Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Hong Kong's Cultural Debacle

When I used to live in Hong Kong over nine years ago critics used to complain Hong Kong was a cultural desert. While the government did bring in arts groups and exhibitions into the city, not much was done to nurture the local arts scene.
It was either high-brow stuff like the Hong Kong Philharmonic and the Hong Kong Ballet that got decent funding, both of which were not bad, but not exactly world class either. At the other end of the scale was the Fringe Club in Central and the Fringe Festival that invited small amateur groups to perform and present off-the-wall events.
Now that I'm back it seems Hong Kong has a better electic mix of the arts, with independent galleries with strong shows, but also more venues that are more affordable for all kinds of people to do interesting things.
The government is finally trying to make Hong Kong more of an "world class city" by creating the West Kowloon Cultural hub, an area that isn't much to look at right now. Three architectural firms have vied to develop the space, including Rem Koolhass of OMA and Sir Norman Foster of Foster + Partners.
While the selection process seems to be taking forever considering how fast developers can build things here, another debacle is blowing up in the government's face.
Last August an Englishman was selected to head the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority to much fanfare, as he was the former artistic director of the Barbican Centre. Graham Sheffield was going to give direction and vision to the project and help lift the Hong Kong arts scene to a new level.
Instead the 58-year-old went back to the UK in December for a holiday and said he wasn't coming back due to "health reasons" and even got his doctor to write a note, saying he was "unfit to travel to Hong Kong alone".
And now we find out that Sheffield has landed another job as the British Council's arts director.
Thanks for deserting us, Graham.
An insider anonymously revealed that Sheffield had trouble adapting to Asian culture and the Hong Kong lifestyle despite having an army of staff that included two executive assistants, a personal secretary and a director of the chief executive office.
How difficult could a job like that be?

While it might be mostly bureaucratic, surely the handsome salary would have made up for it.
But more importantly his ex-colleagues at the West Kowloon Cultural project are incensed that he didn't have the professional courtesy to inform them of his new job.
So was he really ill? Or was he just trying to get away from the job?
People are demanding an explanation of what happened and why their taxpayer dollars went to a man who clearly had no vision of staying in Hong Kong.

Sounds like a lawsuit is in order, which means we probably won't hear the end of Sheffield or his "doctor".

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