Double Commodification of Cultural Public Space

The K11 is a real estate brand promoting a vision that says “Lifestyle through Art”, created by Hong Kong developer New World Ltd[1]. Their latest flagship project, K11 Musea, is a hybrid of mall + museum, filled with contemporary artwork and staffed with curators for the art collection and public programme. It was their intention for the visitor to be confused about whether he or she is in a mall or a museum. Meanwhile, there is the city’s latest cultural landmark, the Xiqu (Chinese Opera) Centre. It is the first completed project of the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD), funded by government endowment but operating as a statutory body that is financially independent . The Xiqu Centre is designed with a sleek atrium surrounded by smooth circular path that brings visitors through its dozens of shops and restaurants. Both the K11 Musea and the Xiqu Centre claim to be newest public space for the city, with an experience that is strikingly similar.

The two cases above illustrated the problem of double commodification of cultural public space, where both culture and public space are commodified as units of trade. Since the mid-20th century, (western) sociologist pointed at how culture loses its critical position as a consequence of commodification as T.W. Adorno defined it the “culture industry”[2]. For cultural institutions, business success has become a key objective, where visionary executives look up to cases such as MoMA or Tate Modern for strategies to attract visitors/consumers. Meanwhile, contemporary public space is also turned into commodity, where free access and usage by the public is jeopardised by for-profit purpose and excluding non-consumers. Cultural public space, as a product of heterogeneous postmodern society[3], is no longer bounded by the distinction between public/private or culture/commerce. In order to understand the production and spatial practice of cultural public space, it would be helpful to examine these blurred boundaries.

The blurred boundary of Public / Private

In common public space discourse, ownership is often used to determine the right of access and the right to use. Public spaces can be categorised into a spectrum from the privately-owned corporate plaza or commercial interior, to the state-owned streets or parks. Ownership dictates how the space is designed and managed, and as a result how behavior is affected (or controlled). Comparing to the privately-owned public space, there are less apparent rules at public open space or the streets, generally giving a greater sense of freedom as one believes they can act and express freely as wish. A person can sit at a park bench for hours without interruption, yet at a corporate plaza he or she might be subjected to question, or feel the pressure to make a small purchase to justify their right to use that space. (How about at a museum lobby?)

That is the nominal understanding of public space. However, in circumstances such as those involve social action or conflict, it challenges the ownership for who can do what where, and the boundary of public/private space is never so clear. This leads to the debate regarding the right to public space[4] where the power of the owner (sometimes the authority) to control accessibility and behavior is brought into question. Cultural public spaces, such as museum atrium or theater foyer, are largely considered to be public and open, yet empirical experience in many cases reveal design and management strategies as for private spaces. The argument is not to define whether cultural space is public or private, but to understand the dynamics between “the owner” and “the user” of public space — therefore the perspective of institutional space would be more appropriate. It characterizes cultural spaces as produced through implicit or explicit institutional intervention, and resulting in spatial practice that possess essentially both public and private qualities.

The blurred boundary of Culture / Commerce

In the post-war 1960s and 70s, most western cultural institutions were supported by governments with a welfare-state policy direction that sees culture as public amenity with similar standing as healthcare or education[5]. In parallel to the development of public cultural institutions, the business world has also found an appeal of culture fitting into the late-capitalistic operation, one that Adorno (and the Frankfurt School) criticize as a “mass culture” that is not created by (or for) the public but by capitalists with an objective towards consumption. This was the tension between culture for public good versus capital gain during the late 20th century. Capitalistic society and its effect on culture is recognized as given nowadays, therefore instead of opposition, the focus shifted to explore mutual benefit between culture and commerce. The increasing attention to creative economy amplifies the merit of economic gain by way of culture, where accessibility to culture is considered a key factor for a productive creative economy[6]. It is a view adopted by many cities in their urban development policy, where a renewed significance of cultural institutions is found and private sector contribution to cultural provision is encouraged.

The transition in governance imperatives from welfare-state towards neoliberalism also contributes to the blurred boundary of culture and commerce. The neoliberal state is characterized by transferring responsibility of social provisions to the private sector and portrayed it as personal responsibility[7]. This affects many cultural institutions as public/state funding greatly reduce, they need to seek support through the market and to apply commercial strategies like a private enterprise. It is both an opportunity and a threat when cultural institutions are operated like a business. While the strategies might be effective to broaden audience base and increase cultural participation, the objective of cultural institutions and commercial entities cannot (and should not) be fully aligned. The dynamic between the institution and cultural audiences would be changed as they became paying customer, which might risk to alter the position of cultural institutions towards entertainment industry.

Spatial implications of cultural commodification 

Another common strategy for cultural institution to generate income is to utilise its space, such as increasing commercial program area and allocating advertisement billboard for rent, where public spaces at cultural buildings are being turned into commodity. From the small museum shop selling postcards or the theatre refreshment bar intended only to serve audience during intermission, the retail and food & beverage space at the cultural venue nowadays have changed and proliferated. Most notable are the New York cultural institutions who embraced commercial opportunities since the 1990s, as quoted from the Guggenheim executive who commented that exhibition experience should always end at the museum shop. This has later developed into to the phenomenal case of MoMA Design Store, a museum shop with a scale of operation similar to a department store[8]. The trend is evident, as contemporary cultural institutions allocate more space and resources for business operation, to integrate commercial program into cultural public space. There are about 10 restaurants and shops within the Xiqu Centre serving more tourists than the audience of its two theatres with less than 3000-seats in total. The overall masterplan of the West Kowloon Cultural District emphasis leisure commercial programs (including hotels, offices, luxury apartments and a variety of retail, dining and entertainment options) as much as its cultural programs. Both the space and content of cultural institutions are fully commodified, serving as components of the formula to commercial success. In the contemporary setting, culture and commerce are intended to overlap and support one another.

