, which focuses heavily on one specific type of art, we advise the museums to facilitate exchange among artists and to increase the exposure of their works through different types of solo, group, and feature exhibitions.

Portrait of CHOI YAN CHI, circa 1992. Courtesy the artist.

Portrait of JOSH HON with his work at his solo exhibition, HKAC, 1983. Courtesy Ha Bik Chuen Archive, AAA.

Participants of the Art Forum:

Kurt Chan
Choi Yan Chi
David Clark
May Fung
Fung Man Yee
Oscar Ho
Ho Siu Kee
Josh Hon
Kong Kai Ming
Kwok Yan Chi, Jackie
Lau Kin Wai
Li Wei Han, Rosanna
Liew Come Tong
Mak Hin Yeung
Ellen Pau
Siu King Chung
Tang Wing Chi
Tong King Sum
Matthew Turner
Yeung Sau Churk, Ricky
Wong Shun Kit
Wong Wo Bik

Portrait of SIU KING CHUNG with his sculpture, 1987. Courtesy the artist. 

The Functions of a Museum—Recalling Western Traditions


The inauguration of Hong Kong Cultural Centre boosted the city’s pride in its prosperity and culture. With its unique and exquisite architectural design, the building was erected at the waterfront, thriving with the image of a new age. What does it symbolize? What has it brought to the citizens? Perhaps a sense of self-esteem for their culture?

Hong Kong has been a colony. We are so willing to mimic and import products, including concepts and philosophies, from the West, but we refuse to study or dive into the knowledge in depth. In general, most of our social establishments lack historical depth despite their grand appearance. Is this new cultural center simply another existing example of this phenomenon?

Exterior view of HKMoA in Tsim Sha Tsui, which opened to the public in 1991. Courtesy HKMoA. 

The idea of a “museum” or a “cultural center” is not a new one. It originates from ancient Greece from around 200 to 300 BCE. Formerly known as “the House of the Muses” or “mouseion” in Greek, this religious space (also a “cultural center”) houses nine goddesses, who are in charge of epic, music, poetry, history, oratory, love, comedy, tragedy, dance, and astronomy. This space is a public hall, encompassing a restaurant, garden, meditation space, lecture hall, legal court, observatory, library, and collection of biological specimen and artifacts—all managed by a priest. Collections, research center, and spaces for higher education are combined in one, gathering scholars such as astronomers, mathematicians, writers, and doctors for their discussions and academic research, which are the main activities within the hall. Partially influenced by Aristotelian theories, the establishment of these facilities echoes with the beliefs that one must learn through observation; that facts must be the foundation of a scientific mindset; and that knowledge must be categorized based on logic. Perhaps this is why the Greeks collect different types of objects and books for the public’s pursuit of knowledge.

Do the cultural institutions in Hong Kong follow ancient Greek traditions? Are they perceived as educational spaces for the visitors to absorb the knowledge of humanity, through providing in-person encounters with the objects and artifacts? Or even through facilitating dialogues and thoughts? Are Hong Kong museums as scholastic and ideal as the Greek museums?

In the 1960s and ’70s, Hong Kong imported the concept of the “museum” and broke ground on its construction. But once again, the historical knowledge and practice are omitted, deliberately or unnoticeably. Do museums have a clear set of criteria on acquisition and preservation? How do they organize the collection? How do they categorize each object based on research and rules of logic? How do they transform the objects into displays or educational materials?

Interior view of HKMoA before its renovation in 2015. Courtesy HKMoA.

After ancient Greece and Rome, the idea of “public museums” fell into silence for a few hundred years. During the Middle Ages, temples became the space for the collection of artifacts. After the Renaissance, collecting artifacts and art became an activity for the rich and the royals, as the political, economic, and social order evolved again in Europe. “Gabinetto” in Italy and “Wunderkammer” in Germany were at the time spaces for private collections. They emphasized the collector’s sense of taste, but at the same time developed a system of categorization and organization, which made the concept of “collecting” more systematic and academic. In a time when rationalism emerged, the act of collecting is human’s attempt to overcome the chaos of nature. The encyclopedia was also introduced in the same era, which also proves this point.

The ideal museum, as an extension of “gabinetto” or “Wunderkammer,” naturally inherits their traditions. But how does Hong Kong absorb and apply this knowledge from the West into the reality? As both a cultural product and a system under a certain type of socio-political order, the museum functions on its operator’s directions and aims. Without a clear direction or a timely target, this system would lose its positive effect, and the importation of “museum” will inevitably fall flat. When it comes to the function of museum in Hong Kong society, all related parties will have to work harder on reaching toward our own definition.

Photo of the opening ceremony of "City Vibrance: Recent Works in Western Media by Hong Kong Artists" at HKMoA, 1992. Courtesy Ha Bik Chuen Archive, AAA.

