Dr. Lars Nittve (*1953), the founding Director of London’s Tate Modern and former Director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, is now heading the M+ Museum of West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) in Hong Kong. Spreading out in the 40 hectare wedge-shaped waterfront reclaimed land, the district will feature numerous theatres, concert halls, other performance venues and a museum complex (named M+) which focuses on four elements – visual art, design, moving images and popular culture. The first phase of the project is expected to open from 2015.

Arriving 6 months in the project, Dr. Lars Nittve is ready to share with us his ideas in planning and positioning the new museum enterprise which will play an important role in shaping and (re)defining the ideals of a contemporary art museum in the 21st Century, in particular, in the Asian context.

Selina Ting [ST] : You started your career in the Art as an art critic. But art criticism has been a particularly weak area in Hong Kong’s art scene. There is no professional art magazine; newspapers and popular magazines are not interested in art and culture. Yet we all know the importance of art criticism. After six months working in Hong Kong as the head of the future M+, how do you see the situation?

Lars Nittve [LN] : My general feeling is that visual culture- or art has been long time in the shadow rather than on the top of cultural ladder, and that of course affects art criticism and art journalism in general. Since art criticism is basically event-driven, when you seldom see any world-class exhibitions here in Hong Kong, there is no driver, or no reason for publishers to increase the importance to art journalism.

ST: I have been reporting on art events from Europe since 2005. It’s equally true that we seldom see a Hong Kong artist selected or presented in an international group show. Unlike Chinese artists or Indian artists or Latin American artists, Hong Kong artists are very much marginalized, even ignored in the international art scene.

LN: I recall a question once a politician asked me during a private conservation, “so, are there any artists of stature in Hong Kong?” It’s very interesting because if the question is about “good artists in Hong Kong”, my answer would be that there are as many good artists in Hong Kong as there would be in any place with 7 million inhabitants, say in Europe or the US. But artists with “stature”, meaning with international recognition, then it’s true that we have fewer artists that are seen and recognized by the outside world when compared to other developed countries with a similar size of population, for example Finland or Belgium. But the reason for this is a lack of platforms where these artists can be seen, have exhibitions or participate in international group shows; places with a status in the international art world. If you do a show in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, which is one of the most recognized museums in the world, your work will be noticed by the professionals in the field because people are paying attention to what’s happening in that museum. Here in Hong Kong, we don’t have the equivalent. We have good artists but they are not yet seen by the rest of the world, and they don’t get many chances to test themselves against fellow artists from other places.

ST: Is the Government looking for a good quality museum or a museum with an international stature?

LN: This is quite interesting because one of the amazing things with the WKCD is that, there is the general suspicion that this is a tourist project. The interesting thing is that, it is not. When I was approached by the Authority, I was given a paper written in 2006 by the Museum Advisory Group. It is a very smart, forward-looking and challenging paper. It’s really about creating a museum both with a strong public service ethos and a vision to set new standards in Asia and to rethink the ideas of what a museum should be in 21st Century in Asia. I believe the aim is really of creating a museum with good quality rather than another tourist destination. What we imagine is a museum equal to the leading international museums in the West but with a Hong Kong and Asian perspective. So, we are looking at the world with the same solidity but from another perspective, and challenge the prevailing idea of what a museum is.

It’s really about creating a museum
both with a strong public service ethos
and a vision to set new standards in Asia
and to rethink the ideas
of what a museum should be in 21st Century in Asia.

– Lars Nittve

ST: When we look closer at the local art scene, we see underdevelopments here and there. Are we really ready for this challenging role? Based on what can this museum with solidity and new perspective take shape and functions?

LN: The most important things are ideas and people. Who can we get on board and with what kind of background and knowledge? What strikes me is that, even though we have difficulties in recruiting the right people for the most senior levels, if you look at people in their early 30s from Hong Kong, Singapore or even Mainland China, you will find energetic and experienced people who can build this team. We have a team of 6 people now and 5 to 6 years to build this model before the M+ opens with a staff of some 380 people. It takes time and we have to do it carefully but I am quite confident with this.

ST: What about the public?

