Swedish museum director creates a first for Asian art
This is Lars Nittve
Lives: Hong Kong, China
Family: Married to interior designer Shideh Shaygan
Occupation: Museum Director
Career: With a long and varied career as a lecturer, international art critic, curator, writer, and internationally-renowned Museum Director, Sweden’s Nittve has been the driving force behind some of the world’s most respected art museums, including London’s Tate Modern, Denmark’s celebrated Louisiana, and Stockholm’s Moderna Museet. In 2011 he was named Executive Director of Hong Kong’s new M+ museum, scheduled to open in early 2019.
In 2010, after two decades as an art museum director, Lars Nittve was ready for a rest. His career had included five years as founding director of the Rooseum in Malmö, Sweden, three years as the first director of the Tate Modern in London, and the maximum nine years permitted as director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.
“To be honest, I had lined up a comfortable little academic post, and I was looking forward to doing some skiing and hiking and having some rest,” he says. “And then one day the phone rang.”
The caller was Henry Tang, a Hong Kong industrialist who was then Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary, managing the administration’s relationship with the Legislative Council.
Tang was also Chairman of the Board of a government organization overseeing the development of a 40-hectare plot of reclaimed land which would be the site of an effort to boost Hong Kong’s standing as a regional center for culture and the arts.
“When Henry phoned me, he basically said, ‘Lars, what we want you to do is to create the museum that Asia doesn’t have’,” Nittve recalls. “So I asked him, ‘What do you mean by that?’ It sounded somewhat ambitious. And also somewhat unclear.
“What he meant was that museums such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Tate Modern in London are museums that the rest of the world looks to as role models, and we don’t have that in Asia,” Nittve says. “There are museums in Japan, and to some extent in South Korea, which are good, but they don’t have that standing.”
Although he had wanted a change from his role as a museum director, Nittve had enjoyed the excitement of preparing the Tate Modern for its opening, as well as his work as founding director of Rooseum, so he decided to postpone his rest, and in January 2011 he got on a plane to Hong Kong to serve as Executive Director at M+.
When he got off the plane he discovered that the project had a history.
In 1998, just after Hong Kong reverted from British to Chinese sovereignty, the Hong Kong Tourism Board asked the territory’s Legislative Council to consider developing Hong Kong’s cultural offerings, which a survey had shown tourists thought were poor. The legislators agreed, and the wheels of government began to grind – slowly.
In 2001 a competition to design the entire West Kowloon Cultural District was held, with British architect Norman Foster submitting the winning entry. However, public criticism of the project was intense, leading the government to scrap the Foster design and start over. Foster also won the second competition, which concluded in 2011. The Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron was chosen to design the actual museum.
While the museum had been scheduled to open in 2015 Nittve now says it will be finished in 2018, opening to the public during the first half of 2019.
“The big surprise for me, and the thing I was unprepared for, was the level of oversight, due to it being public money,” he says. “It’s probably taken four or five times more work to get there than it did in, say, London.
“I thought it was going to be basically British. And it probably is British, pre-Thatcher, and on turbo! Basically, it’s old-style civil service.”
‘Lars, what we want you to do is to create the museum that Asia doesn’t have’
With the museum’s opening still more than four years away, Nittve has been focused on The Four Builds: building his team, building a collection, building a museum, and building the audience.
“We have in place the core team we want, and in terms of the collection we’re spending more and more time looking at the moving image side, because we started that a little bit later,” he says. “Geographically, we’re moving out from the center, if the center is Hong Kong and China.
“In the last year we’ve spent a lot of time on East Asia – Japan and Korea – and now we’re moving toward Southeast Asia and South Asia. From time to time we work on things further afield. I think it’s a step-by-step process which is very much research-driven, and then there are always opportunities that you just take.”
One opportunity Nittve took in June 2012 was to acquire more than 1500 artworks from Uli Sigg, a media executive who was Switzerland’s ambassador to China in the late 1990s. Sigg’s collection is widely viewed as the world’s premier collection of Chinese contemporary art.
Hong Kong has been governed by China since July 1, 1997, but Nittve says the museum hasn’t had any political problems in relation to its acquisition of specific artworks.
“We’ve done a number of exhibitions and they’ve included works that I think could be deemed politically radical or sensitive because of what they depict, but so far that’s been unproblematic,” he says. “It’s something that we are quite aware of right now, but I think it will take a long time before there are any issues with our collection.”
Of greater concern to Nittve is the lengthy process of conceiving and building the museum.
In 2015 M+ will launch a “relatively big” online presence, exhibiting digital artworks and offering interactive programs, as well as serving as an educational platform. In 2016 the museum will have a 400-square-meter exhibition space on the building site, hosting an ongoing exhibition program until the completed museum itself is open.
“We have to up our game in terms of what we do in relation to the public,” Nittve says. “We need to develop our relationship with the public, build our audience, and do things and get reactions and learn, so they get used to the strange stuff we might be doing in the future.”
Strange stuff? Well, M+ bills itself as “more than a museum” (a “museum plus”) and “a museum of visual culture.”
“It wasn’t appropriate to create a museum only about art, for example, or only about something else,” Nittve says. “Of course you need expertise in various areas, but what happens if you start to collect and think and put various things in dialogue with one another?
“It’s more where you present it than what it is that makes the difference. If you look around Hong Kong, you see that many of the most celebrated youngish artists are also the most celebrated graphic designers or architects, and they can wear different hats during the same day without any problem. If you came out of advertising, say, in London, and said ‘I’m an artist,’ no one would trust you. No one would believe what you did as an artist.
“When you move to Asia you start discovering that these categories are Western constructs, Western ideas, and they’re not as firmly rooted in the architects’, designers’, and artists’ minds here as they are in Europe,” Nittve says.
Visual culture is the starting point, but equally important is the relevance of the museum to Hong Kong and its residents. “In many ways, museums help people understand what it means to be living in a particular place at a particular time,” Nittve says. “Contact with what artists are doing and what designers are doing can be an instrument for self-understanding, and for understanding society.
“Basically we start our story post-1949 or post-1945,” he says. “When it comes to Hong Kong it’s really post-1949, with the major changes in the region that were triggered by the establishment of the People’s Republic. In other parts of the wider region, 1945 might be the relevant starting point.
“And then, of course, we are a museum that looks at the world from a Hong Kong perspective. Although we don’t go as far back in time as [leading European museums] do, basically we tell the same story as they do, but we shift the perspective.”
Text: Roberto De Vido
Published: January 28, 2015
Last edited: March 8, 2018