Lars Nittve will never forget the first time he visited a museum alone.
“There was this enormous sculpture of a woman and you walked into her between her legs,” he recalls. “It was like a museum within a museum there. For a 13-year-old boy, that was a memorable experience.”
Freudian considerations aside, that unorthodox encounter with the work of Swiss artist Jean Tinguely at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet in 1966 taught Nittve early on to challenge accepted norms of art and how it is meant to be displayed.
Now, at 58, as executive director of Hong Kong’s new contemporary museum M+, he has the chance to test his vision, starting from scratch. Nittve, a former director of Tate Modern in London, says M+ will “raise the bar” for Asian museums when it opens in 2017.
Also known as the Museum of Visual Culture, M+ will house 20th- and 21st-century art, design, architecture, video and sound installations.
M+ is intended to be Hong Kong’s answer to the Centre Pompidou in Paris or the Guggenheim in Bilbao, and will address the longstanding complaint that Hong Kong remains something of a cultural desert.
“Hong Kong offers almost everything a metropolis can offer to its inhabitants or citizens or visitors, but not in the case of culture,” Nittve says in an interview at his office overlooking the future site. “You don’t have anything remotely close in terms of offer as you have in London or New York or Paris.”
The museum will anchor the government-backed HK$21.6 billion ($2.79 billion) West Kowloon Cultural District, a 40- hectares (98.8 acres) project that will encompass 15 performing- arts venues and a large public park on a piece of reclaimed land across from Hong Kong island.
After more than a decade of delays, West Kowloon finally started moving forward in March 2011 when a master plan by Foster + Partners was chosen.
To get a sense of the project’s scale, imagine New York’s Lincoln Center, the Museum of Modern Art and a chunk of Central Park rolled into one.
There’s still something of the 13-year-old about Nittve (he uses smiley emoticons in e-mails). Yet dressed in a gray linen suit and open shirt with black-rimmed designer glasses, he looks very much the part of a museum director.
Since taking his job in January 2011, the Swede has already scored a major success thanks to a generous donation announced in June by Swiss businessman Uli Sigg.
Sigg, who amassed one of the foremost collections of Chinese contemporary art, is giving 1,463 works worth HK$1.3 billion to M+, including pieces by leading artists such as Ai Weiwei, Zhang Xiaogang and Fang Lijun. M+ is purchasing an additional 47 works from Sigg for about 22 million Swiss francs ($22.5 million).
Nittve, who has experience tapping wealthy donors as founding director at Tate Modern and later as head of the Moderna Museet, says Sigg’s gift will make fundraising easier.
“This is a signal that it’s a trustworthy project that’s actually happening,” he says. “Uli Sigg is respected as a collector, so it’s a fantastic signal besides the fact that it’s a fantastic collection.”
M+ has received about HK$6 billion from the government, of which HK$4 billion is for construction and another HK$1.7 billion to build a collection and cover costs such as storage.
It’s an ambitious undertaking. Planned exhibition space will total around 17,000 square meters, more than twice that of Tate Modern, in part because much Chinese contemporary art is “space hungry,” he says.
Nittve says the museum’s design should reflect the fact that distinctions between art, design, architecture, video and sound installations have become blurred, particularly in Asia.
“Anyone who has spent any time in Asian art will see there is more fluidity in these categories,” he says.
He reckons Asian contemporary art will make up about 75-80 percent of the collection.
Nittve says M+ also will help put Hong Kong’s unsung artists on the international map, by providing them with a platform to boost visibility.
Artists elsewhere typically get recognition first in local museums and then become noticed by curators in the rest of the world, he says, which is why Hong Kong needs “a place that’s trusted by the international art community as something that sets the standard.”
I circle back to Nittve's formative experience with “She -- a Cathedral”) by Tinguely, Per Olov Ultvedt and Niki de Saint Phalle. Does he plan to include Tinguely in the collection? His e-mail reply said it all. “:-)” was all he wrote.
Muse highlights include Mark Beech on music, Richard Vines on dining, John Mariani on wine and James Russell on architecture.
To contact the writer on the story: Frederik Balfour, in Hong Kong, at email@example.com or on Twitter @frederikbalfour.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.