LN: I think the biggest challenge we have here is not the public per se but Hong Kong people’s lack of trust in other Hong Kong people’s cultural interests. I hear this again and again that Hong Kong people are just interested in money and shopping and they don’t care about culture. But if you go to the Fotanian Open Studio day in January, you would see tens of thousands of people finding their way to the warehouses to visit artists’ studios. Another phenomenon is the art fair which recorded 70,000 visitors in 3 days this year, which means 20,000 visitors per day, and most of them were there not to buy but to see contemporary art.

ST: What’s going on in the art fair or in the art market doesn’t really reflect the actual art scene in Hong Kong.

LN: That’s what happens in Basel as well. I agree with what you say, but my point of view is that these events are a bonus. It helps to create excitement and interests in art in Hong Kong even though they take place in a commercial context. Also, it creates self-confidence for both artists and galleries. You see some local galleries are expanding or renovating their space, new galleries move in, such as Gagosian, Ben Brown, and White Cube. This is a positive effect that helps in many ways. It’s an added bonus. But of course it’s not the result of the artists’ practices in the studio, just as little as the Basel Art Fair is because of the Basel artists. It’s the result of coincidences. But I think there is much more of a hunger for visual culture than you perceived from the attendance figure of the local art museums. When there is a solid, challenging, interesting museum with a rich content but also respecting the public and creating a situation where the public feels comfortable being there, you would see how expected attendance figures are totally exceeded. I have experienced this in Tate Modern where the actual attendance number exceeded the anticipated figure by three times, and most of the people had never been to a museum. I can very well imagine such thing happening here in Hong Kong. The key is to respect the fact that the more you know, the more you see and the more excited and involved you become, which of course is the same for sports or anything else in the world. So, I think I am more optimistic than most Hong Kong people I met.

ST: In terms of programming, how can you bring art closer to a public who has very limited prior experience and knowledge of art?

LV: We will start with Hong Kong art which will be the core. There is already an element of recognition as most of Hong Kong artists are making art that reflects Hong Kong life. They don’t reflect Chinese life but a very local particular kind of life and history. Then we will expand the focus to include Pearl River Delta, China and Asia. Even though the public would feel very new because the whole museum experience would be very different from what they knew before, there would be enough signals for them to relate to, so they would not be totally destabilized, as they might have been with the foreign history. I think this is very important. What we would develop in the coming years is also on the concepts of how to curate art and how to talk about art in Asia. I don’t think we can just copy the museum models in the West. We are not creating another Guggenheim museum here but doing something for and out of Hong Kong. I think we have to respect the fact that the history of museums is very short here and the concept of art is different, we should try to do something for Hong Kong and for the Asian situation but looking out on the rest of the world.

Besides, we have two starting points. The first point is that we are not only looking at art but at a larger visual culture where different aspects (be it moving images, design or architecture, etc.) take place within the art field, and takes on different meanings moving in and out of that field. The program will operate from the expanded concept of art but will still give space for the specific history of each discipline. The idea is not to do what MoMA does, i.e. working with separate departments, but instead to achieve and work with integration as much as we can while respecting the specific histories. Art production in Hong Kong is rather multidisciplinary. Many artists have double-careers and they are equally respected as artists and as graphic designers or architects. This is almost impossible in the West because you would never be trusted as an artist if you came out from the design industry.

The second point of departure is the collection: Hong Kong as the core and expanding to China, Southeast Asia, Asia, the West and the rest of the world. We should build the best collection in the world of Hong Kong art and attempt to be comprehensive in our Chinese art collection. We have to be totally specific about what we acquire when, for example, looking at American or Latin American art, so that it makes absolutely strategic sense to the core of the collection.

ST: What do you mean by being totally specific? Can you give an example?

LN: Theoretically, if you want to buy a Rauschenberg, for example, you should look for probably the work he made in China in the 1980s when he had a strong influence on the contemporary artistic practices in China at that time, as he was more or less the first Western artist to show in China. He was there for quite a long time and he did produce work there. This makes more sense than just having any Rauschenberg piece in the collection.

ST: Just now you mentioned the very specific Asian context in terms of art concept and museum experience. Do you personally find it a challenge to face an unfamiliar context which is very different from your European experience?

