Central, Hong Kong's future art hub

Central, Hong Kong's future art hub

The Central Police Station and the Married Police Quarters will be tranformed into Hong Kong's best new art centers -- if red tape doesn't nip it in the bud

central police station hong kongThe Central Police Station and Victoria Prison.

Over the next four years, the Central Police Station and Police Married Quarters will be transformed into new cultural institutions, one dedicated to contemporary art, the other to design.

If the projects are well executed, they have the potential to reshape Hong Kong’s cultural landscape. If not, they’ll follow a well-trod path into mismanagement and irrelevance.

“It could be something great or it could end up being more of the same,” says contemporary art curator Robin Peckham, who, like most artists and curators, bemoans Hong Kong’s lack of well-funded, well-run public art institutions.

“Everything suffers from a lack of curatorial expertise,” he says. “There’s just no one here, and there’s no one here because there’s no infrastructure to support them.”

Two creative hubs, one neighbourhood

The Central Police Station (CPS) and Police Married Quarters (PMQ), just a few blocks from one another on Hollywood Road, could go a long way to changing that. But the twin projects have also been criticized for a lack of transparency.

When the CPS was decommissioned in 2006, the government awarded its redevelopment to the Jockey Club’s charity arm without an open tender. And while an open competition was held for the PMQ’s revitalization, just one of the shortlisted proposals was made public.

central police station hong kongThe Central Police Station as imagined after its makeover.
Transparent or not, things are moving forward. The Jockey Club has hired renowned Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron to transform the old police station, prison and magistracy into an arts center with a near-even split between public space, art space and commercial space.

The latest plans calls for the CPS to serve as a bridge between Central and the Mid-Levels. Its architects are reportedly pushing for its public areas to remain open 24 hours.

“To make art accessible, it is essential to connect it to the city,” says Rocco Yim, the architect behind IFC, the new government headquarters and one of the West Kowloon Cultural District plans, who is serving as a consultant on the CPS project.

Down the road, the Police Married Quarters will become a design hub. Last year, after the quarters were saved from redevelopment, the government invited proposals to transform the space by 2014 and to manage it for 10 years.

The winning bid came from the Musketeers Foundation, backed by the Polytechnic University School of Design and the Hong Kong Design Centre -- the same organizations behind Detour and a slew of other design events.

HK$420 million will be invested to renovate the PMQ while another HK$110 million has been set aside for its day-to-day management. It will include 130 studios for artists and designers, 41,000 square feet of food and retail space and around 33,000 square feet of public open space.

An underground interpretive center will give visitors access to the ruins of the Central School, Sun Yat-sen’s alma mater, which was destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II.

Hardware is useless without software

There’s only so much to be gleaned from square footage. How the CPS and PMQ will be curated, programmed and managed -- the new flesh that will bring their old bones back to life -- is still unclear.

Neither the Jockey Club nor the Musketeers Foundation have elaborated on the nitty-gritty of their plans, but some of those involved in the projects have shed light on the direction they will take.

Claire Hsu, director of the Asia Art Archive (AAA), was hired last year, to help the Jockey Club address the CPS project’s existential question: exactly what kind of arts institution should it be? The answer, according to Hsu, is “a medium-sized art space with regular exhibitions dedicated to contemporary art.”

It would fill the gap between small contemporary art spaces like Para/Site and Osage and the future M+ contemporary art museum in West Kowloon, which will likely be devoted solely to established artists.

“It would be the first such venue in the city,” says Hsu. “We have spaces like the Fringe Club and Hong Kong Arts Centre, but unfortunately they’re venues that anyone can rent out, as opposed to having a professional program that is initiated by a professional in the field,” she says.

“You end up with a hodgepodge of varying quality. It really is shocking that we don’t have a contemporary art program of any scale.”

The Jockey Club has said it will follow AAA’s recommendations as much as possible. It has already hired well-regarded curator David Elliott to guide the development of its arts program.

“His first step is to put a financial cost to our vision plan and also come up with an operating structure,” says Hsu. “I hope the Jockey Club is prepared. These things are expensive. But many other cities around the world see the importance of [having] a constant program of exhibitions that people know will always be well thought-out to a professional standard. Without that it’s very hard to build up the audiences that you need.”

The design-oriented PMQ will take a different approach from the CPS, with more emphasis on creation, networking and entrepreneurship. Detour co-director Alvin Yip envisions a network of young designers that can use the site to improve their craft, promote their ideas and sell their work.

“It’s about drawing a lot of retail traffic onto the site -- not like a trade show, but a cultural center with a retail dimension, with limited edition products created by local designers,” he says. “We can’t rely on funding from the Arts Development Council every year.”

police married quarters hong kong art hubThe Central Police Married Quarters.

Untangling the red tape

If the PMQ and CPS are to be successful, they will need to find a way to escape from the red tape that strangles most Hong Kong cultural institutions. Virtually every public cultural institution, from the Museum of Art to the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, is notorious for having aloof, bureaucratic management that suffocates creativity like a wet blanket on fire.

The stuffiness trickles right down to the visitor experience of Hong Kong’s museums and cultural centers. “That’s really the downfall of all the Hong Kong museums,” says architect Eric Schuldenfrei.

At the Heritage Museum’s City Flâneur photography exhibition last year, white lines were taped in front of photographs to prevent visitors from touching them. Motion detectors made a beeping noise every time someone’s foot or hand crossed the line. “You always have 20 security guards watching what you’re doing,” says Schuldenfrei.

By contrast, Detour managed to turn both the CPS and the PMQ into hives of creative activity without overbearing rules and heavy-handed management. There might be a lesson in that.

“If you let people be curious they’ll want to explore,” says Detour co-director Marisa Yiu. “You have to be open.”

Christopher DeWolf is a writer, photographer and self-styled flâneur.
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