‘Like a bounced cheque’: Hong Kong West Kowloon arts hub chief says funding crisis threatens contracts for new events

Hong Kong’s premier arts hub will be forced to halt commitments for future events from June if the government does not decide on a way to resolve its funding crisis by then, its chief has told the Post.

Henry Tang Ying-yen, chairman of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, said its cash resources would dry up by June next year, but contracts for new exhibitions and projects had to be signed a year in advance.

“Chickens are coming home to roost,” he said, adding that the funding crisis would bite if the government did not make a decision by June.

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“If I know I don’t have money and still sign a contract with an arts group or for an exhibition, it is no different than writing a bounced cheque, which is illegal.”

The West Kowloon Cultural District. A funding plan proposes selling part of the hub’s 40 hectares. Photo: Sam Tsang

The authority is waiting for a government decision on a proposed funding plan that involves selling part of the arts district’s 40 hectares (99 acres).

The district received a one-off government endowment of HK$21.6 billion (US$3 billion) in 2008 to build world-class venues to put Hong Kong on the global arts map.

Three landmark projects have been completed so far – the M+ contemporary arts museum, Hong Kong Palace Museum and Xiqu Centre. Coming up next is the multimillion-dollar Lyric Theatre Complex, the completion of which has been postponed by a year to 2026.

Tang and CEO Betty Fung Ching Suk-yee have spoken about the authority’s money woes and their efforts to cope. Cost-cutting measures and income from its museums and events helped it push back the depletion of its endowment by three months to June next year.

A source familiar with the situation said the funding proposal was submitted to the government last March.

Hong Kong’s West Kowloon arts hub to host first international cultural summit

The authority has asked the government to amend the commercial components for sites yet to be tendered in the precinct, shifting away from the build-operate-transfer and income-sharing model adopted for a plot tendered in 2022.

The Culture, Sports and Tourism Bureau said it had engaged an independent consultant to evaluate the plan and explore other viable ways to fill funding gaps. It added that it hoped to complete the study soon.

“Should [the authority] need to implement a new financial proposal, the government will provide suitable assistance, as and when appropriate, and keep members of the public informed,” the bureau said.

“Meanwhile, the government is facilitating [the authority] to refinance its bridging facilities to tide over its financial needs in the shorter term.”

In addition, the bureau said it had approved HK$41 million in sponsorship to support some exhibitions and events that the authority organised in 2023-24.

Despite the city’s property slump, Tang said the authority could still go ahead with selling part of the sites if the government made the decision to approve the proposal.

“The earliest we can put the land on sale will be 2026-27, when I doubt the market will still be sluggish,” he said. “If it is still sluggish, we can sell less. If the market is good, we can sell more.”

He said the proposal provided an alternative to the government making a hefty investment of fresh funding for the arts hub.

Tang said he was aware it would be a challenge for the government to fork out billions more in Hong Kong dollars, given the expected budget deficit of HK$101.6 billion as of March 31 this year.

The authority’s net cash stood at HK$6.5 billion on March 31 last year. Its deficit was 7 per cent lower at HK$718 million in 2022-23 from a year earlier.

An exhibition titled “Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London” at the Hong Kong Palace Museum. Photo: May Tse

Tang said the hub had spearheaded Hong Kong’s arts development and helped the city to meet the goal of being an East-meets-West cultural exchange centre, as outlined in China’s 14th five-year plan for 2021-25.

He added that the unprecedented International Cultural Summit the art hub would host on March 25 and 26 at West Kowloon would serve the goal, with the authority due to sign cooperation agreements with more than 20 institutions such as Tate Modern in London and Musee National Picasso in Paris.

The arts hub will also partner with the National Peking Opera Company to promote Chinese culture and traditional opera.

The cultural district’s significance was reaffirmed by Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po during his annual budget speech on Wednesday.

“West Kowloon Cultural District is a must-go place for visitors. It is also a driver to tourism,” he said.

Hong Kong’s West Kowloon arts hub submits plan to shake up finances

The arts hub, one of the world’s largest cultural precincts, has been in the works since the 1990s but has opened in stages with the Xiqu Centre in 2019, M+ in 2021 and Palace Museum the following year.

Its development was delayed by factors ranging from political wrangling to changes in development plans, management reshuffles, the Covid-19 pandemic and the repercussions of building the West Kowloon high-speed rail terminus next to the Xiqu Centre.

The Palace Museum, added to the arts hub in 2016, was not included in the 2008 government endowment.

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