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Hong Kong’s new museum district appoints ex-Barbican CEO, Graham Sheffield – media round-up

Posted by artradar on April 29, 2010


Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District Authority recently announced the appointment of Graham Sheffield as Chief Executive Officer of the proposed West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD).

What is the West Kowloon Cultural District?

According to Wikipedia, the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD, Chinese: 西九龍文娛藝術區) is a proposed and developing project to boost cultural and entertainment establishments at Hong Kong, SAR. Located at a wedge-shaped and waterfront reclaimed land west of Yau Ma Tei, the district will feature a new modern art museum, numerous theatres, concert halls and other performance venues under the management of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, which is directly financed by the government with a one-off funding of 21.6 billion Hong Kong Dollars[1] for construction and operation.

Graham Sheffield’s previous experience

Sheffield comes to WKCD via 15 very successful years at London’s Barbican Centre, where he held the position of Artistic Director.

Graham Sheffield

An embattled project

He replaces Angus Cheng Siu-chuen, a former Disney executive who spent one week in the position before resigning. In fact, a number of setbacks have hindered this embattled project.

As reported in The Standard: “In 2002, British architect Norman Foster was declared the winner of an international design competition…The project was shelved in April 2006 because of public opposition to a single developer and the lack of enthusiasm from developers to tender for it.

In September 2007, the government…handed control to the new West Kowloon Cultural District Authority while abandoning the Foster design. The following year, the government injected a one-off funding of HK$21.6 billion for the West Kowloon construction and operations.”

A model of one of the plans for the Centre

Shift in governmental thinking

“Art has already emerged as one of the most prominent industries in the world, but Hong Kong is still focused on finance,” states Jim Chim Sui-man, artistic director of Please, Imagination, Play, speaking with The Standard.

Oscar Ho, Curator, Director of MA Programme, Department of Cultural & Religious Studies, CUHK, was recently interviewed on RTHK’s Backchat. Here, he mentioned that the current governmental system in Hong Kong is not used to understanding or recognising artistic professionalism and this is something that needs to change for WKCD to be successful.

Ho went on to say that there are hopes this appointment signals a shift in governmental thinking. Graham Sheffield is an experienced arts manager and prior appointments to this role focussed on bureaucratic and site management skills. Many in the local arts community hope this shift in understanding will continue to influence administrative decision-making, including the imminent formation of a management team to work with Sheffield.

The West Kowloon Cultural District Authority will soon appoint a management team consisting of six executive directors and Sheffield will surely have heavy input into its selection. The Authority recently announced the appointment of a Performing Arts Executive Director.

Arts management expertise

The fact that Graham Sheffield’s expertise is concentrated in the area of arts management is a concern to some critics of the appointment.

The centre is due to open in 2014, and Sheffield’s three-year contract will take him up to this date. There is some scepticism as to whether he can fulfil the obligations of opening a centre. The Barbican was a well-established arts complex when he took over its directorship; he was not building it from scratch.

The site of the proposed West Kowloon Cultural District

Lack of local experience

Lee Wing-tat, a Democratic Party legislator, is reported by The Standard as being “unsure of how the new man will perform because of Sheffield’s lack of local experience, though Lee acknowledges he has well- honed skills in managing a cultural center. To offset that…he’s suggested Sheffield should have a local as his deputy.”

Jim Chim Sui-man, artistic director of Please, Imagination, Play, also speaking with The Standard, “said a local with insight in the city’s art scene should be hired to assist Sheffield.”

Graham Sheffield doesn’t speak Chinese and has readily admitted to having little understanding of local culture or politics. Tanya Chan, Former Civic Party Legislator, speaking on RTHK’s Backchat program, stressed that Sheffield will need to very quickly come to understand local values and business culture, as well as get a good grasp on the system of government currently operating in Hong Kong.

Sustainable Living Hong Kong writes, “Although [Sheffield] readily admits that he will need the support of a local team to get him up to speed, there are bound to be enormous obstacles in that Hong Kong has nothing like London’s mature and vibrant art scene.”

It is generally viewed as a success that Hong Kong has been able to attract such world-class talent and local advocates of the appointment believe that Hong Kong just doesn’t have someone from the area with enough experience to successfully lead such a large-scale arts project. As mentioned in HK Online, “Hong Kong needs the worldwide publicity that comes with such good news.”

Listen to it here:

West Kowloon New CEO, Backchat, RTHK, 23 April 2010

Read about it here:

New king of Kowloon, The Standard, 9 April 2010
Arts hub chief vows to make global impact, The Standard, 25 March 2010
West Kowloon Cultural District: Graham Sheffield better brace himself,, 25 March 2010
Good luck Graham Sheffield, Sustainable Living Hong Kong, 25 March 2010
This is a job for…Supergwai! Big Lychee, Various Sectors, 25 March 2010
The West Kowloon Settlement, HK Online


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