Last week I went to West Kowloon in Hong Kong. In ten years time this will be one of the largest cultural quarters on the planet, if all goes to plan. At the moment it’s a building site for underground infrastructure – trains, parking, utilities.
I met some of those working on its development – and left excited about its potential for getting stuff right from the start. Rarely is there the chance to create so much from scratch, without having to undo a history of discrimination, barriers and rigidity. Everyone must want to get involved here, I thought.
Then I met artists who saw it as irrelevant – too big, too showy, too much. The creation of spaces and places that didn’t connect with them and their practice. That were, from their perspective, being created and populated by people from outside without building on the grassroots arts and cultural history of Hong Kong itself.
And I met others who did see its relevance – as a stepping stone, a place to inspire and stretch others by its inspiration, a place to bring the best of Hong Kong arts to meet the best of the rest of the world – and yet who again were not quite connecting. ‘It’s a long time off’, ‘we’ll wait and see’, ‘there are other buildings happening first we might want to get involved in’ (there are always other buildings happening in Hong Kong).
I wanted to know more about the strategy – the ways in which the infrastructure across the cultural sector Hong Kong was planning to meet the challenge and maximise its potential. Much as Tony Blair listed his priorities 5 years ago, mine are strategy, strategy, strategy. I got to almost screaming ‘strategy?’ at every meeting I had.
I remember speaking to Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of Southbank at the Unlimited Festival of arts by deaf and disabled artists this summer, part of the Cultural Olympiad – a ground breaking, rule changing moment for disability arts.
‘This is not an accident’, she said.
Back in 2003, the planning of the bid to host the Olympics had identified the potential to create such a shift. The potential to transform the perspective in which disabled artists were viewed had been acknowledged and the steps to deliver began to be formulated. Strategy.
Deliver it did this summer. No accident. But work that had been over 5 years in the making, first raising ambition, then expectation and finally delivery.
This I want for West Kowloon. (This is what I want for everywhere). Not just for deaf and disabled artists, but for all artists who don’t yet fit the narrow confines of ‘mainstream’, who don’t quite get the exposure, platforms, critique and accolades their work should reach.
Strategy, strategy, strategy. And it’s never to early.
Hong Kong is known for its amazing ability to create buildings – the hardware that can push past previous incarnations and deliver breathtaking spaces. The software – the people stuff – it acknowledges it finds harder. Yet, for me, it’s fatal to develop one without the other. Buildings without heart, without the commitment to individualism and the celebration of difference that for me is at the heart of all good art.
There are great people working on West Kowloon. There are great people in the cultural sector all over Hong Kong. Don’t for a minute think I reckon we are better at any of this in the UK, than they are over there. I’m just so aware of what happened this summer, and the impact it has had and I want this to replicate the world over – I’ve become an ambassador, an advocate, a fully paid up member of the ‘we-can-change-the-world’ club.
Right here right now, West Kowloon has an amazing chance to go way beyond the impact of Unlimited in the UK – taking inclusive thinking into all aspects of planning for buildings, infrastructure, programming, employment – and not just for a single building, for a network of spaces, places, approaches and opportunities. It literally has the chance to change (a small part of) the world.
And what’s not to get excited about with that?