Hong Kong's art museum aims to rival Tate and MoMA

Hong Kong's art museum aims to rival Tate and MoMA

Big vision and big bucks -- $642 million worth -- hope to tilt the world art scene toward Asia
Hong Kong art scene
M+, an art and visual culture museum with a Chinese twist, will sit next to a 14-hectare park on the edge of Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor.

A city once stuck in artistic backwaters, Hong Kong is about to get a cultural boost.

M+, a contemporary art and visual culture museum, will open its doors in 2017.

The $642 million government-backed project hopes to rival London’s Tate Modern and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Paul McCarthy's "Complex Pile" offered a tongue-in-cheek look at the kind of contemporary art M+ might house. Hong Kongers flocked to see the inflatable sculpture at a temporary exhibit. Earlier this summer, M+ christened its home at the edge of Victoria Harbor with six giant inflatable sculptures.

Approximately 150,000 visitors flocked to view installations that resembled Stonehenge, a massive suckling pig and what artist Paul McCarthy politely named “Complex Pile.”

“To me, of course, it looks like a big pile of s---,” M+ executive director Lars Nittve says of McCarthy’s installation. “But at the same time, it raises a discussion about meaning -- where does meaning come from and what is my role in it as a viewer?”

Nittve, who served as the founding director of the Tate Modern, remembers a similar conversation that took London by storm in the 1970s when the Tate paid £2,297 for Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII, a rectangular sculpture formed through 120 nondescript firebricks.

While Nittve admits that there isn’t much of a museum-going culture in Hong Kong, he doesn’t think he’ll have a problem finding an audience for contemporary art in this city of 7 million.

“There is a great curiosity in the Hong Kong public," he says. "We are in a position where maybe New York was in the 1950s or where Los Angeles was in the 1970s, when their institutions were young and they were building audiences. There’s great promise out there.”

Where the art comes from

M+’s promise owes no small part to Swiss businessman Dr. Uli Sigg, who donated 1,463 Chinese contemporary pieces and sold another 47 to the museum last year. The collection, which includes dozens of pieces by Ai Wei Wei, charts the development of Chinese art from the Cultural Revolution to the 21st Century.

Lars NittveM+ executive director Lars Nittve hopes the museum will rival London's Tate Modern and New York's Museum of Modern Art. Dr. Sigg always hoped that his collection would find a permanent home on Chinese soil.

However, censorship rules that prevent artists from depicting their political leaders or sexually explicit content prevented some pieces from being publically displayed in the mainland, according to Dr. Pi Li, the senior curator of Chinese contemporary art at M+ who will be managing the collection.

Hong Kong’s status as a semiautonomous region that values free speech makes it a safer location for these works.

The fact that the city is the number one destination for mainland Chinese tourists also means that this collection will reach a large Chinese audience.

“Just like they will cross the border to protest, they will cross the border to see the art,” Li says.

Indeed, Eli Klein, who owns a SoHo art gallery that focuses on Chinese contemporary art, has seen no shortage of interest in Chinese art in recent years, despite the global recession.

While Klein primarily deals with European and American clients, he says much of the market is increasingly driven by mainland Chinese collectors and auction houses.

Although Hong Kong isn't likely to match New York’s status as a major art buying city any time soon, “M+ will bring to Hong Kong the cache that’s needed to support it has a cultural hub,” he says.

Shifting Hong Kong's art scene

While it’s unclear whether M+ will fulfill its lofty goals of transforming the Asian art world, it’s guaranteed to shift its Hong Kong’s landscape.

Earlier this month, the museum selected a design by Pritzker Prize-winning architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron.

The pair is best known for transforming part of an old power station into the Tate Modern and for working with Ai Wei Wei on the Bird’s Nest in Beijing.

Day Scene M+Proposed view of M+ from Hong Kong Island. The M+ is the white "inverted T" building at the water's edge. M+ will be housed in an inverted T-shape building at the edge of a 35-acre park.
In addition to traditional gallery spaces, the building will contain screening rooms, lecture halls and a sky garden.

Although M+ may risk being shrouded by Hong Kong’s tallest building, the 118-story International Commerce Center, it hopes to rival neon advertisements that crown the city’s skyline.

The building’s south end will be fitted with solar-powered LED bands that might transform the building into a giant billboard.

“It will be interesting for artists and curators to use this,” says Ascan Mergenthaler, senior partner at Herzog & de Meuron. “We will be using a similar language for very different content. It could be very subversive.”