Lars Nittve

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Before it has even been built, the M+ museum is already considered by many as the last throw of the dice for our visual art scene. TOHK met with Lars Nittve, M+’s new executive director, for his first media interview in Hong Kong. Interview by Edmund Lee. Photography by Calvin Sit


Behind the confident smile, Lars Nittve must be a very brave man at heart. That – on top of his more than 20 years’ experience in directing museums around the world – is undoubtedly crucial to his decision to take charge of the tricky project of creating Museum Plus (M+), the long-anticipated visual culture complex of the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) project – a major institution that has neither a building nor collection to show for at the moment.

Having studied music before progressing onto various career paths (he’s been a photographer, a ski instructor, a university lecturer on art history, and a critic for Artforum magazine), Nittve began a career in museum curating and directing in 1986; he was named in 1998 the first director of London’s Tate Modern (which opened in May 2000) before serving as the director of Stockholm’s Moderna Museet between 2001 and 2010.

Last year he was seriously considering moving back into curating, writing and consulting, but the 57-year-old was then handed the golden goose: the M+ project. “If we do this right,” he told Time Out enthusiastically, “we can actually create a museum that might be called ‘the game changer’ – a new role model for museums in the 21st century.” Nittve signed his contract last June and assumed office as the head of M+ this January. We met him at his office for a frank discussion.

To start with, have you been sleeping well?
[Laughs] I can’t understand why you’re asking that question. [Laughs] No, absolutely, I sleep very well, actually.

I’d like to get one question out of the way first: has the resignation of [former WKCD chief executive] Graham Sheffield affected your work here in any way?
Not really. Partly because he didn’t have the expertise in this field; I mean, his expertise was primarily in music. I got to know him quite well during the summer and autumn of last year, but he left the development of M+ and everything with visual culture to me. So it hasn’t changed my job that much. It’s never good for the whole organization in the long run not to have a chief executive, someone who takes the final decision and final responsibility. But actually, as it turns out, the heads of different departments here are very good and professional, so we’ve just continued to work. The change hasn’t been drastic at all.

I’ve no intention of scaring you away…
You can try.

… but there does seem to be a consensus around here that our government works in a rather bureaucratic way. Has that kind of pressure gotten to you yet?
[Laughs] No. As you probably know, I’ve worked in different countries. Every place is different, and every place has its difficulty that you have to learn how to manoeuvre. To learn how the government here works, I think I’ve had a chance since last summer. And I don’t think it’s worse than anywhere else – it’s different, but it’s not worse. Every place has its complexities.

You’ve been building your M+ team for some time now, so how’s the progress?
I mean, we’re a very small team – yet. We’re actually three people [curator Tobias Berger, Nittve and his assistant] at the moment. I was just sitting over there [at my desk] with three binders [of] applicants for coming curatorial posts. Hopefully in a month or two we’ll be at least six, seven, maybe eight in the team. Because I came in more than half a year later than Louis Yu [Kwok-lit, West Kowloon’s performing arts executive director], of course our team is lagging behind with our recruitment. But we’ve caught up a lot on idea development and things like that – we work quite hard. [Laughs] I can assure you.

You’ve been in the process of getting to know the art community here. Has there been any artist, exhibition or art group that’s especially impressed you?
There are individual artists… Sometimes it’s best – when you’re a museum director going to build a collection and decide about the exhibitions – not to mention any sort of favourites or so. That’s something I’ve learned over the years. There’re definitely individual artists that I didn’t know of before, that have struck me as being world class. Then, on the other side, [I’m] in the process of discovering and learning more and more about the ink art movement. It’s a very particular movement here which has been isolated quite a bit and [is] wanting to stay isolated. It’s generally a very fascinating and impressive area. And you can see how young artists now are beginning to build bridges and move between what you’d call general contemporary art and ink art. That is really fascinating, and I think there can be really incredible development in that area. So this is something that I’ve had a special interest in.

I take it you’ve been to the Hong Kong Museum of Art.
Yes.

And what’s your impression of it?
That they have fantastic collections, especially… I mean, some parts of the collections I don’t have the expertise, so I can’t understand how fantastic they are. Others have told me that they’re really great. Because I’ve had this growing interesting in ink art, they have incredible collections there – some of that has been built in the last 15 years or so – and that’s quite extraordinary.

How would you describe your basic concept for the M+ museum?
There’re some key thoughts. One is, for example, that the museum is not the same as a building. The museum is really a content and its relationship to its various audiences. We don’t have to wait for six years or so to open the museum, but we can gradually start becoming M+ already next year. And in a sense, we can open it next year without a building – on a very small scale, of course.

