Former executive director, Hong Kong Arts Festival
The executive director of the Hong Kong Arts Festival kept culture alive during Covid-19
Her last three years have particularly challenging for anyone in the arts, given Covid-19 restrictions, but Tisa Ho and her team kept the Hong Kong Arts Festival going, bringing hybrid programmes of live and online performances. After 16 years in the top job, Ho, the HKAF's executive director, announced her retirement in 2022. In doing so, she drew a line under a glittering career in arts administration that stretches back to the 1970s and has involved constant evolution, with roles at a variety of organisations in both Hong Kong and Singapore.
“I keep enjoying the next thing more than what I used to do,” she says.
Ho studied in Hong Kong, France and the UK, the latter because London’s City University offered a pioneering arts administration course, which she only found out about because a friend gave her a brochure. After graduating, she worked for the London Film Festival, then returned to Hong Kong in the early 1980s and started at the Hong Kong Arts Festival for the first time, little imagining she would one day be in charge of it.
She really made a name for herself, though, in Singapore, where she moved in 1984 for family reasons. After playing a key role in developing the Esplanade—Theatres on the Bay complex, she took a job with the Cultural Services Division of the Singapore government in 1986, and then became the artistic co-ordinator of the Singapore Festival, with specific responsibility for the 1988 and 1990 events.
Until that point she had worked for multi-arts organisations, but between 1990 and 1999 she turned her attention to a single artistic medium, as executive director of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.
“It was different because we had full time artistic staff,” she says. “You’re living with musicians nine or 10 months a year. You see them rehearsing. It becomes part of your environment. It gave me a better understanding of creative people, what motivates them and what they need.”
Those skills stood her in good stead when she took charge at the Hong Kong Arts Festival in 2006. “The most important skill in this job is stepping back,” she says. “It’s about empowering people, and understanding what it is that allows them to do their best job.”
Since she first got involved, “The Arts Festival has grown a lot,” she adds. “It’s grown alongside Hong Kong: it’s very much part of the Hong Kong story. Hong Kong has such great potential. It has the scope to do things we haven’t tried yet and an appetite for them.”
She has also been involved for many years with the International Society for the Performing Arts, latterly as chair, a role she says she took on partly because she felt that Asia was underrepresented in the global organisation for arts professionals.
Ho is married to Ronald Ng, a doctor; their son is tech entrepreneur Andrew Ng, the co-founder of Google Brain, former chief scientist at Baidu and founder of online learning company Coursera. And it’s family that her attention is turning to now she’s decided to retire, she says.
“It’s been a good, long innings. Now I need to spend time with my grandkids—they don’t know me.”