As the controversial West Kowloon Cultural District project finally looks set to take flight, new CEO Michael Lynch talks us through his grand visions (amid insufficient funding and delays to key facilities). Interview by Edmund Lee. Photography by Calvin Sit.
Anyone who has ever worried about the vivacity of Michael Lynch should simply meet the man. Along with the experience he gained at the helm of the Sydney Opera House and London’s Southbank Centre, the veteran arts administrator has also brought his cheerful and energetic personality to his role as the new CEO of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority (WKCDA). When our photographer suggests he should hold on to his walking stick during the portrait shoot, Lynch, without the slightest bit of hesitation, picks it up and swings it over his shoulder. “This stick is here to remind Hong Kong of what Michael Lynch is about,” he says. After pausing momentarily for all the dramatic impact he can muster up, the fun-loving Australian, who turns 61 in December, declares: “Be warned.” And it’s that upbeat attitude which may just be what’s needed to lead the monumental West Kowloon project through its most critical period – before the diggers move in, hopefully, by the start of 2013.
Mr Lynch, you’ve been here for nearly three months now. Have you finally realised what kind of a situation you’ve gotten yourself into?
[Laughs] Look, I think that hasn’t been a big surprise to me. I’ve been in and out of Hong Kong a number of times over the last three or four years. I did some work here last year on a project completely separate from West Kowloon. I came out [here] about three years ago, when David Tang brought a group of people to try and talk about what the potential of West Kowloon was – people from America, Australia, England. I’ve even known a lot about the project going back to its earliest developer’s model in the late 1990s and [early] 2000s. There was a lot of discussion about where it was going, even before I went to England [to become the CEO of the Southbank Centre]. So, I think I always knew that this was potentially going to be quite a controversial project, that it was going to go on for a long time.
So why did you decide to take up the post?
Fundamentally, the reason I’ve finished up being here this time – I was approached about it in the past – is that the more I came to Hong Kong, the more I got excited by Hong Kong and by the project. You know, if they asked you to do something once, and you said ‘no’, you then think you probably don’t get invited [again]. If you get invited [for] the second time, I think it’s probably chancing your luck if you say ‘no’ [for] a second time. It just happened to suit my circumstances [and] my wife’s circumstances, and I think we’re old enough and wise enough to decide that taking on a new adventure at 60 was almost irresistible.
I think part of the true reason you’re having a second chance is, like many people would say, that the post has proved to be kind of a poisoned chalice.
I’ve taken on poisoned chalices [before], from that point of view. When I went to Southbank, they had three chief executives in the previous five years; no-one wanted to touch [the post]. I think they said in the press at the time that it was ‘an impossible job, in an impossible place, at an impossible time’. So I think, in the cycle of things, coming in at a difficult time is often the best way to be able to take on a job of this scale. Hopefully, you can then create the sense of enthusiasm and excitement around what’s possible – rather than having to deal with, you know, all of the nasty stuff.
Did you have any contact with your predecessor, Graham Sheffield, at any point in time?
Oh, I know him from England. He was the artistic director at the Barbican, and I was the chief executive at the Southbank, so we know each other from our time in England. But I’ve only met him once in Hong Kong, which I think was – as it turned out – the day before he went back to England, when I was doing something else.
So there wasn’t any kind of takeover at all?
No. Remember, he left in December ; I started at the end of July . In line of the history and everything else – I’ve seen him once in Singapore at a conference – I guess it’s much more important that I get here and find out from all of the other people that are here rather than from direct contact with Graham about the project. I guess my view is: I wish Graham well, but that’s now the past.
But the Hong Kong people do have a right to know what exactly happened to your predecessor. Do you agree that the authority has a responsibility to tell us the truth?
Ah, look, I never think it’s a good thing necessarily to talk about your predecessor, but I understand why people were concerned about what had happened…
They are, because the people think that this is an important issue to them.
… well, I’m not sure why they think it’s such an important matter to them. Look, I can only take… I don’t know what went on, from that point of view. From my point of view, except the fact that it wasn’t working and decisions were made, it was probably a little bit unfortunate that he took up that job [in May 2011, as director arts for the British Council]. If those two things hadn’t coincided, I doubt anyone would still be asking questions about it. It would be history, and you get on with it. I think it was the fact that the two things coming together – the ideas of him going and then doing something else – I guess that made people uncomfortable; but history is history.
Can you describe the state of the authority when you arrived?
