Magnus Renfrew says he’s in “collector mode” — which probably explains his haggard-looking countenance when he greets me on a Friday morning last month at a coffee shop in Taipei’s Far Eastern Plaza hotel. Dressed semi-formally in a navy blue suit and cuff links, the Asia director of Art Basel tells me that he spent the previous night wining Taiwanese collectors and gallerists, having already spent the previous few weeks doing the same in London, New York, Shanghai, Beijing and Berlin. The next day he’s off to Sydney, Australia, and from there will spend the next few weeks wooing collectors in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore, Hangzhou, Guangzhou and Chengdu.
“Between January and May, I’m on the road probably 70 to 80 percent of the time,” he says.
Renfrew is concluding the second part of his yearly “cycle.” Having dispensed with the gallery organization — 245 chosen, he says, from over 500 applicants — he’s now flying around the world to shore up the collectors that are the fair’s bread and butter. And if media reports of last year’s inaugural fair and my own personal correspondence with Taiwan-based galleries are anything to go by, Renfrew’s incessant travel will almost certainly pay off.
Photo courtesy of Art Basel in Hong Kong
But Renfrew wasn’t starting from scratch. Before signing on with Art Basel, arguably the world’s most prestigious art fair brand with versions in Basel and Miami, he had already gained a reputation in art circles as a successful operator, founding and directing the Hong Kong International Art Fair (Art HK), drawing considerable attention to Hong Kong, a place that much of the art world viewed as insignificant when compared to Shanghai and Beijing.
The fair runs from May 15 to May 18 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center.
Photo courtesy of Art Basel in Hong Kong and Galerie du monde
In the same year ArtHK merged with Art Basel, ArtReview, which compiles an annual list of the art world’s most powerful curators, gallerists, fair directors, collectors and artists, ranked him 16th on its “Power 100” (he shared the accolade with two others from the Art Basel brand).
Ten minutes into the interview, it becomes readily apparent why Renfrew has pulled this off. Sure, he has the requisite degree in art history from an elite university, and yes, he has considerable experience with art fairs. But his true talent lies in his diplomatic vocal delivery. Similar to a Chatham House academic or State Department spokesperson, he chooses his words carefully, often umming and ahhing his way through a sentence rather than stringing it together with the requisite nouns and verbs. He’s adept at deflecting the tougher questions by rephrasing them into those that he’s comfortable answering, which consistently takes on a positive spin.
But Renfrew has also been lucky, both because attention from European and US collectors are focused on Asia, and also due to the wealth generated in this part of the world.
“The art market tends to follow the money and the greatest wealth creation is in Asia at the moment,” he says.
And, he adds, there is room for growth, at least within the gallery, biennial and art fair scene.
It is also fortuitous that China’s enormous auction market has been floundering. A report in last month’s Blouin Art+Auction attributes the “precipitous drop” — from US$8 billion in 2011 to half that the following year — to buyer nonpayment and a proliferation of forgeries, which has driven potential buyers away from China’s overheated and opaque auction market.
Over the same period, Asia’s art fairs have consistently seen a rise in attendance, something Renfrew attributes to the fact that they offer programs that add to the “cultural ecology.”
“The auction houses take their cut and the consignor takes their cut. It doesn’t really help to make the art world go round,” he says.
Still, Renfrew says that auction houses have served a valuable purpose in that they have driven much of the awareness about Asia’s contemporary art over the past two decades. One consequence of this, however, is “the absence of a framework for curatorial or critical evaluation of art works. Without a very strong institutional framework or museum scene … the market has moved in to become the benchmark. So whatever is expensive is deemed to be good which is kind of a reverse way around of things.”
He adds that collectors are taking greater interest in contemporary art galleries.
“A lot of collectors are very encouraging of the younger galleries and they want the younger galleries to succeed and that’s certainly a dynamic I see here in Taiwan, and elsewhere as well,” he says, adding that galleries are the foundation of this cultural ecology because they have contact with curators and critics, and pay the artists, who may also employ studio assistants.
