LEARNING FROM LOCAL ESSENCE


Ms. Florence Lam, Ms. Susanna Lee and Mr. Alexander Hui

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Dialog

Felix:

Hi everyone, this is the fourth Live Webcast of the Art Node Project. Three guests are invited, and counting me in, the four of us here tonight are in a way echoing with the number of webcasts launched since April 2010. The four of us have indeed something in common, that is all of us have the experience of assuming the directorship of the Hong Kong Art School (HKAS / the School). Let me first introduce our guests who are in fact also my dear friends.

Firstly, Ms. Florence Lam, her service period at the Hong Kong Arts Centre (HKAC / the Centre) was from 1996 to 2000. I have known her for years. We are colleagues, friends and work partners.

Secondly, Ms. Susanna Lee, her service period was from 2000 to 2005. Susanna is also a good friend of mine and we used to work together at the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications (HKCAAVQ). Our first encounter was quite unforgettable as Susanna was at that time heavily pregnant, yet she was still striving to fulfill her mission, which was to put the School through the accreditation exercise of the HKCAAVQ. That was impressive and I could hardly forget our first meeting.

Then thirdly, I would like to introduce my close friend who is as if my brother to me, Mr. Alexander Hui. Though we’ve known each other for only a short period, we had the experience of working side by side at difficult times, and which somehow made us really good friends that we could talk about almost anything. He was also a key figure in my career at HKAS as it was mainly his faith in me that made me part of the School. It is indeed an honor for us to have them here with us tonight.

The School steps into the 10th Anniversary celebration this year and we are proud of our devotion to art education as a self-financed institute without government funding. Through this live webcast, our three guests will review the birth and growth of HKAS in the last decade with respect to the experience during their directorship and the development of the art education landscape in Hong Kong. In the past ten years, HKAS awarded two thousands graduates and half of them received degree level qualification. Thus, the contribution of HKAS in art education was beyond question.

Let us start with Florence first. Prior the establishment of HKAS, how did HKAC promote art education in the 1990’s?

 

Florence:

Prior to the establishment of HKAS, art education at HKAC was run by a department called the Education Programme Department. The Department mainly launched art-related courses. Most of them were courses for interest groups and on short-term basis. It required loads of effort to arrange those courses mainly due to the wide range of subjects they covered. Students at that time often shifted from courses to courses and rarely had an in-depth study on a particular subject. Hong Kong education later laid more emphasis on art-related subjects, and students started looking for more advanced courses instead of merely having a glimpse of art knowledge or appreciation. Motivations of teachers as well as cooperation between teachers and students were vital elements in the light of transforming the Education Programme Department into the School. We put ourselves forward in this direction at the same time when overseas universities were in search of work partners in Hong Kong.

The department planned for launching over three hundred courses in a year at its peak under the full support of the Executive Director at that time, Mrs. Jackie Ma. The investment involved in art education was huge and in high risk not only because we set high standards in terms of quality, but also because we were self-financing. Usually, only about seventy percent of the courses planned were finally and successfully launched. Back then, there was somehow a hidden rule, courses could be launched without making any profit, yet they could definitely not be launched if it caused any deficit. The courses we launched were quite popular in general and most participants were adults. In the middle of the year, there were also voices and demand for parents & children’s courses, so we attempted to launch a few until other education operators started launching similar courses. The intense competition made it too difficult for us to continue to run those courses.  Moreover, there were computer and animation courses at that time, but our competitors were often way ahead of us in terms of facilities and equipment, because we were not as equipped as our present School is. During that period of time, the art education environment was under transformation with influences coming from different aspects, while the public was looking forward to art educational programmes of a greater diversity.

 

Felix:

Right at that transformation period, we launched the first ever Bachelor degree in Fine Art, which was operating in part-time pattern, with the RMIT University in Hong Kong. Florence, it was launched under your initiative. The programme has been launched for thirteen years already, how exactly did the collaboration take place?