Well, I guess I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I think the board had worked very closely… remember, there’s really no-one in this place. People like Lars Nittve didn’t come in until January  to start his job as head of M+ [the planned flagship contemporary visual culture museum]. Louis Yu [Kwok-lit, executive director of performing arts] is a fantastic person knowing what’s going on as good as anyone in Hong Kong in terms of the performing arts. I was very pleasantly surprised that the team really came together sort of after Graham had gone. I’ve been very happy with the way the team’s been able to make progress over the course of the seven months before I arrived. And I think the board – in particular people like Ronald Arculli and Allan Zeman and Victor Lo [Chung-wing] – have been heavily involved in supporting the organisation through that tricky period. I expected things to be a lot worse than they were because of that gap. But I think it’s been great having an organisation which is now much more robust in terms of who’s here and what they’re doing – and then being able to focus in an immediate way on the tasks that we have to do.
The public engagement exercise, getting the development plan ready to go for approval later in the year, and then starting to do some practical things like the big bamboo theatre project we’re going to do for Chinese New Year , and getting control of the site, which no-one seems to have done anything about. By the end of the year, we’ll be in control. [Regarding] stories like the [recent International] Jazz Festival [which made headlines in Chinese newspapers with its inferior treatment of the Hong Kong performers], although we supported them, it wasn’t our event and we weren’t in control of it. If next year we get things wrong, [we’re] happy to take the criticism; but it’s a little unfair we get criticised [now, even though] we don’t actually have control over some of the events that are taking place – or the actual site. So I’m anxious to get control of that part of the site down there, and that we start doing things and people are in a position to say ‘they know what they’re doing’ or ‘they don’t know what they’re doing’.
What will be done on the site?
I guess we start that with the bamboo [theatre] in January, and then we’ll do a whole lot of things next year and the year after. I wanna really build the idea of doing things outside, which seems to be a difficult problem in Hong Kong. I know Time Out is trying to encourage it – the idea of getting people outside. I really want to establish on the site the sense that things happen in the daytime, night-time, inside, outside – and that’s what I mean by creating a place that’s for everyone.
One of the dilemmas that the Jazz Festival has raised is the preferential treatment of international artists over their Hong Kong counterparts. As our local performers are likely often going to be the lesser attractions in future programmes, do you feel like there’s a need to show them some love?
Yeah, I do. I think it is important. I just think that the way that was done in regard to the Jazz Festival was incredibly unfair – it was unfair to the Jazz Festival, and it was unfair to the people who were behind the project. They were trying to encourage people to come along, [since] the Jazz Festival had never done anything here outside before, and I think they were trying to make sure that things would work. Bearing in mind that I was there, I found it disturbing that the musicians – instead of coming to talk to me or my staff or the Jazz Festival staff – they [did as they] tend to do in Hong Kong and went and called TV crews and journalists in to beat up the story. Ah okay, if that’s the way you want to do it, that’s fine; but I don’t think that’s in the long-term interest of the artists of Hong Kong. I think it just creates a smokescreen for the issue. Of course we want the artists of Hong Kong to be supporting what we’re doing, but I think I know from my long, ugly experience you’ll never make all the people happy all of the time.
I know that you’ve met with a lot of local artists since you officially started in the post. What’s your general impression of them?
I think the important message is that there’s a huge amount of creative and artistic work going on in Hong Kong. It happens in a sort of different way to other places. Now if I look at Australia, people say ‘I’m going to be an artist or a filmmaker or a designer or whatever’, and that’s all they go and do. In Hong Kong – and I don’t entirely understand why – many people are [like]: ‘I’m working as a teacher or a government official or whatever else, but I also obviously don’t sleep very much (which probably characterises Hong Kong in lots of interesting ways), and I’m also an artist or a filmmaker or a designer’. People seem to have double or triple lives.
I guess the main reason is that being an artist here doesn’t pay the bills.
[It’s] hard work! And I understand that. It’s a tricky city in terms of space and all sorts of things. So I’ve been really impressed. I spent a couple of days in Fo Tan, looking at work and meeting artists. I’ve gone to a lot of the spaces, like the Jockey Club Creative [Arts] Centre and the Cattle [Depot], where I bought my first piece of artwork [in Hong Kong] the other day. [I’ve been] looking at the Art Fair and the gallery spaces. I’ve been to see a lot of performances already, but clearly I’m still in the early stages of getting to understand that. But there’s a lot of stuff happening here, and that makes me feel optimistic.
This may seem like an obvious question but, in your own words, how exactly is West Kowloon going to benefit our arts community?
It’ll provide them with a fantastic array of venues – venues of different sizes and different stages in the development of the Hong Kong arts community. You know, I’d use the example of Jamie Cullum, the English pianist and jazz performer. He started off working for free in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall [of the Southbank Centre], just at the time that I arrived in England. And then, he played his way through the different smaller venues up into the Royal Festival Hall itself. And he now plays venues like The O2 [Arena, which has a capacity of] 20,000 seats. I think what this will provide the artistic community with is a range of art education, facilities, performing venues, rehearsal studios and company centres – so the people can work together in a great physical environment. I think it can only help the development of arts organisations, artists and the arts audience in Hong Kong. It’ll be a fantastic place where the audience and artists and all sorts of other people get to mix and hang out together, and to feel this is a special place for the people of Hong Kong.
