Funding Funding


When cultural managers meet, one of the most common conversations topics is getting funding. Even if you have an excellent programme, you can do nothing if you don’t have adequate funding to make it a reality. If you are an arts administrator or curator, funding is so essential that day in day out you have to think about money, unless your institution is fully funded like those government museums in Hong Kong. After started working as curator at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, I was immediately aware of this unpleasant but inevitable reality.

In the 1990s, I was invited to professional practices at two prominent museums: the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and the Deutsche Museum in Munich. Like most American museums, MoMA does not get direct funding from the government, instead it receives substantial support from its board, sponsors, and admission fees. The Deutsche Museum is the world’s largest museum of science and technology, attracting 1.5 million visitors a year. They do not charge admission fees for it receives substantial support from the government.

When I was at the Deutsche Museum, a technical supervisor invited me to visit their workshop where a team of technicians were working for the display of a small German countryside with houses, railways and trains. The supervisor proudly showed me the extremely tiny hinges a technician was making for the windows of those small houses. It would take a technician, he claimed, three weeks to make a few of them. While I appreciated the devotion and seriousness in doing a professional job, those tiny hinges of windows within the landscape inside a giant glass box would not be noticed by the visitors. It was simply for the technical pleasure of the technician and the supervisor, or they just needed to retain enough number of working staff for sustaining a regular annual funding.

Suddenly it dawned on me that not getting full funding might not be that bad after all. The need for funding forces one to be constantly thinking of winning the public’s engagement and the sponsors’ trust, which are essential in getting funding or sponsorship. Whether the sponsor is the government, corporate sponsors, foundations, or individuals, they would give support only when the institution shows the dynamics and excellence in continuously attracting, engaging and exploring new cultural possibilities. Those who got ensured full government funding do not need to think of these issues. Most of them stay conservative and are frequently unwilling or incapable of exploring or taking risk. Other than that, there are many other institutions competing for funds. The need for funding forces one to be sensitive about one’s own performance, and to continuously look for ways of improvement. Being poor not only means one has to work hard, but also to think hard into possibilities.  

Of course, the necessity of funding, which leads to constantly responding to the community, does not imply a curator should give up his/her professional belief and artistic integrity. The meaningfulness of the programme to the curator and to the public are equally important.

In the past I had to sadly give up some excellent exhibitions because of the lack of funding, but I have also rejected sponsorships because the exhibitions proposed by the sponsors were not of acceptable quality, or the exhibitions didn’t adhere to the vision of the institution and my artistic direction. There were times I knew the exhibition could not get funding, nor attract a substantial audience (for example, works people don’t like, such as the exhibition of works by Vietnamese refugees who were locked up in Hong Kong and being discriminated against in the 1990s).

As a curator, you need to be sensitive and maintain constant interactions with the audience on their cultural expectations, but at the same time, hold on to your belief. Being poor forces one to be sensitive to the community’s feelings and needs, instead of locking yourself up in your own space and intoxicating yourself with your own undertaking.


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

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