 

Florence:

It was indeed quite interesting. Some overseas universities were looking for work partners in launching collaborative non-local programmes in Hong Kong at that time. Professor Kevin White from the RMIT University, who had a specialty in ceramics, paid a sudden visit to my office one day, and proposed to have a meeting with me. It was truly out of my expectation as we had never met before and no prior appointment was made. In over conservation, Kevin believed that ceramics programmes of a more advanced level were in need in Hong Kong, and he sought for our views on collaborative opportunities. It was interesting that my first response was to suggest him to check about the relevant possibilities with the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (Poly U), as at that time, apparently, the Poly U was more experienced and sophisticated in launching similar programmes. However, having already approached other potential institutions, Kevin considered us as the most suitable work partner. Then, I brought him to our tiny ceramics studios on the 10th Floor of the HKAC. To my surprise, he was totally fine with the cozy environment and concurred with the idea of starting the programme from a small scale.

We were also launching programmes with a visual art institute from the US at that time, and undeniably, the participation of RMIT University accelerated the development process of running non-local programmes. There were of course quite some hardships during the process. In preparation for launching the programme, we were informed that the government had a series of regulations to monitor non-local courses. It was why we subsequently got in touch with Felix, who was at that time looking after relevant regulations, for advices on the application and the registration. In view of the strict requirements of HKCAAVQ and the fact that experts in this area were scarce, it was truly difficult for us to eventually fulfill all the requirements.  We acquired support from different internal and external parties, and thus, when the programme was finally launched, supporters from all aspects were having high expectation for the programme. The student number grew from 27 in the first year to over a hundred when I left HKAC.  In January 2000, the Education Programme Department was formally upgraded to The Art School which signified a great leap of the School towards a brighter future in art education.

 

Felix:

Right, I first met Florence because of the assessment work of the non-local programme. The programme was assessed and the department was formally upgraded to the School in year 2000, which embarked upon a new era. Susanna, could you tell us more on how the department was formally upgraded to the School?

 

Susanna:

It is nice that I have just been able to learn a lot about the history of the School from Florence. To my understanding, HKAC aimed to establish an institute to offer advanced fine art courses to post-secondary students. The year 2000 was a turning point, I took up the post at the School before the departure of the then chairman of the Board of Governors, Mr. Po Chung SBS JP, and right after the departure of Florence. Mr. Chung demonstrated an incredible blueprint of the School development which involved the upgrading of the Department to the School, and I was thus given a clear vision as well as a mission.

Under the outline of the Hong Kong Education Reform in 1999, post-secondary education acquired an increasing variety of curriculums which correspondingly encouraged more operators to deliver an even wider range of programmes. It was also an opportunity for HKAC. With the support of HKAC and the School Council, the School set forth a formal road map in art education which also shaped the primitive form of the School.

The learning environment and format offered by universities in general might not be able to fully facilitate students’ needs, while, the School was capable to provide a more flexible teaching and learning environment. The School did not merely target to offer basic courses for beginners but also advanced programmes for future and potential art practitioners. The School had to be accredited by the HKCAAVQ in order to gain recognition from the government, the community and the art education field. We were lucky enough to have consulted Felix on the matters of accreditation at that time, but it also worried us a lot as the requirements of HKCAAVQ were almost unachievable to us.  Even though we first met in year 2000, it wasn’t until year 2003 did we finally put our School and programmes through the accreditation process. Our colleagues actually took three whole years for the preparation of the massive amount of documents required by the accreditation.

As Florence has just suggested, a conceiving period, which is sometimes even prolonged, for programme development is inevitable and we could take the Master of Drama Education programme which we collaborate with the Griffith University as an example. The initial blueprint of the programme was a mutual design between the university and the School according to local needs. However, in view of the quality assurance regulations as laid down for non-local programmes, the programme was required to first run on trail for a year in Australia before it could finally be operated in Hong Kong. It should perhaps be considered as an achievement for the School to successfully launch the programme at the end, which was conceived on the basis of a mutual belief between both parties. Afterwards, the School launched several higher diploma programmes as different opportunities were coming along, and despite the tremendous amount of stress placed on the shoulders of every colleague, the programmes all got accredited in 2003.

