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Hong Kong Art Fair - Interview with Magnus Renfrew

Magnus Renfrew and Federico Narracci

AfN: What can you tell us about your formation, how did you approach art and how you developed in this field?

Renfrew: My parents were related to art, from a very early age I was always driven around galleries, kicking and screaming; but eventually my resistance broke down and I became very interested.

AfN: I read somewhere that your father is an important archaeologist.

Renfrew: Yes, at the age of 70 he's still digging and making an important excavation in Greece.

AfN: So it seems to be natural that you became interested in art.

Renfrew: Absolutely; and then it developed. My first jobs were in some galleries, when I was about 19. That was an amazing time, I really enjoyed that, as I mixed with very good people there!

AfN: You mean in London.

Renfrew: Yes, absolutely. Then I studied Art History in the University of St. Andrews, and its School of Languages, and during the summer there I worked again for some galleries and I did an internship in the Guggenheim in Venice. And so onů

AfN: Let's talk about the fair. Why Hong Kong? Was it just for tax reasons?

Renfrew: The eyes of the world are on Asia now, there's a new world order developing and we wanted the fair to respond to that and to reflect these changing faces. So we wanted to have a fair that really reflected the diversity of art produced today. Hong Kong is a great city to organise international events: it has always been regarded as a gateway between the East and West, a really international hotbed. It is not only very easy for people from all over Asia to get here, but also for those from Australia, New Zealand, etc. Obviously there are clear advantages in terms of the tax situation in Hong Kong, which is very clear and advantageous for people who have business prospects there. Hong Kong is the second Financial Market in Asia and the third largest market in the world after New York and London in auctions turnover.

One of the key things is that Hong Kong gives us a neutral territory among Asians, it is really it's the world city of Asia; it's a part of China, but it's also distinct from it. If you look at the other art fairs in Asia, they're very much subordinate to the country in which they take place; so the majority of the art fairs in China are very Chinese, the KIAF is very Korean, as is the same with Taipei and Singapore. We really thought that there was an option to set up a hub fair in and for Asia, where we could attract galleries from Korea, Taiwan, mainland China, and elsewhere in the world. We were delighted that last night at the opening, we had some of the top 50 collectors from Taiwan, a considerable presence of Korean collectors and a great part of the leading Chinese ones. I think that people are very excited about Hong Kong's prospectives.

AfN: We've seen you launch a really strong and complete advertising campaign. Which audience did you want to target?

Renfrew: As an art fair, we're looking for different elements in the audience; we're looking obviously for those who want to come and buy, but I think we also have a very important cultural function, when we provide people with the possibility to see some of the best works that have been produced today and in the last 100 years. So we wanted absolutely to encourage a wide section of the community to come also.

Concerning the local Hong Kong-nese audience, it was very important for us to target both the local Hong Kong Chinese people and its other communities; but it was also very important to target the collectors of Taiwan and Korea in particular, which have been traditionally the strongest internationally orientated groups in Asia.

According to the results, we can say that it was a very successful campaign.

AfN: Regarding the advisory group, I would define it as important and complete. Through its composition, what goal did you want to achieve, and how is it reflected in the fair's structure and organization?

Renfrew: The advisory group has really been instrumental, spreading our will among the art communities and giving us a very strong guidance concerning whom we should be talking to, where we should be going, and which potential pitfall we should avoid. As you have observed accurately, the advisor community is extremely competent, and is led by Charles Merewether, the curator and artistic director of the Biennial of Sidney 2006. We also have people from a variety of different backgrounds, because we felt that it was very important for us to have advice from different elements of the art community, such as the publishing spheres, the auction market, etc. But, crucially, I'd say that the really important thing was that we wanted a group that would be able to give advice for an international art fair in and for Asia that reflected its full diversity situated in an international context, rather than an Asian team show. Often, Asian artists are regarded as a category in its own right, but I really believe firmly that a good artist should also work and produce in a very young market which is integrated in the international art scene.

