Sun, Apr 27, 2014 - Page 12 News List

A diplomat in director’s clothing

Magnus Renfrew, director of Art Basel in Hong Kong, spoke to the ‘Taipei Times’ last month about the fair he did much to build, Asia’s auction market, changing collector habits and his thoughts on China’s increased muscle-flexing over the territory

By Noah Buchan  /  Staff reporter

Magnus Renfrew, director Asia, Art Basel

Photo courtesy of Art Basel in Hong Kong

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.

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.


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.

This story has been viewed 4935 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top