Shark and Minnow, A Funding Game for Hong Kong Artists

Yijie Du 

People with Down syndrome are the purest people in the world,” said Chan Fung, a young and ambitious photographer in Hong Kong.

Wide grins. Gleaming eyes. With 23 vibrant portraits of local children with Down syndrome—a genetic disorder associated with physical growth delays and intellectual disability, Fung is going to showcase three themed exhibitions early next year in collaboration with Hong Kong Down Syndrome Association. He has been a volunteer there since 2012.

Chan Fung, the Hong Kong post 80's photographer, is shooting pictures for children with  Down syndrome, "The Purest People."

Chan Fung, the Hong Kong post 80’s photographer, is shooting pictures for children with Down syndrome, “The Purest People.”

The free photography exhibitions, dubbed “The Purest People”, are supported by Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC), the statutory body supporting arts development in the pragmatic metropolis known for its trade and finance.

That means Chan, a fresh graduate from City University of Hong Kong in July, doesn’t have to spare a penny for his raising awareness art project. Instead, the government pays the bill, after half a year’s rigorous vetting.

A total of HK$48,800—that is Chan’s slice from HKADC’s funding cake, 10,000 dollars less than the amount he proposed. Still, he is a lucky dog in this city’s polarized art community—when it comes to government funding.

The HKADC has initiated multiple project and artist grants that bolster local art development, including One-Year or Two-Year Grant, Multi-Project Grant, and Project Grant for Budding Artists and Cultural Exchange.

For most non-commercial small-to-medium art organizations in Hong Kong, government funding is a major investment source. Resources, however, are limited and in slight portions. The visual arts, music, theater, dance, film, literature, art education and criticism all drain from the same funding pool.

Competition, therefore, is intense. Applicants are required to fulfill an exhaustive project proposal before a meticulous panel review by the Arts Development Council.

It took Chan a month before he submitted his application in December, 2013, listing all specifics about his public awareness project: the demo, the artist’s motivation and aims, the studio and gallery rental details, a tentative exhibition date and an encompassing budget plan.

For some, the scrap of money is not worth the labor. Perry Dino, a 49-year-old oil painter and tutor, never strives for a penny from the government’s account.

“It is a very complicated procedure,” said Dino. “You have to come up with a brand new project, preferably one that has never been achieved before. Then you have to write proposals to apply. Once approved, it is not uncommon that the grant is somewhat short of what you ask for. Further, you are required to file an inclusive report upon fulfillment. ”

“At the end of the day, the leftover of the promised fund is only peanuts,” Dino said.

Even the beneficiary of the government funding programs is in two minds.

Leung Ka-wai, the artistic director of Theater Strawberry, a newly founded non-profit troupe, has cut his deal of around HK$40,000 for his physical theater project in HKADC’s Project Grant for Budding Artists.

“Tens of thousands of dollars are never adequate to cover the whole production for a play, not to mention any profit,” said Leung. Theater Strawberry is scheduled to stage performances in Tokyo and Taipei early December, while Leung digs into his personal bank account to afford the expenses.

Free Fung, a local drum tutor and gig player, has always struggled to pay for the soaring studio rent on his own with a modest earning, which is the portrait of a vast majority of unrecognized artists in Hong Kong.

“It is utterly difficult for emerging artists and art groups with scant fame to apply for a government grant,” Fung said. “The process is intricate with multiple examinations. The vetting criteria are all about each project’s return on investment. How much? And how soon?”

Like the rule of the jungle, it is the sharks, but not the minnows, that can survive in the funding pool.

Of the HK$3.3 billion arts and cultural budget this year— less than one per cent of the total government expenditure, the administration spent HK$947.4 million, or 29 per cent, on public programming for performing arts venues. The Arts Development Council, which subsidizes the majority of the local art community, received only three per cent of it—the smallest share, according to Home Affairs Bureau, the government branch overseeing Hong Kong’s cultural and recreational matter.

For the “Big Nine”, nine major publicly funded performing arts groups in the city, the total subvention in 2013/14 is HK$304 million. Meanwhile, medium-sized art groups and projects lock in HK$33.8 million under the Arts Capacity Development Funding Scheme (ACDFS), while small groups share HK$40 million through the Arts Development Council.

In 2010, the local administration injected HK$3 billion into the Arts and Sport Development Fund. Half was allocated for the art industry. An annual provision of HK$30 million has been set aside for the Arts Capacity Development Funding Scheme since 2011.

The Springboard Grants in this scheme – up to HK$2 million per project for a maximum period of two years – are more than twice as hefty as existing project grants offered by the Arts Development Council.

Though the ACDFS is sufficiently financed compared with the Arts Development Council, the bar for a grant from the scheme is raised up high.

Under its umbrella, the Springboard Grants require the applicants to secure cash income of no less than HK$1 million; the alternative Project Grant targets at applications involving proposals with an overall budget at or above HK$800,000, according to ACDFS’s guide to application.

The door is open, but only the more established is served the cake.

Almost all of the “Big Nine” performing arts groups have pressed ahead with bids for extra money put up by the government early this year, despite the lion’s share they cut from the authority’s funding channels.

They said that even if they stayed out of the bidding for the HK$30.4 million in additional funds offered by the Home Affairs Bureau, the money would not be funneled to smaller arts organizations under current funding mechanism, according to local media reports.

The stark reality of the funding hierarchy has largely stifled budding art startups with inadequate personnel and financial support—the potential seeds for Hong Kong, a city long lamented as the “Cultural Desert”, to blossom into an art hub.

Music Lab, a one-year-old non-profit organization that aims to popularize classical music with a broader audience, has not yet approached government grants and public funding in its bid for survival.

Music Lab's mission statement:「Where Audience Evolves」

The local homegrown non-profit art group  Music Lab’s mission statement:「Where Audience Evolves」

Co-founded by the prodigy pianist Wong Ka-jeng – the subject of a Golden Horse award-winning documentary, “KJ: Music and Life”, the homegrown musician group has undergone an aggressive year with its part-time staff. Seven performances have been staged in 11 months while the attendance is not always secured. Its founders often have to rely on their pocket money or earnings from music tutorials and recitals to cover the costs of staging a show.

“It’s true that startups and small arts organizations face a lot of difficulties,” said Dennis Chan, Marketing Manager of Music Lab. “One program funding for Art Capacity Development Scheme can be very useful for tens of smaller art groups.”

After a year’s hard work, he said Music Lab is trying to build up its portfolio to polish the performance record required by a public grant application.

“We are targeting to obtain more support from the authorities with our creative programs, to tackle our relative lack of financial funding and personnel in our first year,” he said.

The game is never fair. The ‘minnows’ in Hong Kong’s art community can only struggle to fit with the policy to survive.

“But we also accept that it takes effort and experience to manage the public funding well,” said Chan, the marketing manager. “So we will continue to work hard on our programs to make our proposals exciting instead of just mourning. ”

For Fung, the unknown band drummer, the harsh reality for local artists is but a reflection of the city’s hidden rule.

“If you understand the core value of this city, you can make better sense of its funding policy,” he said. “The resources won’t be tapped if there is no instant and huge economic gain from individual projects in arts, as well as in sports and literature.”

“Money,” said Fung, “is what the majority of people living in Hong Kong look up to.”