Composing the Programme
After inaugurating the Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai in 2004, I quitted my job as its director. It marked a significant end of a long career in curation and museum management since 1988. I was exhausted and desperately needed a break. Soon I was invited to be ‘Writer in Residence’ at the Lingnan University, occasionally teaching the writing of art criticism there.
In 2005 when the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies at the Chinese University recruited a new director for its MA Programme in Cultural Management, I went for it and got the job. It opened a new chapter of my professional career. It was a delightful reward for me to slow myself down, step back and look at what I have done, and to organize the knowledge, experience and thoughts accumulated over the years and share them with the younger generations.
At that time there was no similar programme in cultural management in Hong Kong nor in most parts of Asia. Most of the practicing cultural administrators might have some training in art making or in management, and they built their knowledge through practice. Started in 2002, this exceptional programme was struggling at its beginning stage to construct its philosophy and objectives, and to compose a workable teaching framework. That was exactly the challenge I needed to deal with as I moved in. Even in the West, which has a long history of managing cultural institutions, cultural management as an education programme only emerged in the late 1980s and there were little professional references I could look into, not to mention the reality that cultural management is socially, culturally and institutionally contextual.
Even today, when arts administrators get together, most commonly they talk about ticket sales, audience building, publicity and of course, funding. If these are the main concerns of cultural management, running a cultural institution is really just a managerial process. However I refused that limited view. Based on my experience, cultural management is much more than that. For example, when presenting an exhibition, it’s not just about putting up a show and promoting it. There are more questions hidden the curator is dealing with but not consciously aware of. For example, based on what definition you identify and select art you regard as ‘valuable and meaningful’ for public and for your institution? Who are your audiences? Are they limited to the educated and those who can pay? And if your audiences include people who know little about the mainstream arts or simply have no time or money to come to see the show, what kinds of arts will you show, and in what format and with what language should you present them? There are many many other issues that managerial skills cannot handle. It demands intellectual and critical capabilities.
There is also the creative dimension. Without interfering with the spirit of the artworks, there are many areas that require creative approaches. Take the design of an exhibition poster as example, what is the most appropriate style of design that could enhance the appreciation of the exhibition? What image among the artworks should be used to catch the viewers’ eyes and best reflect the artist’s spirit in a poster? Other than the conventional white cube gallery, can I disturb the whiteness of the space to highlight the characteristics of the artworks? For fragile, delicate work, they might demand the walls painted black with light focusing on them to draw total attention in a massive space. For that part of installation work, it requires sensibility and creative solutions. In contemporary arts, artists like to employ non-conventional media and formats that demand alternative ways of viewing, subsequently creative solutions are essential.
After a few months since I moved in, a general framework for the Programme was formed, which focused on nurturing administrative/technical skills, critical and creative skills. From there, the Programme moved on to further elaborating its philosophy, especially around the concept of ‘mediation’, a topic I would talk about at the next writing.
Oscar Ho is Adjunct Associate Professor of Cultural Studies, CUHK. He was formerly the Director of the MA in Cultural Management Programme (2006 – 2020). Visit https://www2.crs.cuhk.edu.hk/faculty-staff/adjunct-professors/ho-hing-kay-oscar