Leung Po Shan looks at strategies of HK art practitioners trying to survive outside the safety net of government sponsorships.
The Oil Street Artist Village is already a thing of the past. As confirmed by a re-reading of Howard Chan's "From Oil Street to Cattle Depot: A Drama of Hong Kong's Artist Village"1 in the Hong Kong Visual Arts Yearbook 2000, everything is cut and dry. When the Cattle Depot first opened its doors, art groups and artists took it upon themselves to explore the possibilities of space. Through joint activities and a fluid tenants' body, they hoped to give a new definition to the historical quarantine depot. Three years have passed and the tenants are generally getting along fine with the local community. With the art groups and art practitioners helping each other out, the Village is operating smoothly. The infrastructure of Hong Kong's visual arts saw its beginnings in the sixties of the last century. In the 1960s, there was the City Hall (opened in 1962 with the City Museum and Art Gallery, now known as the Hong Kong Museum of Art) which was meant to be a confluence of Chinese and Western cultures at the service of locals and tourists alike. In the 1970s, the Hong Kong Arts Centre (founded in 1979), an incorporated multi-purpose complex, was as much a venue as an organiser of programmes. In the 1980s, to complement other community facilities, the Urban and Regional Councils went on a construction spree to build town halls and civic centres (in Tsuen Wan, Sha Tin, Tuen Mun, the North District, Yuen Long, Ngau Chi Wan, Sheung Wan, and Sai Wan Ho). In the 1990s, the Hong Kong Cultural Centre (opened in November 1989) and the new Hong Kong Museum of Art (1991) became landmark cultural venues befitting the metropolis' image in the post-transitional period.2 During the same period, non-government spaces emerged one after another, filling in the gaps created by the Government's inflexible policies in the provision of official hardware to meet the artists' needs.3 After five decades of hard work, the hardware and software for bonding and displaying local visual arts are more or less in place. At times, there is even an oversupply of venues.
We have learned from history that art cannot survive without money. As in the case of Renaissance Florence, and Yangzhou and Shanghai in the Qing period, prosperity of the cities is essential to the development of art. It is ironic that art in Hong Kong should be greeted by a slump in the property market and economic recession. Between 1997 and 2003, it was one misfortune riding upon another for Hong Kong. At first, the artists formed organisations chiefly out of their common needs for display. This then became more individual-orientated and the artists, following the market, began to move into and set up studios in unwanted industrial buildings, especially Fo Tan Industrial Area and the Ming Pao Industrial Centre in Chai Wan. Striving to subsist on their own, outside the safety net of government sponsorship, these individual studios embrace objectives and strategies that are vastly different from those of the exhibition venue providers.
Taking art practitioners in the Fo Tan Industrial Area as a case study, this essay investigates the relationship between this phenomenon and the ecosystem for local art, with special reference to the art practitioners' survival conditions and strategies. Initially, a questionnaire survey was conducted to collect data. This was followed by in-depth interviews with seven artists different in age, education background and working in different media from five units in order to gain a better understanding of the circumstances faced by individual artists and artists in general.
Overview of Fo Tan Artists
The questionnaire survey was conducted between December 2003 and February 2004. A total of 30 completed questionnaires were returned out of the 60 distributed.4
Of the 30 respondents, 18 were male and 12 female, aged mostly between 21 and 25. The majority of them were novice professional artists, of whom 12, or the largest proportion, had practiced art for less than 5 years. Those with tertiary education numbered 27, among whom 6 were Masters of Arts. As for occupation, 21 had jobs relating to art, especially art education (14) and design (7), but none of them depended on selling their works as their only source of income. Most had a monthly income of HK$6,000 to HK$10,000 (11), and 16 of the 30 respondents were the breadwinners of their families. These statistics show that the financial position of these art practitioners in Fo Tan was disproportionate to their educational level. Many of them were barely able to meet the basic material needs (especially space) for practicing their art.
Most of the respondents set up their studios for the first time within two years upon graduation. The studios were mostly set up in rented premises (27); only 3 artists owned their own studios. The size of the studios ranged from 500 sq. ft. to 1600 sq. ft., most of which falling within the bracket of 1100 sq. ft. to 1500 sq. ft. (20). The floor area per head was mostly 400 sq. ft. or less (19). There were 20 who were sharing their studios with old classmates or schoolmates. The main consideration for choosing the location was the distance from their homes and other art practitioners. The most common activity engaged in the studios after art creation was interacting and socialising. The studios were often equipped with cooking utensils and bedding after carpentry tools. Among time, space and means, time was the biggest hindrance to artistic creation. Among social recognition, family support and peer recognition, the last was the most important external factor influencing their artistic creation. Except one that was a licensed entity, none of the units were established groups and were mostly networks of individuals. Although most of the respondents were of the view that the Government should in principle support art, only 17 thought the Government should subsidies artist studios. Such a community of art practitioners was formed mainly out of the individuals' personal preferences. There was a close relationship between their personal lives and their modes of creation. Dependence on the cultural infrastructure was relatively insignificant.
