People who go on to have a career in the world of culture and the arts often know from an early age that is where their interests and greatest talent lie. For example, Gerard Tsang, who is now assistant director (heritage and museums) for the Cultural Services Branch of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, was already fascinated by Chinese calligraphy after just a few lessons in primary school.
His interest in art and painting continued to develop until he made the critical decision to switch to a major in Chinese fine arts and archaeology during his second year at the University of Hong Kong. The key moment came after Mr Tsang had attended a lecture on Chinese painting by Lui Sau Kwan which caused him to recognise his true vocation.
"People questioned what I was doing at the time," he recalls. However, he had no doubts and was soon immersed in the study of calligraphy, painting, sculpture, pottery, architecture and basically everything related to the artistic culture and traditions of China.
Even so, Mr Tsang was unsure how he could turn his expertise in art into a career. "During the '70s, there was only one small museum in Hong Kong at the City Hall and obviously not many job vacancies," he says. Therefore, he joined the government as an executive officer and learned about personnel management, administration and financial accounting. He looked on this as a career challenge and even spent time studying a diploma in management studies.
Running a museum is a combination of business, educational experience and entertainment
The unfamiliar duties and evening classes did not deflect him from his passion for art, So, after four years, when he heard that the government was to open a history museum and needed an assistant curator responsible for domestic archaeology, he was among the first to apply.
Nowadays, his department emphasises education in cultural subjects and has over 600 trained volunteers to carry out this mission. "Museums of history are always popular because the exhibits there are closely linked to people's lives and their own experiences," Mr Tsang points out. "Art museums, though, are slightly less accessible, since they require visitors to have a certain level of ability in appreciating art. That's why we regard art education as so important."
Mr Tsang feels his work has allowed him to introduce beautiful and inspiring things to the general public and, when he sees a group of awe struck school children admiring an exhibit, knows that his team has achieved their purpose. He believes that running a museum is "a combination of business, educational experience and entertainment". There is also the need for a keen sense of the market value of different works of art. "When we buy a piece from a contemporary artist, we are also making an investment," he explains.
While still a curator, Mr Tsang had the benefit of being able to concentrate on his area of expertise and felt there was nothing better then getting paid to do what he was most interested in. Now, as chief curator, he manages 13 public museums and the Central Conservation Section, as well as the Antiquities and Monuments Office. He also handles marketing, education, and risk and crisis management. "You may have to deal with more diverse issues, but you still have your niche and can influence the direction of the organisation," he says.
Developing the business aspect has been a major challenge. However, a record-breaking 290,000 visitors for exhibitions such as "From Eastern Han to High Tang: A Journey of Transculturation" and "Impressionism: Treasures from the National Collection of France" are testimony to the artistic, commercial and promotional approach being taken.
With the West Kowloon project and plans for four new museums covering an area of 100,000 square feet now under discussion, young recruits will be needed. Those with first degrees in art, history, or other subjects will be considered for new positions now being created. However, Mr Tsang adds that a museum should be seen as a business with its own rules and regulations, which must be learned and respected by newcomers.
While international exposure and language ability are important attributes, he stresses that the vital thing is to develop an area of expertise early on. He also advises young people to look for temporary positions or to volunteer at cultural events in order to gain experience. "With this, you will stand a better chance of landing a full-time job," he says.
While a career in mainland China is possible, curators who are expert in any area of the arts should understand that the salary gap can be huge and that, if they decide to move, they might earn only one tenth of what is offered in Hong Kong. "The highest ranking staff in China may only get what an assistant curator is paid here," Mr Tsang explains.
Therefore, experienced professionals approaching retirement age are more likely to work in the mainland as a way of making a contribution to the country. Mr Tsang also advises that it is necessary to pay extra attention to the different administrative system they will encounter.