Thu, Jul 17, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Do culture vultures help the economy?

Taichung Mayor Jason Hu (胡志強) is pushing hard to get the Guggenheim Foundation to build a branch in his city. But Hu wants more than just a museum. He wants to build a "Guggenheim Garden Special Zone" in a rezoned tract in the suburbs of Taichung. The proposed zone would be integrated with a new city-government complex -- a new city council building, an opera house and the museum branch. The projected cost is NT$12.4 billion.

An evaluation by the Guggenheim Foundation expressed optimism for the potential of a Taichung branch, given that the National Museum of Natural Science in Taichung attracts 2.7 million visitors a year.

Due to the sluggish economy, both the central and local governments are in financial dire straits. The estimated budget for the Guggenheim museum alone is NT$6 billion. Even though the central government has promised to put in half of the budget, many Taichung city councilors are already complaining that the project is too expensive. The question for city councilors and the general public now is whether the investment will yield a good return.

However, due to the broad range of factors involved, it is almost impossible to accurately predict whether such an investment would succeed. It is difficult to determine whether the success of the science museum bodes well for the Guggenheim project. If one has only a limited budget for visiting museums, then one may go to the science museum instead of the Guggenheim, or vice versa. Hopefully, the establishment of a Guggenheim branch would prompt the public to increase their budgets for museum visits so that they would not be faced with an either-or choice. An even better situation will be one in which tourists visiting the National Palace Museum also go to Taichung to see the Guggenheim and then proceed on a sightseeing trip on the central cross-island highway.

Investments need to be propped up by big dreams. Hu has emphasized repeatedly that culture is good business. He's right. Without the support of business opportunities, culture will have to rely solely on government subsidies. Such culture has no dignity and often becomes a ritual.

Is a NT$6 billion museum expensive? How much money does the government spend each year to subsidize cultural events? Does this nourish those events? Not really. Government subsidies only postpone their death. They cannot save their lives. The reason is very simple: there is no business opportunity. So, the government's expenditures are lost forever and yield no return. The money becomes a charity budget for buying off cultural workers.

Hu's Guggenheim plan may also trigger controversy over so-called cultural hegemony and cultural invasion. The survival of culture has always depended on many layers of nourishment. After the Han migration to Taiwan began 400 years ago, Taiwan has had a mix of Chinese and Aboriginal cultures, with the late addition of Spanish, Dutch and Japanese elements. Taiwan now has a unique cultural blend following the "localization" of these elements.

A culture that remains unchanged is a dead culture. It can only rely on government subsidies. When local and foreign cultures come into conflict, this means both sides are full of vitality. So neither sides will die. Instead, they may gradually merge into something new.

Now the key question is: will the arts museum bring business opportunities? Perhaps no one will know before it actually opens. Everything will depend on whether Hu and the central government are willing to take this big risk.

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