Over the past decade, Magnus Renfrew has been a driving force and an acute observer of Hong Kong’s art scene. He’s been involved with Para Site, founded Art HK—now Art Basel in Hong Kong, following its acquisition by marketing and events company MCH Group—and recently launched his own art consultancy, ARTHQ / Group.
The self-described cultural entrepreneur has recorded his reflections in a book, Uncharted Territory: Culture and Commerce in Hong Kong’s Art World, which was published in Hong Kong by Penguin in June last year and went on global release on Amazon in February.
“A concise and thoughtful account of Hong Kong’s ascent into a global art centre,” as Asia Art Archive executive director Claire Hsu describes it, the volume examines the rise of the city’s art sector and its ecosystem, along with its untapped potential and future prospects.
What audience were you writing for?
I wanted to write a book that’s not just for the art world, but for everybody. I see it as a call to action for the general public, a volume that can help people realise the potential of Hong Kong’s art sector and this moment in time.
What have been some of the most defining moments for the art scene in Hong Kong?
There have been quite a few. There’s the pioneer gallery moment, in the 1990s and early 2000s, which saw art spaces such as Hanart and Schoeni showcase Chinese art outside Mainland China for the first time. Then you have the rise of the contemporary Asian art auction market.
Institutions like Christie’s and Sotheby’s had an instrumental role early on in using their platforms to build an audience for the arts scene in Hong Kong and the region. Then there was the arrival of Art HK in 2008, quickly followed by the opening of powerhouse galleries like Gagosian, Perrotin and White Cube.
They really demonstrated that the city could play host to top-level commercial art activities all year round. The acquisition of Art HK by Art Basel in 2011 put Hong Kong on the global map.
From a non-commercial standpoint, which is where I think a real game change can and will happen, the donation of the Sigg collection to M+ was also pivotal. It made the potential of Hong Kong as a real art hub a tangible, concrete reality, and helped build momentum.
The opening of the Asia Society was critical as well. Now there’s Tai Kwun [the restored Central Police Station compound] and, of course, M+ to look forward to.
You describe M+ in the book as a “trusted mediator” for the city and Asia—an entity that can lift Hong Kong’s position as an art hub. Could you expand on that?
M+ has the possibility to propel Hong Kong onto a completely new level, even above the relevance that the art fairs, the galleries, the auction houses have bestowed upon it until now. It is the missing piece in our cultural ecology and can help redefine what global means beyond the trite notion of East/West. I feel sometimes that people don’t quite realise what its opening means for the metropolis and the region at large.
What about Tai Kwun?
That will be another great addition. Tobias Berger [the Head of Arts for the project, formerly director of Para Site and curator at M+] is one of the unsung heroes of Hong Kong’s art scene. I am confident they will have a great and relevant programme under his hand.
“I think the art scene has the potential to do great things—exceptional even”
You also mention Para Site and the Asia Art Archive as essential parts of the city’s cultural ecology and credibility. Why is supporting them important?
Both institutions have really punched above their weight since they opened and have done tremendous things. They are ambassadors of Hong Kong’s and Asia’s cultural scene on a global level, but they also provide plenty of opportunities for locals to engage with the artistic discourse.
What would you like to see more of?
Cultural philanthropy can definitely grow. Arts and culture have lagged slightly in terms of receiving charitable support in Hong Kong, so I’d like to see some change there. I am sure it will happen. Several individuals have already played major roles in that respect over the years. But I think there’s opportunity for more.
See also: 50 Biggest Art Collectors In Asia
What are the toughest challenges facing the art scene?
Real estate prices are certainly an issue—not just for the art sector, but most establishments. It’s difficult for younger artists and the galleries that represent them to create a viable business model when the property market is so inaccessible, which is why so many creatives often have other jobs to support themselves.
That’s true of many other cities around the world, but certainly a dominant aspect of Hong Kong, and I hope there’ll be a shift in the future.
You write, “Hong Kong has an opportunity to call the shots on what a 21st century cultural hub might look like.” Do you think the city will grasp that opportunity?
I think the art scene has the potential to do great things—exceptional even—particularly through the rising of its non-commercial entities. Hong Kong has this unique position in the world. It’s not bent to a Western-centric vision, nor is it solely driven by a domestic cultural agenda. It’s up to us to make the most of that.
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