ARTHQ/group founder Magnus Renfrew has spared no effort to win greater recognition for Hong Kong’s art industry. He tells Lin Wenjie he’s confident the city can retain its key art market hub status in Asia.
ARTHQ/group founder Magnus Renfrew, who has been relentless in his efforts to run the international art fair Art Basel in Hong Kong, believes that the city still has enormous development potential and space for the art industry. (ROY LIU / CHINA DAILY)
Magnus Renfrew’s name is synonymous with Hong Kong’s art scene as the founding father of the city’s popular art fair Art Basel.
Having devoted more than two decades to the art industry across Western and eastern cultures — ranging from a specialist with auction houses to managing museums and commercial galleries — he’s credited, to a certain extent, with propagating the mindset that art is something for the ordinary folk to prize too, rather than being an exclusive domain for the wealthy or professional few.
Launching his career in London, Renfrew had worked in Shanghai for a year before opting to settle down in Hong Kong with his family a decade ago. The cross cultural experiences equipped him with the knowledge and insight to run the international art fair Art Basel in the SAR as its founding director from 2012 to 2014.
Although the art industry in Hong Kong has developed remarkably over the last decade, it seems we’ve just started, and that still requires nurturing, protection and love
Magnus Renfrew, founder of ARTHQ/group
He hasn’t been the unsung hero for his crusading role in bringing to fruition the international contemporary art fair held in the city for the first time in 2013, and which turned out to be a huge success. The event drew more than 60,000 visitors from around the world and became Hong Kong’s iconic art fair. Art Basel in Hong Kong 2017, held in March, attracted close to 300 participating galleries from 35 countries and about 95,000 visitors — a significant increase from 2013.
“The experience of helping to launch and develop the fair as fair director was extraordinary,” recalls Renfrew.
“I traveled constantly, experiencing and learning about different cultures and art scenes, meeting many of my art world heroes, from gallerists to curators and artists. I was on some 40 flights within a space of six months to all parts of the world trying to persuade galleries and collectors to come. That’s very challenging, but it’s also very enjoyable and exciting.”
For him, the essence of holding Art Basel Hong Kong lies in a set of values despite its commercial nature, such as the support of young creative artists. Due to the financial benefits associated with the exposure to new collectors, it’s highly competitive for galleries to get into the fair, so the event’s selection committee had a chance to choose those galleries that promote and support artists on their creative journey, rather than merely pushing them to sell objects.
Also, the art they aspire to sell is an art of ideas, not merely a commercial decorative product. “The stratospheric rise of the art fair and its cultural relevance beyond the commercial sphere has been a source of great pride to me,” Renfrew tells China Daily.
Although the success of Art Basel has made more people conscious of the art world, the majority of the citizens still regard art as something that caters to the upper end of the wealth spectrum.
“In a city where the gap between the rich and the poor is wider than any other city in the region and which boasts the least affordable housing in the world, talking about art could be regarded as something of a luxury.”
“Although the art industry in Hong Kong has developed remarkably over the last decade, it seems we’ve just started, and that still requires nurturing, protection and love,” he says.
However, one source of comfort is that the SAR government is aware of the importance of developing the art and culture industry. It has invested substantially in developing the West Kowloon Cultural District, and has expressed its desire for the city’s creative industries to flourish, in part to diversify away from its traditional reliance on the finance sector to prop up the economy.
Renfrew is confident that Hong Kong will retain its key role as a major market hub in Asia for art works, thanks to its geographical advantage and low taxes.
“Asian collectors are diversifying their tastes and becoming more open to collecting art from the rest of the world. At the same time, the work of Asian artists is just beginning to gain institutional interest which, I’m confident, will lead to renewed market interest in the coming years.”
Driven by growing personal wealth, the buying power of Chinese mainland collectors in the contemporary art market has strengthened in recent years, leading to the rapid growth of private museums in Asia. Market projections estimate that 1,200 private museums will be built across the continent in the next five years, mostly in China, as the State Administration of Cultural Heritage said earlier this year it expects one museum to be available for every 250,000 people in the country by 2020.
Leveraging on his experiences across eastern and western cultures, Renfrew is taking on a new challenge to start his own business — the ARTHQ/group.
The ARTHQ/group is a solutions provider in the art industry. Established this spring, the group provides strategic consultancy to individual galleries, art fairs and companies looking to build a credible alignment with art, to help them clarify their mission and vision and to formulate a plan to achieve their goals.
Linking the world
The group also provides executive search solutions for the art business, as well as holding landmark events and building digital platforms to grow audiences and connect the art world.
“I want to start a company that will really make the most of my own experiences. I’ve been in the art world long enough, with experience across different disciplines and geographies, which makes me understand the needs of clients and prospects more than others who don’t have such a background across different disciplines of the art world,” says Renfrew.
Although his company has been up and about just for half a year, he notes that business has been going quite well, and he’s planning to tap the world’s art center, London.
“This autumn, we’ll set up an office in London where I have strong contacts, and we hope to be profitable in the first year to lay a solid foundation for the long term.”
In his view, the crucial thing is to keep overheads down, build up the business steadily and securely, and pulls no punches with his clients to ensure that the company’s reputation is something for the records.
‘Don’t wait for the permission — make it happen yourself’
Magnus Renfrew had his first taste of the art world at the age of 19 when he was taken aboard by Waddington Galleries — one of London’s oldest commercial galleries — before entering university.
The exposure gave him the extraordinary opportunity to work with legendary art dealer Leslie Waddington, as well as a group of talented professionals in the industry.
“It was amazing working under Leslie Waddington who was one of the key figures of the British art scene of the past 50 years. Many of the team members who were supervising me at that time have gone on to become prominent gallerists in their own right, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to learn so much from them,” says Renfrew.
Leslie Waddington, the late chairman of Waddington Galleries, was a pioneering art dealer who brought many contemporary artists into the global market, transforming the more conservative art market into a more contemporary one.
Through the experience he had gained at Waddington Galleries, Renfrew landed a specialist job at Bonhams — the world’s premier auction house — after graduation from university in October 1999. Seven years later, he went to Shanghai to head up a team with the Contracts Gallery before joining Art HK in 2007 as its fair director. He helped found Art Basel after MCH Exhibition Ltd — the Swiss-owned group organizer of Art Basel — bought Asian Art Fairs Ltd, the owners of Art HK.
Renfrew was no stranger to trials and tribulations, having taken on and overcome numerous difficulties over the years. But, as he moved on and traveled extensively in his career, he found himself paying a heavy price — finding the time to spend with his family is becoming a tremendous luxury.
“I enjoy the challenges. There’ve been a number of professional challenges over the years, but one of the biggest for me has been to ensure that I give enough time to my family. That’s something I’m constantly aware of. Family must come first. So, when I was in Hong Kong, I tried to spend as much time as I possibly could with my family.”
Being a founder and leader of an art fair, Renfrew believes in a clear strategic vision and the ability to communicate clearly with the team, and that clients should be among the most important assets a leader should possess.
“I think a leader should be able to delegate to team members and to give them the authority and the space to do their job, without micromanaging them too closely.”
For today’s younger generation, Renfrew hopes to see them being adventurous and keen to take risks. He recalls that when he was choosing his university major, his sister had told him to pursue his own interest, so he decided to study art history, which is considered to be a “worthless” college major for most people.
“If you can make it financially feasible, do what you love because you’ll be better at it and happier in your professional and private lives. And don’t wait for permission. There’s never a right time and nobody is going to give you that permission. So, make it happen yourself.”
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