- Out of Cultural Establishment and into Market Economy
From Oil Street to Cattle Depot, the visual arts community struggled against a common enemy for space rights. Yet what the Fo Tan artists have to struggle for are rights of a completely different nature. The Hong Kong Arts Centre, the Fringe Club, Para Site Art Space, Museum of Site, Oil Street (Artist Commune, Z+, and 1a space), and even Cattle Depot are the primary venues and organisations for exhibitions and activities, and are subject to government or public sponsorship and supervision. Fo Tan, on the other hand, is more concerned with production, a need that is more basic to the artists. From noisily struggling for the opportunity to present their works to quietly protecting their creative activities, the local artists seem to have returned from the agitations of cultural politics to the tranquillity of dedicated production. They have stepped out of the installation artist's destiny of "working on the spot" at exhibition venues and re-embraced the identity of the studio artist.5 Contrary to exhibition venues which "open their doors for business" all year round, the "factory tenants" look for a working environment that is independent of any cultural hierarchy. Many of the artists interviewed have experience with the establishment. Successful or otherwise, they choose Fo Tan and play along with the market in the hope of enjoying a freedom that is greater than that offered by the cultural establishment.
- Amateur in Work yet Professional at Heart
Without government support, the artists and art groups can in fact be more flexible and diversified. Likewise, once the yoke of being a professional artist "selling artworks" is shed, a whole new world is opened up as far as personal survival is concerned. Thus, these "factory artists" are engaged in all sorts of jobs in the creative sector. Space is an artist's right to live. Once you have space, your production is ensured and your identity as an artist recognised to a certain extent. Some trade time for space and others space for time. The Fo Tan community turns their attention to time after ensuring the availability of space. What they do most often in the industrial buildings after creative production is interacting and resting. This is perhaps because the average Hong Kong home allows little personal space and the public venues in a city can hardly accommodate non-profit-making cultural activities.
- Art Moving into Industrial Buildings = Creative Industries?
In the Hong Kong Trade Development Council's report on "Creative Industries in Hong Kong," "art" and "antiques" are taken to mean one and the same thing, and that is buying and selling Chinese cultural relics.6 The policy makers have neither taken the artists into consideration nor understood their mode of working in a personal capacity rather than as an occupation. Whether in definition or policies, the communities who are excluded from the statistics under both occupation and commodities simply cannot benefit. The UK has been keen in promoting its cultural industries because its economy has been on the decline. For all its greatness as a nation, she is left with nothing but her heritage. In a post-industrial society and a weak economy, abandoned industrial buildings are the fertile soil for creative and cultural industries. In the competition for space between art and industry, the same phenomenon may also be seen in Hong Kong. In the same way that planting art space in the community does not amount to having community art, artists moving into factories does not necessarily lead to the birth of cultural and creative industries. This is an issue worthy of the policy makers' attention.
Leung Po Shan is a Hong Kong-based artist and art administrator.
The original essay in its full-length is published in the Hong Kong Visual Arts Year Book 2003. Special thanks to the Fine Arts Department, Chinese University of Hong Kong. Translated by Tina Liem.
1. Howard Chan, "Cong Youjie dao Niupeng – Xianggang yishucun yanyi." In Kurt Chan and Harold Mok, eds., Hong Kong Visual Arts Yearbook 2000 (Hong Kong: Department of Fine Arts, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2002), pp. 78–84.
2. See Stephen Siu, ed., Hong Kong City Hall 1962–1982 (Hong Kong: Public Information Unit, Urban Council, 1982); Arts Policy Review Report: Consultation Paper (Hong Kong: Cultural and Sport Branch, Government Secretariat Broadcasting, March 1993); Hong Kong Museum of Art, A Short Guide to Hong Kong Museum of Art (Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1991).
3. Tsang Tak-ping, "Jiushiniandai Xianggang de yishu kongjian." In Chan Yuk-keung and Harold Mok, eds., Hong Kong Visual Arts Yearbook 1999 (Hong Kong: Department of Fine Arts, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2000), pp. 29–33.
4.The sample was based on a list of artists, excepting those without studios in Fo Tan, provided by the convener of the "Fotanian" open studio programme.
5. Oscar Ho, "Quefa kongjian," trans. by Cheng Wai-pang, in Edmund Lai and Leung Po-shan, eds., Cong kuayue guodu qianxi – qiren shiyi pinglun zixuan wenji (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Arts Centre, 2002), pp. 57–60.
6. See Creative Industries in Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Trade Development Council, September 2002.