Encore Values: Get front and centre for the Hong Kong Arts Festival, shaper of the cultural landscape

By Joseff Musa
Feb 06, 2024

The Hong Kong Arts Festival (HKAF) has been a cornerstone of the city’s cultural scene for over half a century. Celebrating its 52nd edition this year, it continues to captivate audiences with diverse and world-class performances. The month-long cultural feast will see more than 1,400 outstanding international and local artists delivering over 150 performances of music, theatre, dance, opera and more. Additionally, Festival Plus as well as outreach and education events account for another 350 engaging arts activities.

The festival proper begins with the classics, as the Bavarian State Opera performs Richard Strauss’s 1912 opera Ariadne auf Naxos on 22 February, and closes on 22 March with a modern ballet, A Sigh of Love, devised by a Sino- French creative team for the Shanghai Ballet. As Kingman Lo, Vice-Chairman of the Hong Kong Arts Festival Society, says: “The 52nd edition of the HKAF will continue our legacy of offering a broad spectrum of the world’s best artists and performances, enticing the Hong Kong audience with an irresistible blend of timeless classics and groundbreaking new works.”

One of the key highlights of this year’s festival is the appearance of five-time Grammy Award- winner Angelique Kidjo. Over the course of a remarkable career spanning more than 40 years, the powerhouse diva has introduced the world to the essence of Africa. For her outstanding musical accomplishments and efforts, she was most recently granted the Polar Music Prize. With the promise of an evening filled with joyful music and the beautiful sounds of the African diaspora, Kidjo’s Mother Nature tour is now making its way to Hong Kong.

HKAF Executive Director Flora Yu also underscores the importance of showcasing contemporary pieces at the annual festival. “We make it our mission to introduce to Hong Kong audiences a fascinating line-up of daring and innovative new works which hold the promise of becoming canonical works of tomorrow,” she says. “In addition, we continue to present a variety of brilliant local works featuring some of the best Hong Kong artists.”

By putting the future on the canvas of the past, Van Gogh in Me is an immersive audio-visual experience that significantly pushes the limits of the conventional concert experience. Van Gogh and Klimt’s brushstrokes are transformed into a state-of-the-art performance experience by the Netherlands Chamber Choir’s resonant purity of sounds and emotions combined with real-time technology.

Back at Full Volume

This year’s festival marks a return to form after several lean cultural years that left Hong Kong arts enthusiasts starved of live international performances. “We are pleased to be able to present our 52nd Festival on a large scale after emerging from a three-year pandemic and staging the previous 51st Festival in semi-recovery mode,” notes Yu. This ramp-up is reflected in the HKAF’s overall budget which is anticipated to be about HK$150 million in the 2023-2024 financial year.

The festival has historically relied heavily on fundraising, and its goal for 2024 is that contributions and pledges from institutional and individual donors and benevolent foundations will account for about 48% of its total revenue. The Hong Kong Jockey Club, for example, has consistently supported the event since its inception. A further 25% of funds will come from the box office, while a recurring subvention of HK$18.89 million from the Hong Kong Government equates to about 12% of the yearly revenue. A possible additional government grant to match donations and sponsorship, and other revenue streams will comprise the remaining 15%.

Lasting Legacy

The Hong Kong Arts Festival was founded in 1973 with the aim of showcasing exceptional artistic talent from around the world while nurturing local creativity. Over the years, it has become one of Asia’s premier arts events, consistently attracting renowned international artists and troupes and earning a reputation for excellence.

By bringing together artists from diverse cultures and genres, the festival has fostered a vibrant exchange of ideas and artistic collaborations. It has encouraged local artists to push boundaries and experiment with new forms of expression, leading to the emergence of unique and innovative performances. Moreover, the festival’s influence extends beyond its annual program to actively engage with the community. Through educational initiatives, workshops and masterclasses, it nurtures the next generation of artists and cultivates an appreciation for the arts among students and the general public. These efforts have contributed to the growth of Hong Kong’s artistic ecosystem and the development of a discerning audience.

Expanded Reach

Running alongside the main performances is the Festival Plus program that aims to enrich the experience of culture buffs from all walks of life. A diverse range of activities like talks, masterclasses and meet-the-artist sessions in performance venues and community locations boosts audience engagement. Highlights this year include a backstage tour of the Ariadne auf Naxos production as well as a fun-filled exhibition titled Unboxing Chinese Opera. In addition, there are outreach events and education programmes targeted at students to foster the younger generation’s interest in, and knowledge of, the arts.

Founded in 1992, the Young Friends of the Hong Kong Arts Festival initiative offers a variety of seminars, lectures and backstage visits to full-time students up to the age of 25, reaching a remarkable 820,000 budding arts lovers thus far. Members of Young Friends can experience two chosen performances and rehearsals during the festival.

In an effort to make the arts more accessible, the HKAF has expanded its presence across multiple venues throughout Hong Kong. Beyond the traditional theatre spaces, performances are held in parks, community centres and heritage sites. This approach aims to bring the arts closer to the public, breaking down barriers and reaching audiences who may not typically attend formal concerts or plays.

Embracing the Future

Organisers are focused on ensuring HKAF’s continued relevance and accessibility to the public by embracing new technologies and formats. Key initiatives include expanding the festival’s digital presence and incorporating digital elements like virtual reality experiences and immersive installations into its programming. Live streaming, on-demand performances and interactive online platforms enable individuals who may be unable to attend in person or prefer the convenience of experiencing the arts from their own homes to engage with the festival offerings.

With a storied past and a vision for the future, the Hong Kong Arts Festival continues to shape the artistic landscape of Hong Kong. As the curtain rises on the 52nd edition, it remains an indispensable platform for artistic expression and cultural exchange, exciting audiences and inspiring generations to come.