Imbalance in Cultural Policy


The emergence of art represents not only an individual art worker’s creative production, but also a result of a series of an individual’s activities under a social structure. This social structure, at its bare minimum, should include the following: conditions for creation (art and cultural training, information and economic support for creation); promotion of art (promotion of cultural venues and exhibitions, textual materials such as publications, art critics, and media); and the appreciation of art (such as educating the public, including art education within the educational institutions). It is only when all parties coordinate, then a healthy art ecology is possible. As a result of the uneven distribution of government resources and a lack of comprehensive understanding on arts development, some parts within the structure are overdeveloped while other parts are lacking in support, which eventually has led to an imbalanced state.

Installation view of "City Vibrance: Recent Works in Western Media by Hong Kong Artists" at HKMoA, 1992. Courtesy Ha Bik Chuen Archive, AAA.

I wonder if the government’s recent investment in arts is related to the approaching 1997 handover, as their plans tend to focus on building large-scale exhibition spaces, including the newly built, gigantic Hong Kong Cultural Centre and the HKD 200 million [USD 26 million] Museum of Art. The advantages of these pieces of “cultural hardware” are spoken through their grandiosity and immediate, apparent influences. Moreover, the attempt of constructing these cultural institutions to represent Hong Kong art in the heart of the city further demonstrated the British government’s effort to maintain a rich cultural scene for its colony before its retreat.

But is it really a pressing matter to build these many sites? Or is it just bluffing for the sake of vanity? Are there enough programs and exhibitions to fill these spaces? Even so, are there enough art professionals to discover local talents and provide fair opportunities? Are there enough educational programs to cultivate the audience base so that these arts activities become meaningful events, rather than a blind worshipping activity?

Exterior view of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui. Photo by Joybot. Image via Wikicommons.

Among all sectors in arts development, the exhibition venue is often in the spotlight, as it whets the appetite for grandiosity. But the liveliness on the surface cannot cover up the weakness behind it. It is only when the exhibition is meaningful to the audience then its value can be fully realized. (I do not believe that art carries absolute value inherently.) Thus, art training for the audience becomes important, which includes the interpretation and promotion of art. The most important of all is art education in primary and secondary schools, which can possibly be the starting point of the entire development in arts. But we all know how little effort has been put into art education in Hong Kong.

The main problem today is that the current cultural policy lacks a macroscopic understanding of cultural development in Hong Kong. The reason for it is perhaps a lack of policy makers with professional training (especially training in the sociology of art). Another reason could be that the existing cultural policies are unable to comprehensively regulate the needs of all sectors in the cultural industry. As the 1997 handover approaches, officials have also become short-sighted, since training artists, reforming art education in schools, and improving art appreciation among the public all require long-term but inconspicuous efforts that might take more than a decade of hard work before we eventually witness their fruitful results. Under such an “apocalyptic” state of mind, faith and genuineness that extend beyond 1997 are rare.

Exterior view of HKAC before its renovation. Courtesy HKAC

So is it a waste of resources trying to build magnificent architecture? Has the HKD 200 million in taxpayer money been spent effectively and responsibly? How much does it affect the growth of local arts? Would it be healthier if the money was spent more evenly across the board?

Even if the investment pours into exhibitions, why should it be spent on simply one institution? The past performance of the Hong Kong Museum of Art was only mediocre at its best. For those who are interested, it is easy to realize the standard of the museum if you compare the manpower and resources spent across the cultural institutions in Hong Kong, such as the Chinese Cultural Centre, the Heritage Museum at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and the department of exhibition at the Hong Kong Arts Centre (HKAC), as well as the number and quality of their exhibitions and publications. Is it appropriate to direct such a huge amount of funds to one institution? 

Portrait of WONG SHUN KIT with his work at "City Vibrance: Recent Works in Western Media by Hong Kong Artists," HKMoA, 1992. Courtesy Ha Bik Chuen Archive, AAA.

The best environment for culture to develop is one that encourages diversity, where different mediums and creative approaches can flourish and find their ways of expression. It is unrealistic to expect one cultural institution to meet the needs of all genres and mediums, and the government should push for the emergence of art institutions of different types to ensure that the needs of all parties are met. The art world’s fierce response to the inauguration of HKMoA reflects its concern on the institution, which did not present any outstanding achievement but nonetheless expanded so rapidly and dominated the local scene.

Instead of physical grandiosity or glamor, a truly meaningful cultural policy for Hong Kong should be based on a long-term plan that considers the needs of all parties and balances the development of all sectors, designed specifically for local talents and demands. What it requires is not a superficial effort to endlessly produce cultural “white elephants,” but professional training and foresight that is more profound.

Photo of the exhibition invitation to "In Search of Art," curated by OSCAR HO, at HKAC, 1990. Courtesy Ha Bik Chuen Archive, AAA.

[1] Cameron, Nigel. “Young stars show their artistic integrity,” South China Morning Post, April 18, 1992, p. 23.

[2] The government can look for a new location for the independent contemporary art museum, or to display HKMoA’s Hong Kong art collection at the Visual Arts Centre and cultural facilities in each district, by way of forming a grid. The government should also use the resources solely and independently on local arts development.

[3] For example, lift the tax for “supporting public art development,” which has a precedent in Western countries.

[4] In addition to promoting established art categories, the government should discover and cultivate new art or new media, which would boost creative work outside of the art market.