I Got Time, a work by Morgan Wong from 2013, will go on view at M+ when the long-awaited visual culture museum premieres in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District this year; it symbolizes the process of such an institution being built, and finally opening its doors. Donated by local collector William Lim, I Got Time is an installation related to a durational performance in which Wong held in his hand a series of plastic cups filled with drying concrete for a total of 24 hours over 20 days. The resulting sculptures are lined up to demonstrate a transformation of material as well as the passage of time. A final outcome, more than a snapshot of a moment, is the accumulation of countless actions along the way.
“I always feel that art has a way of recording a place and society,” said Lim, who wasn’t familiar with contemporary art being made in Hong Kong when he started collecting. (At the time, art from mainland China was in vogue.) “Maybe it would be interesting to pay a bit of attention,” he remembered thinking when his awareness changed. “When you collect a work, you are encouraging an artist. I thought it would be a good thing to do.”
Building a museum of monumental scale like M+, with its ambitious mission to serve as the first global contemporary visual culture museum in Asia, would not be possible without the support of local collectors, according to M+ museum director Suhanya Raffel. Hong Kong has long cultivated a strong base of collectors who have been a guiding force in providing various forms of support for emerging artists in the city.
“What makes Hong Kong different from New York or London today is that art collectors have taken the lead, as major institutional museum practice is still very new in the region,” said Raffel. “When the local art scene started to take shape, it was private collectors rather than institutions that became important pillars within the artistic community, especially in their support of young and emerging artists.”
The star project of a publicly funded West Kowloon Cultural District that has taken more than two decades to build (the idea was first laid out in 1998, just one year after Hong Kong was handed over to China from Great Britain), M+ has positioned itself as one of the largest global institutions focusing on visual culture from the 20th and 21st centuries. With an initial price tag of HK$5.9 billion ($750 million), the museum—designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron with TFP Farrells and Arup—offers a high-profile setting of around 700,000 square feet in which to see art.
Since the early 2010s, the museum has been actively acquiring artworks locally and abroad, and now boasts a total of 7,978 pieces in its collection, with 20 percent of them creations by Hong Kong artists. For a large swath of its holdings it owes special thanks to Uli Sigg, an art collector who served as Switzerland’s ambassador to China, North Korea, and Mongolia from 1995 to 1998, and amassed what is widely recognized as one of the most important collections documenting the key period of the rise of modern China. In 2012 Sigg donated 1,463 artworks to M+, laying the foundation for the museum’s development. At the same time, the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, the statutory body that runs the entire arts hub including M+, purchased 47 artworks from Sigg for HK$177 million ($22.7 million), bringing the M+ Sigg Collection to a total of 1,510 objects.
In the years since, especially in the lead-up to its opening—postponed multiple times for various reasons over the years and then slowed by the pandemic—M+ has worked with many other collectors to secure important works through acquisitions and donations. As Raffel said, “These works reflect the important historical role that so many collectors have had in supporting local artists and makers.”
Among those other donors is Lim, an architect who made his first Hong Kong art purchase—a gongbi ink work by Wilson Shieh titled Skating (Ice-crack Glaze)—in 2006. Little did he know that a single decision he made then would lead to the outsize role he now plays in Hong Kong’s contemporary art scene. It all began with curiosity and a simple gesture to support homegrown artistic talent. “I didn’t expect that I would collect [art] to this extent,” Lim told ARTnews. “Initially, collecting was one way to meet the artists, but over the years, [Hong Kong art] has grown to be my main focus.”
In the time since, the collection Lim built with his wife, Lavina, which he calls the Living Collection, has become an important record of the recent evolution of Hong Kong art, with works by Au Hoi Lam, Lam Tung Pang, Tang Kwok-hin, and Nicole Wong, among others. Last year, Lim and Lavina announced that they would donate 90 works from their collection, as well as Pawn Shop (2009), a historic artist project by 46 international artists, to M+. The donation includes a mix of Hong Kong art and works by artists from other parts of Asia, such as Lee Bul and Haegue Yang from South Korea. The donation also includes Shieh’s Skating (Ice-crack Glaze).
Lim’s collection emerged as the city’s contemporary art scene and art market ascended, and his donation to M+ helps create a much-needed survey of local art for a new museum with international aims. The collection “is about Hong Kong,” Lim said, “but also reaching out to the world. The collection has to be in Hong Kong, and M+ is my best choice. It will be rooted in Hong Kong while getting international exposure.”
Another major M+ donation comprises 25 works from fellow Hong Kong collector Hallam Chow, who has been gifting art to M+ since 2016, with a significant number of works by artists and collectives from Japan, other parts of Asia, and the Asian diaspora. Collections like Lim’s and Chow’s, Raffel said, “have deepened and broadened M+’s holdings in Hong Kong and Asian art” and “have significantly bolstered the museum’s commitment to representing the art of the region, and supported M+’s ambition to transform the local cultural landscape.”
Art collecting in Hong Kong is not a new phenomenon. As a trade hub with a unique historical background as a bridge between the East and West, it is home to many prominent collectors, and since the early 20th century has often served as a safe haven for Chinese antiquities and works of art. Collectors donating their cultural treasures to establish new local institutions also have a long history in the city. The government-run Hong Kong Museum of Art, for example, houses some of the most precious collections of Chinese works of art donated by private collectors, such as the Chih Lo Lou Collection of Chinese paintings and calligraphy founded by the late entrepreneur and philanthropist Ho Iu-kwong.
Another prominent donor to the Hong Kong Museum of Art is the late legendary collector Edward T. Chow, the grandfather of Hallam Chow. Bequeathing some of his collection to M+, the younger Chow said, is a way to honor his grandfather, who inspired him to collect and donate art.
