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Ribble Chung: When Arts Meets Administration

Ribble Chung
Arts Administrator

An arts administrator needs to be equally strong in the left and right brains. Is that true?

Ha-ha, I really don't know as I have no idea what my left and right brains are like. Let's put it this way, a passion for the arts is a must-have for an arts administrator because motivation is driven by passion. Without passion, what one does is merely administration. Bridging the gap between the abstract elements of an artistic creation and the audience's comprehension surely requires rational logistics.

How did you become acquainted with the arts?

I was a quiet kid who didn't take any musical instrument lessons but loved music. I remember that was the time when the Tsuen Wan Town Hall opened and the government started sponsoring local orchestras. I often attended concerts of the philharmonic and Chinese orchestras alone on free tickets given out through my school. To me, the concert hall was like another world where I could leave everything behind me for the enjoyment of music. It's marvelous. I learned Chinese dance in secondary school and gained some stage experience. After knowing some graduates from the Academy for Performing Arts, I participated in drama and found that I like the backstage more than acting. I studied stage design in the UK because I believed I have a good sense of aesthetics and space. Upon my return to Hong Kong, I worked on a few productions and then joined the Hong Kong Arts Centre as a programme officer.

Did you run into any trouble in your early years as an arts administrator?

Of course I did, for instance, a high-brow performance which resulted in poor attendance rate. That's how I've come along. I would never agree that attendance is the only success indicator. Being mediocre for appealing to a wider audience may bring a full house, but is that what you really want? A piece of work which fails to draw the attention of the majority may not necessarily be low in value. All arts take time to mature, both in its expression and interpretation. Each and every performance has its place in the course of development. If you rule something as a failure at the very beginning, you are depriving it the chance to gather opinions and suffocating its growth. It's a pity.

What can be done when a performance gets a cold shoulder from the audience?

Educating and preparing the audience for the performance is a way out. It's difficult to ask children to sit still in a recital hall, but it's possible if they are given the chance to attend a pre-concert talk or open rehearsal. Knowing something about the composer, the historical background and the instruments, or witnessing the process from production to performance makes them feel connected. With this connection, the act of attending a concert will turn from a passive duty to enjoyment, and the experience will be more multi-dimensional.

That's about knowledge. How about the mentality?

Inclusiveness and open-mindedness are needed for exploring the values embedded in all arts. The performance by the disabled may be unrefined in terms of contents and format, yet it's meaningful in a sense that it enables the physically handicapped to challenge their limitations and rebuild confidence. Most arts groups are inexperienced at the initial stage. Given time, they will mature in skills and techniques. During the course of artistic creation, self exploration, recognition and actualization are more important than anything. Similarly, students' participation in cultural events is also a process of self discovery.

Artists are unrealistic and bad-tempered, aren't they?

I would say artists are perfectionists whose sole focus is on pursuing excellence, though they may not be aware of the operational support needed to achieve that, or may think that there is only one way of doing it. I love the arts, and so I fully understand their obsession. The role of an art administrator is to solve problems when conflicts arise. When resources are limited, he/she has to manage the artist's expectation and think of a less costly way to achieve the same goal. When the curtain is about to draw, and problems keep coming, he/she must be resourceful, strategic and decisive enough to strike a balance between insistence and compromise.

When did you decide to make arts administration your career?

The 1980s saw the emergence of experimental theatres and the 1990s its rapid development. They did not thrive well because they were all on their own—from scripts, props and sets, performance, interview, publicity to house programme production. Being a theatre practitioner, I knew how desperately artists and arts organizations needed support. I was working at the Arts Centre then and naturally I started to think of ways to help in my administrative capacity.

How to make it happen?

I came up with the idea of bringing local artists out of Hong Kong and overseas artists to Hong Kong, creating interaction and exchange opportunities for them. I made arrangement for modern dancers Daniel Yeung and Mui Cheuk-yin, and Chan Ping-chiu of On and On Theatre to perform in Europe. They received high commendation. I gained confidence as I gradually discovered ways to overcome obstacles. After that, I established the Little Asia Theatre/Dance Exchange Network which connected arts organizations of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Australia and Korea, and provided platforms in various cities for roving performances, teaching and workshops, which usually concluded with a collaborated production in the last stop.

What made you take up the job at the University?

After all those years of producing, promoting and sponsoring the arts, my experience told me that arts education in Hong Kong is generally inadequate. The undergraduate years are vital for life education and the development of values. It will be sad to see students overly concerning themselves with monetary pursuits at the expense of humanistic concern or cultural cultivation. It's through exposure to the arts, the appreciation of it and the participation in it that students gradually shape their values, and learn about beauty and benevolence. I want to help fill this void. I want to sow some seeds on campus for the lifelong enrichment of our students.

Any project that you feel particularly satisfied with?

The Student Cultural Ambassador Scheme which had 200 members when I joined CUHK. It has expanded to 800 now. The scheme sponsors students on show and exhibition tickets, prepares them with the necessary knowledge for arts appreciation. It also encourages them to have open discussions on their arts appreciation experience so that they can learn from each other how the same piece of work can be interpreted from different perspectives. We hope they would come to discover the interrelation between arts, individuals and society. We also hope that they would help to promote culture by influencing their peers.

What impact has the work of your office brought to students?

I met a student who lacked self-confidence and was too shy to express his views when he first joined the scheme three years ago. Now he is always keen on sharing his reviews with us. Another student found interest in antiques and took up a job in an auction house after graduation. Two years ago, we took the CUHK drama group to Beijing to meet other universities for a performance. They learned a lot through interacting with their counterparts from different places. The eye-opening experience broadened their vision and they came back visibly improved.

What difficulties have you encountered?

Students come and go. They are here for just three or four years. We try to sow as many seeds as possible, with no guarantee whether they will blossom or bear fruit. But I won't be bothered by this. There is an artistic seed in everybody's heart, but whether it will sprout depends on how you take care of it. Some may take years to germinate, while others may only need a small dose of fertilizer. We are fortunate that CUHK offers a nice and spacious environment, with the right kind of cultural ambience favourable for the spiritual growth of our students.