Is it a trade-off of public good for private-sector profit? Does it diminish the public vision/mission of cultural institutions, or could it in turn benefit the public along with financial gain? If commodification is not to be read as strictly negative, how do we position cultural institutions within the capitalistic-social struggle of public space?

Instead of defending its public stand against profit-making, nowadays, cultural institutions tend to address the issue with emphasis on building sociability through public space. Besides earning the much needed revenue, spatial interventions also help to bring the institution closer to the (mass) public, as many contemporary institutions would like to evolve from the elitist image of the last century. Consumption is then to be seen as something that most people can enjoy, in contrast to the sometimes inaccessibility of high-brow cultural content. The recent public realm project of the Lincoln Centre is an example of how its image is transformed from a closed elite institution into an inclusive social place while enjoying commercial success. A Lincoln Center marketing official has cited that the improved spatial connectivity to surrounding neighborhood has attracted nearby high school students to hang around the now-accessible public plaza, where they might encounter occasional outdoor performances and that could be their first experience to cultural events[9]. The welcoming design of the public space and additional F&B outlets also allow workers from nearby to come for lunch or happy hour, where they could discover the new season’s performance program and became new patron/audience. Together with effective outreach programs, the public space intervention project enjoys an outcome of increasing visitors and audience from a wider spectrum, which is both a good business strategy as well as cultural participation initiative.

Reflection on cultural space as institutional public space

As argued above, the reading of cultural spaces as institutional space allows us to focus on the institutional influence in spatial production. This is an aspect easily overlooked as the attention to cultural landmarks usually falls on the formal and design narrative by famous architects. However, the final outcome – the spatial experience and effects – is not created by the genius of the architect alone, but it is a result of multiple (institutional) forces in play. While the institutional nature of civic monuments or public buildings are generally recognised and seen as a form of power expression[10], cultural architecture is equally institutional and it possess similar (if not stronger) capacity as expression of soft power.

Although it was proposed that institutional public space is a product of top-down power exertion, yet whether the reverse logic of bottom-up empowerment is possible? Can the public in turn exert influence on the institution through public space appropriation? Civic actions from organised social movements to tactical practice often challenge the status-quo through public space intervention, is it different when it happens at a cultural centre or the open street? Or is the cultural institution itself is the establishment to be rebelled against? The problem of commodification complicates the situation and create additional barriers conceptually and spatially, particularly in Hong Kong where popular perception of culture is either a tool for economic gain or a patronising act for a small demographic. To analysis how public space is produced at cultural buildings and its institutional relationship would be the key to unpack the multiplicity of social relationships that is prone to conflict.

The above discussion began with a premise of late 20th century (Fordist) capitalistic context, and the “mass culture” that Adorno question were the press, the radio and the film, mediums that were relatively new at that time. Progressing into the 21st century, with advance in technology as well as cultural and social theories, the view on cultural commodification can no longer be simplified to the class opposition of the labor/proletarian and the capital. Political scientist Chantal Mouffe offers a perspective to change from antagonistic to agonistic, from an oppositional position to a competing but not exclusive relationship. This concept is applied into the concept of agonistic urbanism, where multitude of urban actors work in competition with mutual recognition, yet impossible to arrive at final reconciliation[11]. Without the goal to ultimately resolve all conflicts, it liberates the objective-driven strategies but open to new possibilities, which is suitable for the cultural sector and helpful perspective to investigate institutional public space. Here the cultural space is read as the stage where the interplay between the owner and the user of public space occurs, and to seek agonistic potentials against the status-quo. The cultural institution here with a blurred boundary than has the opportunity to play the role of civic empowerment.


[2] Adorno, T. (2001). The culture industry : Selected essays on mass culture. London: Routledge.

[3] Jameson, F. (1991). Postmodernism, or, The cultural logic of late capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

[4] Mitchell, D. (2003). The right to the city : Social justice and the fight for public space. New York: Guilford Press.

[5] Evans, G. (2001). Cultural planning : An urban renaissance? London ; New York: Routledge.

[6] Florida, R. (2005). Cities and the Creative Class. New York : Routledge

[7] Harvey, D. (2007). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press.

[8] Koolhaas, R., et al. (2001). Harvard Design School guide to shopping. Köln ; New York: Taschen.

[9] Diller Scofidio + Renfro. (2012). Inside out: Rethinking Lincoln Center.  Bologna: Damiani.

[10] Dovey, K. (1999). Framing places : Mediating power in built form. London ; New York: Routledge.

[11] Mouffe, C (2017). Radical Politics as Counter-Hegemonic Intervention: The Role of Cultural Practices. In Mostafavi, M (Ed.). Ethics of the urban: The city and the spaces of the political (pp. 209-212). Zurich: Lars Müller Publisher.

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