LN: First of all, let’s be honest, yes, it’s a challenge, but a very interesting challenge. I have to respect the fact that I am here not because I am an Asian expert but that I have some solid experiences and knowledge in building or transforming museums. But I also have to be respectful and open to the fact that there are aspects that I don’t know, and therefore provide as much space as possible for rethinking the perspective.
Think of the case of MoMA in New York. It opened in 1929 but really became what it is in the 1940s and 1950s. When you look at America during these decades, economically and politically, it was becoming the world power. However, the cultural situation was also very elite with a small audience base. With the new confidence they gained, they redefined the ideals and roles of art museums. What they did was totally new and different from the European art museums and they became the role-model for the decades to come. We are not aiming at repeating the situation, but in a sense this is quite a stimulating thought-model, because we are perceiving a similar kind of shift of world order in terms of economic and political power, and the recognition of Asian cultures.

ST: There is also a vacuum in museology itself today that we are still searching for the model of a MoCA, like what you just said about MoMA in the 1930s.

LN: It’s of course impossible to say which model is the right one for a contemporary art museum when art is changing and the field is so diverse with different artistic practices. The museum has to be prepared to anytime rethink what it is and redefine itself. It’s a moving target. But yes, I definitely think that there is vacuum, especially that kind of museum that works well here. There is really no museum in Asia that formulates or creates the necessary platform for the negotiation of new understandings of the world through art. Hong Kong is such a special place in terms of freedom of expression, a functioning legal system, a very solid administration, and a very outward-looking population with histories of immigrations. For all these reasons, I think Hong Kong is probably the best place in Asia to create this kind of new museum model. That’s what attracted me to the project as well.

Hong Kong is such a special place in terms of freedom of expression, a functioning legal system, a very solid administration, and a very outward-looking population with histories of immigrations. For all these reasons, I think Hong Kong is probably the best place in Asia to create this kind of new museum model.

— Lars Nittve

ST: What about the idea of building a permanent collection? Given the elusive nature of contemporary art, does a museum of contemporary art need a collection?

LN: I think that building a permanent collection is still valuable for a contemporary art museum. If you compare with the Kunsthalle type situation, what you miss there is the pedagogical effect. If you do temporary exhibitions and at the same time provide the audience with a permanent collection where they can find a sort of resonance, they can better understand the historical context of the exhibition. There is always a wonderful dialogue where the exhibitions rewrite the meaning of the collection and the collection affects the meaning of the exhibitions. For the regulars of the museum, they can develop a relationship with individual works in the collection over time. I think there is a great value in this. Also, the permanent can be less permanent when it comes to certain types of work. You can co-own digital art, video art, and even paintings or sculptures, with other institutions. Besides, if you see it from a pragmatic point of view, the collection is your currency if you want to do loan exhibitions. So, if we can build a really good collection, it would be an asset to the coming decades in our negotiation for loans with other museums.

There is always a wonderful dialogue where the exhibitions rewrite the meaning of the collection and the collection affects the meaning of the exhibitions.

– Lars Nittve

ST: In the long term, would the collection be a burden? Like that kind of dilemma MoMA faced when part of the collection became historical. I recall Gertrude Stein’s comment in early 1930s on Alfred Barr’s museum ideology that “one could either be modern or a museum, but not both simultaneously”.

LN: I think there would always be the dilemma. It’s something that I have been living with in a sense because I have been running museums with this kind of collections. I think you have to be prepared that at one point, it’s time to close the book and start anew somewhere else. I think MoMA was approaching that situation in the 1970s when conceptual art became more and more important and the museum collection was quite weak in the root of conceptual art. Basically what they could do, which almost no other museums could, was to rewrite their own history, and this worked because they had and still have so much muscle. They opened the book again by introducing new streams into their history. In Stockholm we have had the same discussion. It’s one of the few collections in the world that can tell a chronological history of modern art. But if that collection hadn’t had the luck to own a very strong collection in Marcel Duchamp (it’s the second largest Duchamp collection in the world), Francis Picabia and Surrealism, which are aspects of historical modernism that have been very productive in recent years, they would have been forced to close the book at some point. Of course, there’s a point when the beginning of the story and the end of the story doesn’t belong to each other, then I think that’s the moment when you have to do this. But I should also underline that I really don’t agree with Stein – I think the key to the success of the idea of the museum of modern art as a model is exactly the paradox she points at. The friction creates a great energy!