 

Felix:

The huge efforts spent for overcoming the hardship and the difficulties owing to the heavy workload associated with the accreditation process were indeed all counted. It is perhaps interesting to note that the accreditation record of the HKAS at the HKCAAVQ was always considered as outstanding. I was in charge of the accreditation process for more than 10 institutes in Hong Kong during my years at HKCAAVQ, and I seldom kept the relevant documents for reference, yet the submission document of HKAS turned out to be among my favorite collections in this connection.

The position of the Director of HKAS was vacant for a period of time after Susanna’s departure and finally it came to Alex’s directorship in 2007. Alex wasn’t only the director of the School but also the Executive Director of HKAC. Alex, what were your feelings at that time?

 

Alexander (Alex):

The three of you here are educators and I was only a relatively insignificant person serving at the museum before I joined HKAC. I thought the job at the HKAC was somehow quite similar to what I did at the museum before until one day I was told that the programmes at the School were to be revalidated and the School’s accredited status was to be reviewed.  The accreditation exercise accomplished by Susanna back in 2003 drew a group of keen staff members to stay at the School, yet art lovers normally were with strong characters, and among them, those who acquired the right knowledge and the required ability to compose sophisticated documents with practical operation details, which can suffice the accreditation requirements, were utterly rare.

Apart from this, I also had to face certain financial issues, including the venue rental rates and the expense on operating non-local programmes. Issues on accreditation and financial problems were indeed causing me a ‘headache’. The rental issue could not be wholly solved during my term of office, but I was glad to be able to seek for an extremely helpful hand from Felix. Despite his kind concern on his relatively loose connection to the art field, Felix was willing to offer a hand. With support coming from teachers, staff members and students, Felix was able to have the problems gradually sorted.  

 

Felix:

During that period of time, we listed out all the potential problems and then sorted them out one by one. With determination, we figured out our solutions step by step and set forth future plans. In general, it can be said that it is almost impossible to make profit out of operating an educational institute, and it is even worse when it comes to running art education. HKAS is the only art institute which offers major and studio-base studies in Hong Kong, besides, the class size always remains small.   Upholding these operating principles can perhaps be regarded as a merit, yet, it at the same time tremendously increases the operation cost and ramifies the operation process.

I have been in search of the possible balance between upholding the operation principles and maintaining the operation cost. I genuinely respect teachers’ hard work and what they believe. Yet, deficit is usually what follows and what then can be done?  Having the opportunities and possibilities of relocating the School campuses does help.  Thanks also to Alex, for his effort in hunting for more teaching space at the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre (JCCAC, the School’s Shek Kip Mei Campus now).  In fact, we should be prepared to encounter obstacles as we are determined to maintain small class size and major studies. Institutes with government funding normally launch a major study with at least 15 students enrolled in that major stream, while HKAS, without government funding, launches a major study with an even smaller number of enrolled students. The endeavor and determination in art education demonstrated by HKAS perhaps are meant to be respected and recognized in the field.

 

Florence:

At my time, it was also due to the same kind of determination Felix has just mentioned that we carried out both formal and informal surveys, and found that programmes offered by universities usually lacked studio-based learning environment. That was somehow also why we insisted on studio-based teaching though we were squeezed between low student number and financial pressure.

As Alex has just mentioned about the venue issue, I recalled the time when we were short of teaching venues. The painting class was once eventually held at a coffee shop; yet, it turned out that it was quite artistic when the easels were all lined up there at the shop. Apart from the venue issue, equipment was another issue, as technical equipments, such as computers, had to be renewed regularly. It seemed that resources and venues were always the issues throughout the years, and the four of us here took different approaches and at the same time every possible measure to have them solved at different times. Alex was wise to look for more teaching space at the JCCAC (Shek Kip Mei Campus). With the determination of all staff members, it is indeed a spectacular experience to witness a seed from blooming to flourishing.