This ‘Mobile M+’ concept sounds a bit like a community project to me…
Hmm, I’m not sure I’d express it like that, because, well, I think all good museums are community projects, because they’re actually for everybody, in a sense. But the [phrase] “community project” can also imply that it doesn’t aim at presenting world class things, and the ambition here is definitely a great museum that’s one of the world class museums in the world, in terms of its content. I think what we’re looking at is the general tendency in visual culture – the old traditional concept of art which sort of excluded everything like design, architecture, cinema and so forth. These days, if you look at art, how do you really make the division between video art and cinema? It’s the same with design: many designers or artists’ work slide across the borders, and what happens in these border areas are among the most interesting in contemporary art. The traditional museums of modern art, like MoMA in New York, have departments for these [different disciplines], but they have extremely high and very thick walls between the parts. [On the contrary,] we’d like to see how the different parts can communicate with each other and support each other, but without losing the possibilities of telling individual stories.

Apart from reaching out and educating the public on the concept of a museum, is the M+ team going to be active in local art affairs? For instance, is there any chance Hong Kong artists’ participation in the Venice Biennale will be coordinated by your team in the future?
I don’t think it’s for me to say whether that’s… I mean…

Well, do you see any future development in that direction?
I think this would be, in a sense, an honour and a responsibility that we need to earn. We hope, and we planned, to start doing things in Hong Kong next year, right? And I think if we show that we have good initiative that we can deliver good things and we have a good drive, I think things like that might develop. I don’t think I should go out and say that ‘yes, we should do that’, and I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes, in that respect. But I think it’s always like this: if you have a strong and good museum organisation in a place, of course it should take responsibility for things. But also, it should set good examples, so I don’t think we should try to do everything that others are doing now. I think it’s really important that we have many voices, and hopefully our existence in the future will help the existing structures and artist groups to flourish also.

I’d like to talk about the collection of M+… I mean, the projected collection.
Yeah, exactly. We have zero [collection] now. [Laughs]

I remember going to one of the first press meetings of Graham Sheffield last May and asking him how the collection was going to be built. His reply was, essentially, that he had no idea. So in terms of M+’s collecting strategy, what’s been decided since then?
Well, a fair amount has been decided. I should first say this: the way we’re trying to work now is that we’re slowly building a team, and at the same time and parallel to that, we’re creating a vision. Out of that vision, it gives you [the idea of] what kind of building you need to deliver that vision. In the same way, the real strategy and policy for building the collection will also come out of the vision. But since it has to do with these different strands and the wish to combine things, and the fact that we should be anchored in Hong Kong and in Asia, the aim is that the collection will cover all these different strands of visual culture. But if you look at the core, the really difficult and most costly part is what would be called the art collection, right? I think the core, first of all, should be Hong Kong, China, the rest of Asia – sort of expanding. And I think it’s quite natural that Chinese contemporary art will have quite a prominent place there. And of course, everybody tells me that, “Oh, that’s very expensive. How are you going to build that collection?” I think you have to work with two parallel ways of thinking. One is the dream scenario: that we manage to attract some of the great collections that actually exist and have been built, because all collections, at one point or another, [are] looking for a permanent, long-term home. So that’d be a fast way into building a substantial collection and having a base around which you then continue to build. Otherwise we’d develop another kind of strategy which is based on acquiring works, and then you have to go on absolute key works that will form the backdrop for what’s happening in contemporary art. I think it’s important to have an Asian focus [to] it; but at the same time, it’d be great to have the catalysts – the key practitioners overseas who might have [been] influences for the designers or artists in Asia. Also, in some cases the stories go the other way round; now, the Chinese and Japanese artists inspire artists in America or elsewhere as well. So we have to look at those dialogues.

Have we started the process of looking at other options, like donations or bequests?
Yes, we’re in discussion with several major collectors, both here and overseas. I think some of these discussions are long-term – they might even take years before they’re concluded. Some collectors are waiting to see how things are developed, what sort of governance do we have, how does the team look, where is the project moving; but they’re making indications. We’re in touch and having a dialogue, then we’ll see how it unfolds. Historically, I’ve felt that it usually goes well. But you don’t know until you know. [Laughs] As with most things in life.


M+: projected timeline (as Nittve sees it)

2012 Stage one of Mobile M+ to open in spring with exhibitions and education programs on the West Kowloon site and in other parts of Hong Kong, as well as in digital format.
2012-13 A Mobile M+ hub for small exhibitions, discussions, screenings and information is scheduled to open.
2014 Stage two of Mobile M+ to open – more of everything!
2016+ The 45,000sqm Phase One of the M+ museum building to open to the public in West Kowloon Cultural District as one of the project’s ‘Iconic Buildings’.

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