ST: What about the Hong Kong Art collection that you are planning? What period will be the beginning of the story?

LN: I would say probably our collection would go back to the late 1970s. I think it would be many decades before the book would be closed. If you look at the 1970s and 1980s, this is the moment when the whole idea of main stream disappeared and when great variety was available and present at the same time. This means that when you collect, you have to be very cautious with saying that this is The History of the time. You have to be very open. When you keep the history very open, when you don’t tell history in the modernist way, then the chance that the collection would be relevant in time would increase. So, this is not really what I worry about. The one thing you know about art is that you can never predict where it goes. That’s the only thing we know.

ST: I imagine that due to lack of collecting habits, lots of work from the 1970s and 1980s are dispersed. It would be difficult to track them.

LN: That’s partly true I think. The Hong Kong Museum of Art has been collecting Hong Kong art. If you look at the collection of Luis Chan, for example, you find ten or fifteen works. But that’s quite possible that the works are not so well kept and the lack of collector tradition also affects this. We have to adjust to that situation but I am sure your description of the situation is right.

ST: You did a tour in Europe in June and you gave a talk in the Art Basel. What are the reactions from the international art world?

LN: From what I heard and what I saw, I think there is an amazing excitement about this project. My feeling is that there are some collectors specialized on Asian art, who are basically waiting for a museum that they can trust to develop in Asia, which might be the future home for their collection when they get older and don’t want to burden their children with the collection. I think many collectors specialized on Asian art want their collection to stay in Asia because they built their fortune in Asia and they feel close to Asia. I think there is also trust from my colleagues in the art world who believe that the project would go well. So, it also based on individual relationship and trust because right now we only have what we say we are.

ST: In 2008, you curated a show and published the accompanying catalogue Time & Place: Los Angeles 1957 – 1968 (Stockholm: Steidl). I was thinking that there are similarities between the two cities in the sense that when the market wasn’t that strong in L.A. at the period, the artists were doing work for themselves in a very tough situation. I found the similar mentality among the Hong Kong artists in the sense that they have a strong sincerity and integrity in doing work for themselves, reflecting their pursuit in art and not for the market…

LN: This is a very good observation! I haven’t thought of it myself. I haven’t made this kind of comparison but you are absolutely right.

ST: I think that was what going on before there is an art market. Something that I don’t feel comfortable with is that, returning to Hong Kong after two years of absence, I saw new and young artists whose work looked so much the same as some well-known artists from the West. I understand it as an easy way, a short-cut into the market.

LN: I think it’s a good observation but I won’t get depressed because of that. It’s quite common and that’s how young artists develop their own language at one point. I think it’s a really good observation because… you have also asked this question about the exoticism of Indian and Chinese contemporary art and how it works internationally. I think this has to do with several things, some collectors actually wanted to be seen as paying credit to these economies because they have business relationship with these countries, and the same for museums and galleries in a sense. But it’s true that Hong Kong artists has a much trickier situation in terms of being seen immediately and internationally because they don’t have that kind of external driver. Here artists can’t work in large scale because of limited space; they can’t have assistants because it’s too expensive. The production situation is totally different; the local market situation is totally different. And you have the colonial history which also affects the total cultural situation. This created the situation we talked about where artists can have two roles at the same time – they develop their very personal language in their practices. That’s true that it’s quite similar to L.A. from the 1950s to the 1970s until the market hit L.A. It’s true that both L.A. and Hong Kong artists have similar difficulties in being seen internationally because their art is not so easy to package. It’s sliced between different positions and their position is very individual. At the end of the day, it’s a great situation.

ST: Thank you very much!

Aerial shot of WKCD. © WKCDA.

About Lars Nittve
Lars Nittve (*1953) is a Swedish museologist and art critic. Between 1979 and 1985 he was an art critic on the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet and during the 1980’s a regular contributor to Artforum magazine in New York.
Nittve was Chief Curator at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm 1986-1990, Founding Director of the Kunsthalle Rooseum in Malmö (1990-1995), Director of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (1995–1998) north of Copenhagen in Denmark. In 1998, he became the first Director of Tate Modern in London, England which opened in 2000. 2001-2010 he was the Director of Moderna Museet, the national museum for modern art in Stockholm. He is current the Executive Director of “M+” visual culture museum in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District.

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