Felix:

Holding on to a collaborative non-local programme for thirteen years after all is not an easy task. Besides, the collaborative programme with Poly U initiated by Susanna has been in operation for seven years; the Master of Drama Education programme has also been operated for five to six years, and all programmes will continue to run next year.  

Well, it seems that we’ve been talking quite a lot about the past, let’s talk about the future. What are the opinions from our guests in terms of the School’s direction after a decade of operation?

 

Susanna:

Then I may have to talk about something that is related to academic accreditation, which is more or less my expertise. A School can always consider whether to validate a programme or not according to the need of the corresponding target students. If they are full-time students, putting the programme through accreditation can enable them to apply for government loan, and the qualification the students obtain would also be widely recognized, these can at the same time help maintain the competiveness of the programme. Another thing the School may need to further consider is how to let more people get to know about the School.

Something to share is that I took taxi to the School today before the talk, and the driver had no idea where the School was. Even though I showed him a printed map of the School, he still had a hard time locating the School. The location of this newly acquired Shau Kei Wan campus is truly nice, and being able to have our own campus had always been our dream; yet, how can we let more people know about us and how can we get closer to the community?  A lot of our competitors are subsidized by the government and what the School has to accordingly adjust in order to be able to stably stand on its own feet?  We have taken a great leap forward in the field of art education, and continual hard work is indispensable.

 

Alex:

I’ve also tried to explore the issue about getting the School closer to the community and maybe I can share with you some of my views on the use of land and resources in this respect. Some students used to ask me why certain art organizations tended to receive quite negative criticism no matter what they did. I took an industrial building as an example. If the units of a vacant industrial building were released for renting, the property keeper or manager possibly would only need to acquire basic property management and leasing experience in order to fulfill his/her job duties.  While if the units in the same industrial building were first to be transformed into art-related venues by a non-profit making organization and then were released for rental, the keeper or the manager might have to acquire not only property management and leasing experience, but also certain art background and knowledge; and the cost of remuneration for such a staff member, whom was meant to be equipped with specific knowledge, would quite definitely be higher. The increased expense on staff remuneration alone could already be a problem, not to mention the relatively less flexibility in management and daily operation.

Theoretically, art-related venue should be heartily embraced by people and located right at the heart of a community. Yet, I notice that the picture in this twenty-first century is quite different, and artwork, maybe more specifically referring to public art, is often located in remote area. It has indirectly given rise to a sense of remoteness and enhanced the disconnection between art and the community, and it is more or less a fact that art can no longer or can hardly be rooted in a community nowadays.

 

Felix:

I believe, staying outside the university framework, the School has the flexibility to pursue and fulfill its dreams despite it is relatively small in scale.

           

Florence:

I am indeed very pleased to see the kind of determination, pretty much the same as that in my days, is still shared among colleagues today. On the long and harsh road of art development, determination is always crucial. In the old days, a lot of our students were adults at their 30’s or 40’s; their craving for art knowledge enabled them to stay on receiving art education even after years of work in different fields. Their determination and passion, and also, the passion of our younger applicants were all admirable. I believe our art education should be positioned to benefit people from all classes in the society. Some students, after graduating from our programmes, went overseas for further studies, and they brought back with them a vast variety of creative elements which further enriched their works. In the process of art-making, while maintaining one’s uniqueness, it is perhaps also crucial to open one’s heart and mind, and humbly absorb knowledge from the world outside.

Of course, I agree that getting into the community is also an important task for the School. I got similar experience as Susanna’s while I was on my way to the School earlier this afternoon. The taxi driver had no idea of where the School was. Yet, when the taxi was somewhere near, the iconic colors (the unique charcoal grey and yellow) of the School as painted outside the wall of the campus readily caught my attention and finally led us here.

 

Felix:

Would our audience today like to also share with us their views or are there any questions from them?

 

Wylie (Acting Academic Head):

I have been working at the School for quite some years; I have witnessed the achievements the School accomplished, as well as its many contributions to the society. In view of the fact that courses of similar nature are increasingly being offered by other institutes, in your opinion, how should the School better position itself in the present art education environment?

