Cover story for Australia Unlimited on head of the West Kowloon Culture District in Hong Kong - Michael Lynch
China isn’t just experiencing an economic boom, it’s revelling in an arts renaissance of sorts. The explosion of visual arts in both Hong Kong and the mainland in recent years, plus the arrival of major fairs including Art Hong Kong and international galleries such as White Cube has shifted the traditional cultural axis from West to East.
Michael Lynch is an Australian who is at the centre of this new and exciting creative period in China. Lynch is the CEO of Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD), a magnificent cultural and entertainment district spanning 23 hectares that has been in the works for 16 years.
The WKCD was first conceived in 1996 by the Hong Kong Tourism Board to attract more visitors, and to address the lack of modern arts venues. Most of the current arts centres were built in the 1970s and 1980s. After years of public consultations, international design competitions and funding reviews, a master plan designed by Fosters + Partners was eventually agreed upon in 2011.
Theatres, restaurants, galleries and the centerpiece M+, a museum of contemporary culture, will surround a vast garden. The first architectural competition (for the Chinese opera venue) is already underway and approval of the master plan from the town planning board should be coming through some time this year.
The first arts facility is expected to be ready in 2016 and in the mean time Lynch is doing his best to create as much hype as he can over what is currently little more than a muddy building site, “We are trying to now move it from the talk stage to the realisation stage,” says Lynch from his Hong Kong offices.
“We are looking at doing big spectacular outdoor pieces – both concerts, festivals, performing arts and visual arts activities on the site. We hope to be physically gigging from the beginning of 2013 … to create that sense of anticipation and momentum on the project.”
Lynch has built his reputation on creating momentum and getting people talking. And he says, it’s achieved “by using some dogged Australian bull-headedness to make sure the project gets realised”.
Having grown up on Maroubra Beach in Sydney, the young Michael spent most of his third year of life in hospital paralysed with polio. Sixty years on he still walks with a stick – something Hong Kong newspapers have picked up in their cartoon satire.
“It certainly gave me a level of visibility and some form of recognition that I’ve been able to create some kind of niche as a rather distinctive character who doesn’t allow physical impediments or other impediments to get in the way of taking on what is an absolute humungous challenge,” he says with the raucous laugh of a man used to poking fun at himself.
As a voracious reader, it was only books that took him from his sun-drenched beach to the four corners of the world, until he first left Australia in 1963 to spend a year in England which gave him exposure “to a whole lot of things” before returning to school in Australia. “I played in the brass band in my school and I’d done amateur dramatics because I thought I was much more talented than I was.”
His university years further awakened Lynch’s cultural awareness but it was in 1972, when he got a job in Labor leader Gough Whitlam’s newly established Australia Council that set him on a course from which he has never looked back.
“I thought I wanted to be a lawyer and a politician and a diplomat and other things and getting exposure in those three years between 1972 and 1975 at that rather remarkable time in Australia’s development just got me hooked into the idea of the arts and the entertainment business.”
After rising to the top of the Australia Council it was on his first day at work as the newly appointed CEO of the Sydney Opera House that he realised he “was home”.
“I’d sailed past it on my way to England in 1963 and watched it being built. I was there the night it opened in 1973. And then going there in 1998 as the boss with a car parking spot, I thought well this is probably as good as it’s going to get.”
Lynch would have been happy to stay there until the end of his working career but he was offered the CEO position at London’s Southbank Centre and the thought of “testing his mettle against the best in the world” was too appealing.
Having worked all his life in Australia, not only was Lynch keen to see how he measured up in the international arena, but also wanted to see if he could make it in what he regarded at the time as the cultural capital of the world – London.
“It was a tough gig trying to change an organisation that had been around effectively since the 1950s and had got into bad habits. It wasn’t really any sort of ideal of an organisation and so that was hard graft in Britain. Australians changing British cultural institutions is somewhat reverse to the way it had normally been done.”
Seven years in London saw Lynch turn an antiquated beast into a modern cultural hub. His name as one of the world’s best arts administrators had been cemented.
In 2009, the WKCD came knocking for the first time, but Lynch, then nearing 60, decided on semi-retirement and returned to Australia. With a CBE from the Queen, he joined the boards of such major institutions as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Victoria Film.
“I thought it might be the time in my life where I might want to slow down but I actually got really bored,” he says. “I loved the things I was doing but I had a bit too much time to myself.”
In 2011, after the exit of its director, the WKCD came knocking again.
“I got the feeling that when they offered it to me I’d be an idiot if I didn’t take it. If I thought I could do it then I really should.”
“I had the boldness of being 61,” he explains of the reason he took up the post. “When you make a big decision like that you are not too worried about the consequences for your ego or your reputation and you are more intrepid in terms of taking on a project of this scale.”
Aware of the challenges the job entails, Lynch argues it’s his long career as a cultural problem fixer and his Australian go-get-’em attitude that led to his appointment.
“Hong Kong is that curious hybrid born of Britain and ancient China and now overlaid with modern China. That is a challenge for someone who came in and said to them, ‘you know, you’ve appointed me for three years, we’ve got to make progress and to make progress you are going to have to get things out of the way of us to be able to do that.’ So that’s been somewhat of a challenge.” One of the other issues of creating the world’s largest government-funded cultural centre is the complexity of not just building but filling a contemporary art museum bigger than New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Not to mention finding curators and talent to fill four major theatres and dozens of other creative spaces.
“I look at what it was like when I was in China in the mid 1990s – at what was then the very earliest stages of the contemporary work – and you look at it 15 years later and I’m just mind-boggled by the progress.”
Lynch is fully confident that when the venues begin to open in 2016, there are “no doubts that we will be able to find the works” to fill them.
Lynch spent the last decades of the 20th century helping to shape the growing Australian arts scene before moving to London during its heyday revival when it grabbed global headlines with the YBAs, Brit Pop and the opening of new museums including the Tate Modern.
“It was a fantastic period to be in London but I was very conscious of the fact that by the time I left in 2009 the centrality of Europe and of the States had shifted – and in a relatively short period of time.”
Lynch sees his role as an arts administrator as an opportunity to also reinforce and embed the connections between Australia and China. Lynch argues that despite the obvious difference in terms of political systems, the mutual sense of humour between the Australians and Chinese helps people understand mutual goals, regardless of the language barrier.
However he is aware that he is in a unique position – working for the Hong Kong government as part of mainland government – to see China through a slightly different prism than if he were to be working for an Australian company or in Australia.
“You’re much more sensitive to the nuance of local politics … of Chinese politics and developments on artistic and cultural fronts.”
A man in the later stages of his career would be forgiven for letting his ego take over and attempting to create a legacy. However Lynch has all the humility of a newly arrived intern, with a can-do spirit of a man half his age and the excitement of a teenager. His candid and honest approach is refreshing. He speaks of “getting things done” and “building a team of successors” who will carry out his dream of creating an exciting cultural landscape for Hong Kong and China.
“I don’t ever see myself as being there at the huge opening ceremony,” he says. “That is probably a role for my successor.”