For this entire project to work, what are the biggest challenges that you face?
Being able to deliver all of the things that are in the project within the budget and within the time. That’s a big issue. I think how West Kowloon sits in regard to the rest of the cultural institutions, the venues and the arts organisations in Hong Kong, it’s quite a big issue. How we make sure that we work with other organisations in Hong Kong, how we work with the government and the bureaucracy – you know, the LCSD, the HAB – [it’s] quite a big challenge. And I guess overall, the plan that we’ve now got on the table makes sense: it connects, in the right way, to the rest of the city. It’s accessible to the people in a real sense, and it’s sustainable for the people. They are the key things that I think I need to be able to focus on over a period of time.
There’s apparently also the financial challenge, apart from all those issues you’ve mentioned. With the prospect of continuously high inflation, is it fair to say that the HK$21.6 billion budget set in July 2008 has always been there to be gone over?
I think the important thing is [to realise] that budget was done actually in 2006 and given to us in 2008. There are just certain things that have happened: your point about inflation, two global financial crises, a 60 percent increase in construction costs. They are tangible issues that we have to deal with, and we’re looking at how we phase the development of the project, how we do the major performance venues [and] how they’re going to be financed. They’re just the challenges that any big projects like this would have. I guess the tricky issue is going to be what happens in the next couple of years. Who knows what the world’s going to look like in [the future]? The money is always going to be a big challenge for us. The issue of what’s going on in the region, in Hong Kong, and in the world is important for us; it might work in our favour, it might work against us. What we have to do is to take [up] a chunk of [the development] – which we’ve now set between 2012 and 2020 – and be able to realise that. I think it’s for others to think about the next stage [of] what this project is going to be able to do.
Do you expect extra funding to be sought from the government?
Well, the government has always said that they would fund other components of this project: infrastructure, roads, bridges, drains, car parks, those sorts of things. They’ve always said, once we get an approved plan, that [they] will fund that. So we’re in negotiation with the government about what that’s going to cost in addition to the $21.6 billion. Clearly, the adoption of Foster’s plan, which puts all the cars and facilities under the ground, is a significant issue in that discussion. The idea of making the site as green and sustainable as possible is an issue that’s already in the public record. This is a very rare project to be given that amount of money before you started. But I’m also keen – [considering] this is a very rich city at the high end – [for] the people of Hong Kong, in addition to what the government has done, [to] contribute to this project. Wealthy people [and] corporate people should find ways to support the project. I will be looking at balancing out what the government is doing, and then what I think the rest of Hong Kong will be able to do. You don’t want this to be seen as just a government project; I think if it’s broadly supported by the society of Hong Kong, the people will take great pride in how it’s going to work.
I’d like to briefly come back to the green component of the project, which you just mentioned. This may be a little contentious.
Please! Be contentious.
The WKCDA has recently mentioned that it’s going to need an extra $4 billion…
[Interrupts] That’s what I said at LegCo. That’s what the range of green initiatives – that were never in the initial project – would cost.
… but the Foster team has denied what you said and insisted these green features shouldn’t be blamed for the $4 billion cost overruns, because they’ve always been part of their proposal.
No, no, no. But they weren’t talking about the same thing. They were talking about the fact that their plan always went under the site, in terms of roads and infrastructure.
And you’re talking more about how the financial model is structured?
Yeah, yeah. I’m more talking about things like a district cooling system, a district water system – things that are broader than West Kowloon. We don’t have to do them, but if logically you want to make West Kowloon something extraordinary in terms of the rest of the world, there are things that we can be doing as part of building West Kowloon. It’s the same way we talk about information and communication technology; we can make it a relatively old-fashioned place or we can make it state-of-the-art. In the same way with the green initiatives, we can make it like everything else in Hong Kong or we can go that extra bit. That was why I was using the figure of what that would cost, and that’s part of the discussion we’ll be having with the government. I think that’s a reasonable thing. I wouldn’t take too much notice of the difference. I think in terms of Foster’s, they want all architectural projects to be sustainable. But remember, this money that was given to us for this project was [decided between] 2006 and 2008; people weren’t really talking much about making buildings or cultural districts sustainable at that point. Those discussions have really taken place since Kyoto and Copenhagen, and it’s now a really important part… if you’re going to build something now, you want to think about it in terms of the biggest sustainabie vision.
Let’s go back to our discussion about funding. So what are the realistic sources of revenue that you’re looking at?
In addition to what we’ve got?