 

Susanna:

I believe all institutions have their own stories, and the School has to figure out the unique story of its own. A few points were just shared and suggested, for instance, how can the School get closer to the community? If more local elements could be engaged, then the School would perhaps be able to leave an even more impressive mark in people’s hearts.

The School may somehow still be making reference to the mission and the philosophy established at my time. Yet, can they accommodate what you desire at present? Or are they no longer applicable to the present situation? After a decade of time, it is perhaps the time for all teachers, staff members, students and alumni to see if there is any need to figure out a new direction for the School.

 

Olive (Lecturer / Programme Coordinator):

What would be your view in terms of the role of the HKAC and that of the HKAS? Maybe especially to Alex, as you have been the Executive Director of the Centre as well as the School director before. What is the relationship between them and how to strike a balance in between?

 

Alex:

Art development has a relatively short history in Hong Kong. The assets of HKAC are all valuable, especially the land it owns. The land can provide rental support to the Centre when artistic activities cannot cover the expenses. According to the HKAC Ordinance, the operation of the HKAC can be decided by its committee members, while, the committee members are elected by members; and one the beauties is that every Hong Kong citizen can in fact become a HKAC member. Since the inception of the School, HKAC has been active in gaining public support and recognition for the School. People who recognize the achievement of the School and people who are concerned about art development in Hong Kong can join the HKAC as members and take part in the operation as well as the decision-making process of the Centre through the corresponding system.  The concept in relation to the forming of the HKAC committee is indeed great and respectful as it involves the participation of its members and can in a way be ultimately led by them.

 

Felix:

The HKAC Ordinance also clearly spells out the Centre’s mission to promote art education. The Centre has also been providing enormous financial support to the School; the School is not only a work partner of the Centre, but also a division of the Centre.

 

Susanna:

From the management point of view, the School is a division of the Centre.   The managing or the working relationship in between somehow likens itself to the relationship between husband and wife.  While sharing the same goal, they give each other room for development.

 

Kiki (Manager of the Academic Programme Administration Team):

Each of you must have experienced a lot at the School in the past ten years. I wish to hear some of your unforgettable memories at the School.

 

Florence:

There were lots of memories indeed. During my time at the School, what I experienced truly broadened my horizon, like having painting class held at a coffee shop. The relationship between teachers and students were so close that they could together talk about the possible future pathway of the School. The joy to work as a whole for the same goal was just fascinating.

 

Susanna:

I recalled a meeting I and a few colleagues had with the then curator of the Hong Kong Museum of Art. The curator had been observing the School for a couple of years and would like to invite the School for an event because the School’s effort in art education was recognized. Gaining recognition in the local art community was definitely something truly encouraging for the School. The success of an institution sometimes may also depend on chances, and when an opportunity comes, deciding whether to grab that or not is sometimes vital. The School may not have to too deliberately build up fame or recognition, as public recognition would usually be granted automatically if the work done is by itself outstanding.

 

Alex:

My service period at the School was relatively short, and I wasn’t able to know all my colleagues very well, but we at that time, despite the difficulties, all held the same goal, which was ‘the School must go on’. It is indeed a great pleasure for me to still be able to see most of you here today.

 

Felix:

‘The School must go on,’ most probably, it was also this belief which made me part of the School today. Whenever my friends asked me the reason for joining HKAS, I would always explain that it was mainly due to my wish of letting more people know about the HKAS.  Most art practitioners are not quite used to fully interpret or share their fruitful contributions with the community; thus, we may have to further bring those out and plant the seed in the public for art development. People who have a specialty in business management always have a feeling that they are superior to the others; instead of putting things this way, it may be nice if they could also apply their related skills and knowledge to the promotion of art education. I hope more people in the public will recognize the contribution of HKAS by the time I leave the School.

I would once again like to express my gratitude to our guests who have just shared with us their precious experience and their views on the School’s birth, growth and future development. And on behalf of the School, I would also like to thank you all for watching the live webcast tonight.

 

End

6 July 2010 5:00pm - 6:30pm


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