The West Kowloon site has been in a state of limbo for years. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

When the acclaimed international arts administrator Lars Nittve stepped down, in January, as executive director of M+, Hong Kong’s long-awaited new museum for visual culture, the former founding director of the Tate Modern joined a steady stream of top art-world talent to have left the project behind

For years, the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority’s flagship has been hailed as the future of contemporary art in Hong Kong. A museum of its calibre and scale would transform the city from an art marketplace, dominated by art fairs, auctions and for-profit gallery shows, into a genuine cultural destination. It would, more broadly, rescue Hong Kong from its long and problematic reputation as a “cultural desert”.

Headlines had the Hong Kong art world “stunned” by Nittve’s departure, but for many it was no surprise and few could find it in themselves to blame him either – Barbican Centre chief Graham Sheffield had, after all, previously thrown in the towel after just five months as CEO.

Pearl Lam, a gallerist and veteran of the local art scene, directed her frustration at the city’s government: “It’s disastrous,” she said. “Why does Lars want to leave? Is there such an inherent problem in Hong Kong that we don’t know how to keep these cultural leaders?”

The WKCD, and especially M+, have been plagued by economic and political controversy from the start. Lam’s words reflect a growing scepticism among the population too, as construction of the arts and culture hub in West Kowloon drags on and on, amid bloated budgets and the realisation that you can’t scratch an itch at the Authority without being trussed up in official red tape.  

The latest stall in funding due to filibustering by lawmakers, along with debates over the final design, have pushed M+’s opening to 2019, with at least one Legislative Council paper quoting escalating costs of up to HK$20 million for every month the building is delayed. That’s 21 years after former chief executive Tung Chee Hwa first proposed the WKCD in his policy address in 1998. Yet another postponement was the last straw for Nittve.

Momentum was too easily lost to delays and overspending in a city that cares very much about money and very little for art.

For all its woes, M+ is hopeful and visionary. It has been described as the most ambitious museum project since the Centre Pompidou opened in Paris in 1977. It is designed by famous architects Herzog & de Meuron, and its acquisitions, already numbering in the thousands, will form a collection of contemporary Chinese art that is unrivalled anywhere in the world.

But the project has suffered too many expensive setbacks and heavyweight resignations, and the white knight institution that would save Hong Kong’s art scene from commercial saturation has become a multibillion-dollar white elephant.

The creation of a world-class art institution on home soil should be cause for celebration and an outpouring of public interest. The fact that there is neither – not really, not beyond the few hundred local art cognoscenti – is alarming. M+ cannot succeed without grassroots support, and its momentum in Hong Kong was too easily lost to delays and overspending in a city that cares very much about money and very little for art.