Fund! More Fund! What for?
Here is a story I like:
Once upon a time, there was an old man living by himself. In front of his house there was an open field. Every morning he enjoyed having a cup of coffee in front of that field, staring at the peaceful, quiet landscape.
One day, a group of kids came in and started playing football on the field. They screamed, laughed and shouted throughout the whole game. They were playing right in front of the old man’s house. They began to disturb the old man’s peaceful morning coffee hours. He talked to the kids asking them to play somewhere else. The kids refused. They claimed that the field was a public space and they had every right to enjoy themselves there. The old man’s persuasion failed. With determination, he told himself he must do something to stop them.
One day he told the kids, “Hey, I really enjoy watching you guys playing every morning, I want to give each one of you 50 cents for playing, so that I can keep watching it.” The kids were naturally delighted. They could play their game and yet got paid for it.
After a while, the old man said to the kids, “I don’t want to pay each of you guys 50 cents per day anymore. Instead, I would only pay 20 cents a day.” The kids were annoyed and replied, “We insist that we continue to get the 50 cents. If we only get 20 cents, we will not play anymore!” Feeling they were being ripped off, right away the kids stopped playing. The old man successfully got back his peaceful morning.
During the 1980s, Hong Kong had only one public funding body, called Council of Performing Arts. Unfortunately, it supported performing arts only, mainly the large, established groups such as the philharmonic and ballet. Other art forms such as visual art, video art and literature, not to mention the experimental ones, had to find their own ways to survive. After much protests and campaigns in the early 1990s, the arts community successfully persuaded/pressured the government to set up a funding body called Hong Kong Arts Development Council, which would fund a broad range of arts forms. During the beginning years, I was in a working group planning the forming of the Council. After that, I was appointed a member of the first ADC when it was established in 1995.
During these years of planning and working at ADC, I was excited, exhausted, as well as worried about setting up such official funding body we were fighting for. I was excited because finally we had a substantial funding body that helped those desperate artists seeking funds to make their artistic dreams reality. It was definitely a new turn for Hong Kong. What worried me was a cruel reality we tried to ignore, that is, whoever gives you money, it would in a certain way influence, shape and set limits to your activities. A commercial sponsor expects you to help to build its public image, or even help to broaden its market. A foundation usually has its own specific objectives, such as giving support to Asian arts, or arts for the underprivileged. The government would have some guidelines that echo its cultural or even political policies. For some more liberal governments, they might be more accommodative but still have their bottom lines. For a totalitarian government, it would be devastating if anyone tries to go beyond the tightly set rules. That is why in the United States, people believe that freedom of expression must be respected. Subsequently the government has not been developed to be the dominating funder of the arts. Foundations, corporate sponsors as well as individuals play equally important roles if not more in influencing the arts being funded. Most of the major museums in the United States, for example, are found by non-government bodies or individuals. In Europe, government funding plays a more substantial role. However, the common respect for freedom of expression and diversity limits governmental control, even though some sorts of influence remain inevitable.
I was the chairman of the Strategic Committee responsible for drafting the first 5 years plan of the Council. At the end of the drafting and before I presented the plan to the Council, I said, “My ideal development of ADC is that it would systematically shrink and then disappear someday when it is no longer needed. That would be the day when art flourishes and people feel that they need art the way they need water and air. The community itself would support art and fund it. The funding roles of the government or corporations would then disappear.”
It was an unrealistic, romantic, probably laughable dream, but I felt strongly that it should be the direction of the Council.
Looking at how much we rely on the Council, such a romantic dream is far from getting near. It is not just the failure of ADC, it is also the failure of the arts community, for they regard funding from some official bodies as essential for any artistic endeavor. During the 1980s, there was no funding for visual arts, there were still visual arts being made, although they were not presented in some grand formats. Since the establishment of ADC, we have been heavily relying on some external funding from above. If we receive $100,000, we produce a $100,000 project, if we receive $50,000, we produce a $50,000 one, and if there is no funding, there is no project.
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
*Image is generated by AI