Yeah, because it now looks like the costs are surely going over the initial budget you’ve got.
Well, there’ll be 150 bars and restaurants and shops that will create substantial revenue for arts when the buildings are realised. I think sponsorship and philanthropy and the issue of [naming rights]… if Hong Kong doesn’t like naming rights… that’s an issue on the agenda, but I don’t [personally] care whether we use naming rights. I do think there are generous people in Hong Kong who have funded things in the past. The issue of philanthropy, with regard to an organisation like M+, is going to be very important. Everybody knows that M+ doesn’t have a collection and they would give [us] money to start putting a collection together, but we’ll be looking – like every other major art gallery in the world – at major philanthropic gifts to the organisation. And that’s going to be an important determinant of how well it’s going to work. You know, I respect the fact that Hong Kong is a very big mix of people, but you’re just dumb if you don’t accept the fact that there’re a lot of rich people in Hong Kong, and I would expect that some of those people will want to find ways of contributing to what we’re gonna be doing. I would be very aggressive in chasing those people; if I stop being invited out, I’ll know I’ve gone too far.
From the development plan unveiled at the stage 3 public engagement exercise, we see that there are a few delays in completion dates from the original…
[Interrupts] Yeah, but the original plan was done in 2008. Until you chose a master plan, which they did in March this year, I think any of the criticisms over the timetable [has] gotta be the back story, not the future story.
Do you think that the delays have put a few things into perspective?
I think, in a way, what is good about the project now is that it’s been thought through. They’ve got the people involved working on the project; they’ve solved a lot of the problems; they’ve spent a lot of time on looking at how the individual venues [will] work, where the venues are gonna be. I think that will be in the long-term interest of the project.
I’d like to know your thoughts on M+.
Now, clearly with something like M+, we hope to have it built by 2017; if we’re able to do that, it is still a major challenge to put together the collection that’s going to be in it. But it’s important that we’re not trying to recreate the Museum of Art in Hong Kong; we’re looking at contemporary work going back 30 or 40 years, [as well as] design, contemporary culture, architecture… so, from that point of view, I think it’s much easier to assemble art of the region [or] art of the world in contrast. It’s much easier to be looking at a space like M+ [which] is focusing on the 60s or the 70s to now, than it is talking about recreating the Louvre [Museum] or [Centre] Pompidou or any of those major institutions.
M+’s completion date has now been postponed for two years when compared to the previous timeline. It’s hard for me not to be cynical…
[Interrupts] I hope this is not the Time Out view that they’re generally cynical. [Laughs]
…and I think this may be partly down to the difficulty in building a presentable collection in time, that maybe it’s gone into the decision about which buildings are going to go up first.
Oh no, no, no. I take your point. I think it’s important that we’re going to be very busy putting together the collection of M+. The design competition for M+ will happen early next year – that takes a period of time. M+ is bigger than MoMA in New York. We’ll do the design competition, then we’re going to build it, and at the same time, assembling the collection is going to be done really fast. But we will be looking at potential collections of other people that we’ll be chasing.
Are you optimistic?
Well, [you may look at] things like the [Hong Kong] Art Fair, the Fine Art [Asia] fair, Gagosian [Gallery Hong Kong], White Cube [which is opening its first overseas gallery here early next year]… I think there are many people in the world now focusing on what opportunities Hong Kong gives in terms of the visual arts. And so I’m quite optimistic that – although you’re doing it under extraordinary, almost insane, pressure in terms of time – we’ll be able to… who’d have thought, three years ago, that the Art Fair would now be as important as anywhere in the rest of the world? It changes so fast. As soon as we start getting M+ coming out of the ground, I think it will start to create a momentum of its own. People will want to be in it.
You are now working on a three-year contract. Considering the scope of the West Kowloon project, do you expect to stay beyond 2014?
I’ve worked for my whole life on five-year or three-year contracts. I guess after the bad experience that they’ve had, I understand the [WKCDA] board being a bit cautious – and particularly taking on someone like me, who’s at the old end of the spectrum. I guess they didn’t want to see someone else fall over. From my point of view, I want to see something open on the site [before leaving the post]. My personal goal will be to move the project forward, develop an organisation that can take responsibility for the whole plan, find someone to take over from me: an appropriate person, and my hope would be that should probably be someone from Hong Kong, because there are some fantastic people here. And then probably, the next person who takes it over will be able to take the project right through to conclusion. Everyone can see how I walk; they see that I walk with a stick, they know I’m 60 and a few kilos overweight. Now, I would love to be able to get the project at least to 2016. And then, that’s probably the right time for me to hand the project over. Let’s see what happens.
West Kowloon Cultural District’s stage 3 public engagement exercise runs until Oct 30. For updated news on the project, visit www.wkcda.hk.