“My grandfather was a prominent collector of Chinese antiques in the early 20th century, and he had one of the most significant and complete collections of Ming and Qing porcelain of this century,” Chow told ARTnews. “My collection was influenced by him with a belief in the breadth and depth of a collection.”
Chow began collecting art when he was 10, and has been collecting the work of Western artists—Wolfgang Tillmans, Danh Vō, Donald Judd, Ellsworth Kelly, and Marina Abramović among them—since high school and university in the United States and England. Works by artists from Greater China, East Asia, and Southeast Asia—including Montien Boonma, Adrian Wong, Lee Kit, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Lee Bul—feature in his diverse collection, which also includes Chinese antiques and ink paintings. Among the works he has donated to M+ are those by artists from Japan, such as Aida Makoto, ChimηPom, Konoike Tomoko, Odani Motohiko, Shioyasu Tomoko, and Takamine Tadasu.
A lawyer by profession, Chow is the current chair of the M+ International Council for Visual Art, which considers the acquisition of artworks by established artists from the region and around the world. The group is “able to shape the goal of M+ as an institution,” Chow said, “to show the world what an Asian contemporary art institution is about and capable of.”
That ambition mirrors the way he sees Asian collectors from the region. Asia is culturally diverse, but collectors from the region share certain commonalities as non-native English speakers with a different sense of aesthetics. “Asian collectors build up collections that echo, support, or react against such Western art collection ideology,” Chow said. “Thereby, through a dialectic and dialogue with Western art collection tradition, Asian collectors would and should have a bigger role to play in the evolution of art collecting in the future.”
While Chow’s collecting approach may be very different from that of Lim, one thing they have in common is that they never planned to build private museums like collectors in mainland China, thinking it more meaningful to make their collections available for public viewing. “Being collected by a public museum is like a stamp of approval,” said Lim, “rather than showing it to your little group of friends.”
There has been no lack of drama throughout the decade-long development of M+ and repeated delays in construction of the building, which was finally completed earlier this year. The latest concern was sparked by the imposition of a new National Security Law in Hong Kong that bans activities related to secession, terrorism, subversion, and collusion with foreign forces that could endanger what supporters of the law deem matters of national security. Offenders could face lifetime imprisonment.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has said on multiple occasions that the law would only affect a “small minority” and that it has restored stability and prosperity for Hong Kong. Since it was enacted in June 2020 following anti-government protests the year before, nearly 100 people have been arrested. The city’s pro-democracy camp has almost completely dissolved, and the newspaper Apple Daily, known for its pro-democracy stance critical of the government, has been forced to shut down, its management staff arrested and refused bail.
A protest documentary titled Inside the Red Brick Wall (2020) was pulled from screening despite its being approved by censors for general release, and the film’s nonprofit distributor Ying E Chi had its funding cut by the Arts Development Council. This past July, five speech therapists were arrested, accused by national security officers of “inciting hatred towards the government and the judiciary” for publishing an allegedly seditious children’s book likening sheep to protesters. Also in July, a protester named Tong Ying-kit was convicted in a Hong Kong court of terrorism and inciting secession in the first major trial since the law took effect; he was sentenced to a nine-year prison term. Political artist Kacey Wong confirmed in August that he’d left Hong Kong for Taiwan, citing freedom concerns. In the same month, three outspoken members of the Arts Development Council quit after Chinese state-owned media named them “troublemakers.”
The law also sparked waves of criticism of M+ from the pro-China camp, which alleged that Ai Weiwei’s Study of Perspective: Tian’anmen—a photograph in the museum’s collection in which the artist raises a middle finger in Tiananmen Square in Beijing—violated the National Security Law by spreading hatred toward the authorities. The work was never planned to be exhibited in M+’s opening shows, and West Kowloon Cultural District Authority chair Henry Tang said the national security officers did not reach out to the arts hub regarding the photo.
Despite the gloomy situation, collectors maintain faith in M+ and Hong Kong. “I’m not too concerned that works won’t be shown,” said Lim. “Some of this is overblown by the Western media. When you look at an artwork at an exhibition, you have to look at the way the exhibition is put together, not isolating a piece of art—how the entire exhibition is trying to tell a whole story.”
Added Chow: “As a lawyer I do not believe that the National Security Law was designed for the purposes of censoring artwork, and I hope that politicians and the general public would not misinterpret the main purpose of such law as a way of silencing culture and art. I do not believe this is an environment that suffocates artistic expression. Rather, self-censorship and/or misinterpretation may be more the source of current misdirected attention on artistic and curatorial independence of M+.”
Meanwhile, M+ has continued preparing for its opening by engaging more patrons and supporters. In 2018, the museum launched a program called Founding Patrons, which, as of this past June, boasted 160 members committed to providing support on an annual basis. In August, a new membership plan launched with aims to grow the museum’s audience (younger museumgoers in particular) and groom patrons in various tiers. “We hope to establish lifelong and multigenerational relationships with our supporters,” Raffel said.
In the coming years, myriad factors will continue to define and redefine exactly what M+ becomes. Local collectors have donated the seeds of the museum’s beginning with the hope that it will meet international museum standards while complying with specific Hong Kong laws.
Lim said that parting with the treasured artworks from his collection may come with emotional costs, but it is the right thing to do in the current moment. A symbolic gesture in many ways, it elevates the status of Hong Kong art and is a vote of confidence in M+ at a time when Hong Kong has endured political turmoil.
“People always had doubts, but I always have faith in M+,” said Lim. “It will be one of the most exciting things in Asia’s art scene. The whole idea about M+, with a mission to go beyond the idea of a museum—you have to trust their integrity. It makes Hong Kong proud and allows visitors to understand Hong Kong.”