‘Life is about chances and choices!’ violinist Joshua Bell once told me in an interview. These words still resonate in my heart. When reflecting upon my past, I have been fortunate to have the right things happened at the right time without me consciously seeking for them. It is a path graciously unfolding itself as I seize every step with diligence and gratitude. As I cover arts-news on Radio 4, I was sent to attend a press conference on a course organized by both the University of Hong Kong and UK Clore Leadership. It was the Advanced Cultural Leadership Program.
First cultural leadership program in Asia
‘Hong Kong is experiencing a cultural awakening. The region’s aspiration to become an international cultural hub requires a new initiative, sustained at the highest level, to enable cultural leaders to steer the way forward and transform the environment,’ said Professor Daniel Chua, Director of the ACLP and Head of Humanities at HKU. He continued, ‘The Advanced Cultural Leadership Programme (ACLP) is designed to meet this challenge, providing outstanding cultural leaders with practical skills, intellectual perspectives and global networks needed to seize new opportunities, strengthen their organisations and deliver a world-class vision.’ Being the first cultural leadership program in Asia, this one-year course is composed of short and intense residential courses. With its mix of local and international experts, the cooperation between HKU and UK Clore brings a global perspective to the region’s unique needs and sensibilities, promoting a dialogue that will lead to informed decisions and new strategies for the transformation of the cultural landscape. Apart from bringing the world to Hong Kong, the course also takes participants to Shanghai and other cities for study tours to learn from prominent cultural institutions around the world.
After the press conference, I knew that it was love at first sight. I had to join this world-class cultural program. This is a significant step at this stage of my career. As a young professional, I was fully aware of my inadequacy. I was, and still am totally thirst for knowledge and experience. From this amazing program, I would have chances to learn from cultural leaders from around the world to see how they strived towards their goals and solved problems. I would also have chances to meet distinguished fellows to exchange ideas. The Shanghai experience would definitely deepen my understanding of the arts in China. Through this course, a strong cultural network across different arts organizations would be forged to lead changes through collaborations.
Although applicants are required to have at least 5 years leadership experience, with a significant track record in the cultural sector, my desire for this course was so strong that I was bold enough to give it a try. It is in my nature to take on challenges. I also had to fight for a fellowship because the fee, $160000, for this course was too expensive for me. After submitting my CV, two references and a proposed new vision project, I was called for an interview. It turned out to be a most enjoyable chat. A few weeks later, I received an admission letter. With a joyful and excited heart, I immediately wrote back to confirm my place. And thus, I became the youngest and perhaps least experienced participants in the inaugural Advanced Cultural Leadership Program, with a WKCDA Fellowship.
A few weeks passed. On a bleak mid-winter morning, Professor Daniel Chua, greeted the 15 participants in the Robert Black College with a most visionary speech on the ACLP, ‘From the cluster of tall buildings in Hong Kong, this fellow-ship sails toward the wide ocean, leading the way to the unknown cultural territories and bringing back treasures to our homeland.’ And thus, the journey began.
Apart from the 15 distinguished participants across the cultural sectors in which 6 were awarded WKCDA Fellowships, there were 6 world- class leaders from the UK Clore Leadership on board. They were Sir John Tusa (Former Director of BBC World Service and Managing Director of the Barbican Centre), Sue Hoyle (Director of Clore Leadership, Former Deputy Secretary-General of Arts Council England), Erica Whyman (CEO, Northern Stage), Fearghus O’Conchuir (Choreographer), John Newbigin (Chairman of Screen England and Culture24) and Dick Robertson (Director, Ideas Unlimited). During the course, there were guest speakers giving lectures on diverse topics, namely Professor Lui Tak Lok on the current Demographics in HK, Lars Nittve, the director of M+ on West Kowloon Cultural District, Dr David Lung Ping Yee on Heritage, Yip Wing-sie and Margaret Yang on collaborative leadership, Valerie Doran, Kung Chi Shing, Ah-Kok Wong and Mok Chiu-yu on local art scene, Savita Apte on confluences of culture etc.
When we were all mesmerized by the beautiful surrounding of the Beas River Country Club upon arrival, we were summoned by our captain Daniel to start the very intense program immediately. The first talk was on the technique of breaking ice with people, however, the chemistry among the participants was already very strong after an elegant dinner at the Club. If that talk was a light appetizer, the heavy main course started the following day.
In one day, we went through 8 classes. It was a tight schedule which most of us had not experienced since our secondary school years. The grilling began with talks by John Tusa and Sue Hoyle on delivering a vision and a vision for leadership, followed by a series of topics circling cultural policy: changes in technology and its implications for the arts, current demographics in Hong Kong, introduction to cultural policy, cultural districts: an overview, WKCDA and heritage. At the end of the most fruitful and challenging day, we were asked to create our own cultural policy for both Hong Kong and WKCD while the nightingale was singing a lullaby high up on the palm tree in the country club at the magic hour of ten o’clock at night.
Arts as Leaders
Numerous discussions and presentations from both leaders and participants continued to the next day. Yip Wing-sie and Margaret Yang from the Hong Kong Sinfonietta came to talk about collaborative leadership. The elegant atmosphere of the Arena Room was changed drastically when a bunch of eccentric looking artists walked in. They were the speakers for the next class, Valerie Doran, Kung Chi Shing, Ah-Kok Wong and Mok Chiu-yu on regional insights about arts as leaders. After these contrasting sections in the morning, the afternoon sections were given by artistic leaders from the UK Clore, including Fearghus O’Conchuir on the artist as leader, Sue Hoyle on quiet leadership and Erica Whyman on the role of Artistic Director. In between classes, we had about an hour to rest and some of us went for a stroll around the country club breathing fresh air into our over-loaded heads. Dinner times were always full of delicious food, wine and laughter.
Our third day was dramatic. Dick Robertson, Fearghus O’Conchuir and Sue Hoyle led us through a series of games and discussions to help us find our own leadership style. It was fun yet emotionally draining because in one of the sessions, we had to use 15 minutes to tell a group of 3 about our lives in the past, including achievements, crisis and influences from people. I remember one of our tutors Fearghus said, ‘You have to let yourself die in order to rebirth’. At the end of this challenging day, we all felt that we had found ourselves.
In the final day at Beas River Country Club, we were given two cases to study. One was Sue’s challenges at the Place and the other one was Erica’s problems when being appointed as the CEO at Northern Stage. The class was then divided into two and we had to imagine that we were the two leaders and persuaded a critical Board of Governors with a new vision to the companies. After our presentation, we had to, again, prepare for another presentation on our reflections upon the course in the afternoon. As the clock was ticking away the hours one by one, we reached the end of the initial camp at Beas River Country Club. Although we were together for only 5 days, we all felt that there was a strong bond of not just a fellowship, but of a true friendship.
Throughout this one year, the fellow-ship will sail to other places, including Taidong, Shanghai etc to learn from different arts institutions. It is my greatest desire to be on board again to explore the unknown cultural territories with some of the most brilliant professionals/friends in the arts circle. And without doubt, I am in metamorphosis.
Producer/Presenter, Radio 4 Radio Television Hong Kong