And as the Asian art market becomes more mature, he says, European and North American collector tastes have become more sophisticated. Renfrew says, in the context of China, the days of collecting kitschy “images of pandas, Mao, the color red” are largely over, as collectors seek more localized works by artists — whether performance artists from Myanmar, South Korean video artists or Indonesian installation artists.
“It’s not enough to have work by a big-name artist. It has to be the right subject matter, the right date, the right medium and also collectors are beginning to buy much more with their eye, rather than their ears,” he says.
SETTING A STANDARD
Mention Art Basel in Hong Kong to many Taiwanese gallerists, and their eyes glaze over with reverence. One local gallerist who applied for a booth this year but didn’t get in, beseeched me to ask Renfrew what they had done wrong. Renfrew says the fair’s standards are clear.
“Galleries are evaluated on the basis of their overall programming,” he said. “It’s not good enough to have some good artists and then have a lot of work that is very easy to sell because it’s commercially pragmatic. Those kinds of galleries don’t get into the gallery sector. And that has helped us kind of re-frame people’s thinking to a certain extent.”
Renfrew gives TKG+ and Project Fulfill Art Space as examples of two of the eight Taiwan-based galleries that will show work (an increase from five last year) because “they’ve got very conceptually driven programs and they are passionate about what they do,” he says.
He adds that he is “looking to encourage galleries that promote practice rather than selling objects,” with work done by artists who have something important to say, “rather than … just seeking approval or catering to [the market].”
Even before taking the helm of Art Basel in Hong Kong, Renfrew had set a standard that other fairs in Asia have since sought to emulate. Asia’s oldest art fair, Art Taipei, for example, overhauled its entry requirements in 2011, the net effect of which was that far fewer local galleries were able to participate, marginalizing several local galleries and the artists they represent.
Richard Chang (張學孔), the convener of last year’s Art Taipei, told me that considerable bad blood was spilled as the changes were being implemented three years ago, with some galleries opting out of the Taiwan Art Gallery Association, which runs Art Taipei, because they felt that their needs weren’t being properly served.
It is a complaint that has been launched against Renfrew’s fair. A Guardian report last year quoted some Hong Kong art world types who were concerned that, with only 26 Hong Kong galleries participating in the fair’s first year, with many of those such as White Cube and Gagosian foreign imports, the territory’s art scene had become a “post-colonial venture for importing western art in to Asia.”
Renfrew remains unapologetic, saying that international art galleries make a “significant investment and contribution to the local art scene in terms of providing opportunities to have great shows.”
“It’s about quality,” he says. “It doesn’t matter where the artists are from, whether they are local or international. It just has to be work of a certain caliber, and I think it’s just a circumstance of life that we live in a competitive environment and that not everyone can be an artist.”
Renfrew partially attributes the success of the fair’s first edition to its location. In addition to favorable tax laws and an international financial elite, he calls Hong Kong “neutral territory.”
“We … are not subject to the same kind of local political pressure as some other art fairs that are very much rooted in their own country.”
Perhaps not, but what of China’s increased muscle flexing over the former British territory and the possible censorship this might entail? I raise this with Renfrew in the context of a 2011 article in ArtAsiaPacific titled Art and Censorship in Singapore: Catch 22?, which suggested that Art Stage Singapore was being hobbled by the island state’s censors. Is Renfrew concerned that the same might happen in Hong Kong?
“Freedom of expression is protected under the Basic Law of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong constitution … you can show whatever you like,” he says with a certain degree of impatience. When my body language suggested this was a pretty lame response, he added: “We are not going to self-censor.”
This may be somewhat disingenuous because the very laws that are said to protect freedom of speech, were used last week to stop the construction of a privately-run museum dedicated to the violent crackdown on China’s Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests.
Renfrew, however, remains bullish and foresees no threats of censorship to contemporary art.
“We want to be a global art fair for Asia on Asia’s doorstep and on Asia’s terms. Nothing would make me happier than for people to come to the fair in Hong Kong, discover great Taiwanese artists and strong galleries in Taiwan and come and visit Taiwan and fall in love with artists in Taiwan,” he said.
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