Other great thing about the advisory group is that they all have international credentials and experience, as well as first-hand experience in Asia; so they were able to put Asian art works in an international context, and I think that was a great success.

AfN: Regarding the selection of galleries, what were your criteria?

Renfrew: They were 3: on the bases of the artists the gallery represents, the curatorial programmes in the past exhibitions, and the proposals regarding what they were going to show at the fair.

AfN: Observing the composition, we saw that the occidental galleries are absolutely on the top level, whereas the oriental galleries are mixed with emerging artists, which also affects the prices. What strategy underlies this fact? Are occidental galleries supposed to sell, or rather to show?

Renfrew: We think that galleries from both sides will be able to sell. Obviously, there's also an educational procedure to go through; it's a very young market, but we firmly believe that we're going to develop it for both eastern and western galleries, as well as develop the economy and people's taste. Hong Kong and Asia haven't had the opportunity to see works of this quality before, this is really the first time that they can do it, and I think this is a great initiative in terms of developing and understanding. About the price strategy, we wanted them to be absolutely diversified.

AfN: But this diversification concerns rather the oriental galleries, isn't it true?

Renfrew: Yes, but as we are talking about a really young market, which just recently started to receive adequate information, people are not prepared to buy works from western emerging markets; so we tried to meet their expectations, which, especially for mainland China, are focused more on a internationally-renowned level.

AfN: What about the satellite events?

Renfrew: We were very pleased that we could have a strong associate program of events, as we could get huge support from the outside. We have organized a series of talks called "Hong Kong conversations", where leading collectors, curators, and cultural figures from Hong Kong are going to hold discussions.

AfN: So focused on debates, why not also on parallel art exhibitions?

Renfrew: Well, I think that you must be realistic about what you can achieve; but, considering a middle-term prospective, there are elements we want to develop.

AfN: In Asian countries, which are the institutions you consider more valid, and having future potentials?

Renfrew: In mainland China, people are still in an immature system, where most of the institutions are run by the government. So it would really be important to have curators with international training and experience that are able to staff these institutions to a high standard.

Japan and Korea have very established museum structures of international standing with people possessing international experience and strong curatorial experience.

In Hong Kong there are some great institutions that are doing very good work too. For example Asia Art Archive, which functions not only in terms of education, but also in recording what's happening, since things are progressing very quickly in Asia at the moment. So I think that this is very important and has a great value in the future prospective. Another important institution is Para/Site Art Space, curated by Tobias Berger, a great German director with excellent international experience.

There are a lot of people in Hong Kong that are really trying to move towards the right approach.

AfN: How do you face the tax facilities in Hong Kong? Which are, in these terms, mainland China's intentions, considering the punitive taxation existing? (34%)

Renfrew: It's a fact that people must consider, and one of the reasons why we chose Hong Kong, because this tax beneficial situation opens up a very profitable opportunity for people to do good business. I don't know their intentions, but probably I would reconsider the situation to get more positive results. Speaking for myself, I find it great that Hong Kong has this benefit.

AfN: Finally, a general character question. As far as we can see, after an American era, due to political and economical influences, the wind is changing its direction. So money is starting to come from other sources, like Hong Kong, and also Asia in general. This will surely bring big changes. How do you think this will happen and evolve in the art world? Talking in economical terms, will it be a friendly merging between cultures, or a takeover?

Renfrew: I think it is not in my role, to talk too much about political things concerning whether there will be a confrontation or a friendly collaboration. I think that it is very important for people to engage with Chinese culture, because the East and the West have very different cultural backgrounds. I lived in Shanghai last year and it was fascinating to understand that people are thinking in a very different way. It will be very important for both the East and the West to have patience with each other. It is a period of intense change in China at the moment, and a very exciting period also. As New York was the centre of the art world in the last 50/60 years, I firmly believe that Asia is going to be the centre in the next century. The cultural world tends to follow financial and political power.

Interview: Federico Narracci


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