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Private sponsorship of the arts should be encouraged
13 April 2006
South China Morning Post

Hong Kong's image as a business centre powered by a relentless drive for profits is one that fails to give due recognition to our lively arts scene. Nor does it recognise the flows of public, and increasingly private, money that sustains such vibrancy. Now, a $36 million donation by Swire Pacific to the Hong Kong Philharmonic has helped put business sponsorship of the arts in focus.

For years, the major performing arts groups have relied on the government for the bulk of their funding. In 2004-05, 10 such groups received a total of $230.65 million through the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and Arts Development Council. The Hong Kong Phil was the largest beneficiary, receiving $59.08 million. But there have long been suggestions that established arts groups should learn to stand on their own feet, so public money could go to budding ones with more dire needs for financial assistance.

Indeed, that is the direction Hong Kong should be heading, according to a consultation paper published by the Committee on Performing Arts in November. With a low-tax regime, this city does not have a massive capacity for public funding for the arts. Increasing community support and corporate sponsorship has to be the way to go, it says.

Hong Kong has no lack of billionaires, but Swire Pacific's sizeable contribution is an exception rather than the rule. An explicit aim of the government's original plan for the West Kowloon cultural complex was to encourage business investment in the arts. Now that the plan has gone back to the drawing board, the future of business support for the arts has become blurred. Arguably, despite a renewed emphasis on public sector involvement, a new development model for the project could still include built-in features to promote business sponsorship.

While private money interfering with artistic integrity is always a concern, government meddling in freedom of artistic expression by manipulating public grants would be even worse. In this connection, a proposal by the Committee on Performing Arts to set up a non-governmental body to disburse such grants according to objective criteria is welcomed.

To help established arts groups wean off their dependency on public funding, the government should devise measures to encourage private sponsorship. As a start, a matching grants scheme, where the government would match every dollar of donation obtained by arts groups, might be the catalyst that would prompt the likes of Swire Pacific to dig deep into their pockets. Public grants should not be abolished, but be reduced slowly.

In many developed countries, notably the United States, private support for the arts is a well-entrenched tradition. Many arts groups thrive on a combination of sponsorship, grants, bequests, investment income, membership fees and ticket sales. That should also be Hong Kong's long-term vision.
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