Last week’s acrimonious shake-up at Hong Kong’s controversial arts hub exposed a bitter row between the management and its governing board, raising new questions about the future of a 22-year-old project grappling with cost overruns and delays.
Duncan Pescod, 61, a former Hong Kong civil servant who became CEO of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority five years ago, said he was being forced to step down at the end of November, nine months before his HK$5 million-a-year term expires, without being told why.
Board members have retaliated, criticising his leadership in public and in private.
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In a radio interview on October 1, board member and pro-establishment politician Chris Ip Ngo-tung aired a long list of grievances, saying Pescod lacked financial discipline, among other failings, and the CEO took a cavalier approach to major changes in projects.
Elaborating, Ip told the Post that Pescod’s team failed to account for major crises, such as flooding and the appearance of a giant sinkhole at a construction site last year, and planned the allocation of resources poorly.
“The biggest problem is that the mutual trust between board members and him is no longer there,” he said.
Asked to respond, Pescod said in an email that he had nothing to add.
The 40-hectare (98 acres) West Kowloon Cultural District, on the Victoria Harbour waterfront, is meant to make Hong Kong one of the world’s leading cultural destinations.
The initial government grant for the project was HK$21.6 billion (US$2.8 billion), although some have said cost overruns could take the total investment past HK$70 billion.
So far, its M+ Pavilion, Xiqu Centre, Freespace, and Art Park, are up and running.
M+, the West Kowloon museum of visual culture, is now expected to open in Autumn 2021, the Post has learned, followed by the Hong Kong Palace Museum in 2022. The Lyric Theatre is expected to open in 2024.
The authority has made the Music Centre a priority, but there is no schedule for construction to begin. Other plans, including for the Great Theatre, two black box theatres, a Music Theatre for musicals, and a medium theatre are either under review or subject to private sector funding.
As venues opened and the number of successful collaborations has grown, the local arts community has moderated their initial scepticism about the massive project.
However, with key components yet to be built and money running out, venues have been told to try and be financially sustainable.
Ahead of its expected opening next year, M+ has been busy recruiting wealthy collectors into a founding circle of patrons and signing up corporate sponsorships for its first exhibitions.
However, the authority’s operational deficits are expected to run into the billions in the next three years. The financial woes came into focus in August when the authority called off a tender to build arts, commerce and exhibition (ACE) facilities with a gross floor area of more than 135,000 square metres.
That was because of poor market sentiments in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, a source said, and was not a “fatal blow” that led to the decision to oust Pescod.
“The team has failed to come up with a sustainable strategy to cover the running costs of the cultural venues. While the venues have never been intended to be moneymaking, a more entrepreneurial approach is expected,” said the source, who is aware of the board’s thinking.
Covid-19, which decimated Hong Kong’s tourism industry as world travel came to a standstill, has raised questions about the need for such ambitious infrastructure projects. For instance, what if in a post-pandemic world, the international travellers meant to be the arts destination’s target audience no longer travel as much as before? And what if the district was simply too big to begin with?
Lars Nittve, former director of M+, has suggested the grandiose concept of creating a world-class cultural district on 40 hectares never properly took practical constraints into consideration.
“To every professional person working with the West Kowloon project – in construction, establishing cultural institutions or building collections – it was pretty clear from early on that both the timetable and the budget were established not from what was professionally realistic, but what was politically most suitable or, perhaps, possible,” said Nittve.
The Swedish museum director left M+ in 2016 after it became clear it could not open on schedule in 2017. However, he remains convinced the money was worth spending, and the district would “benefit Hong Kong people for decades, and hopefully centuries”.
Business magnate Allan Zeman, chairman of the authority’s commercial letting panel, said it would be hard to make the whole district profitable.
He said he believed the authority should complete projects already in the works and review its finances before starting construction of new venues. Crucially, that would mean delaying the Music Centre, a concert venue estimated to cost between HK$6 billion and HK$7 billion.
The district still has the support of the private sector. Stewart Leung Chi-kin, a board member of the Real Estate Developers Association of Hong Kong, said developing commercial facilities there could still bring business opportunities, but much would depend on economic conditions.
Pescod’s departure adds uncertainty to ongoing negotiations between the authority and some of Hong Kong’s major performing arts groups – the so-called big nine.
Heidi Lee Oi-yee, executive director of Hong Kong Ballet, said her group intensified discussions with the authority this year about the use of the Lyric Theatre complex, expected to be completed in 2023.
“The pandemic reinforced our need to have a permanent home for rehearsals,” she said. “We also need space to offer more community education programmes.”
While not anticipating changes to the way arts groups deal with the authority’s performing arts division on a day-to-day basis, she was concerned a new CEO may set new financial targets that affect the venue space available to local groups.
Marble Leung Tsz-ki, executive director of the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, also said the new CEO’s approach to resources would be the critical issue, adding he hoped the uncertainty brought on by Pescod’s departure would not delay the project further.
“I really believe that WKCD is crucial to the government’s promise to turn Hong Kong into a major cultural hub,” he said. “We are already behind Taiwan and Singapore, which have managed to build and open large cultural venues in recent years.”
The authority has begun a global search for Pescod’s successor, while Betty Fung Ching Suk-yee, an aide of the city’s leader, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, is tipped to be interim CEO.
Fung, the director of the Policy Innovation and Coordination Office and a former head of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, was deeply involved in the early stages of the cultural district development.
The authority did not respond to questions as to whether a candidate with local experience was preferred.
As far as the board is concerned, the critical attributes of Pescod‘s successor are transparency, accountability, and the ability to come up with creative ways to fund future projects, suggesting someone with an entrepreneurial, pragmatic bent would stand a better chance of getting the job.