The Fair Director since the inception of ART HK, Magnus Renfrew has over a decade’s professional experience in the international art world. Before joining ART HK, Magnus was Head of Exhibitions for Contrasts Gallery in Shanghai. Previously Magnus was a London-based specialist with the auction house Bonhams. During his seven years there he was responsible for sourcing works internationally for Modern and Contemporary sales, as well as having been instrumental in bringing to fruition their first sale of Contemporary Asian Art in London.
Interview by Shivangi Ambani-Gandhi
How does cultural difference impact how you direct Art HK?
It affects the way you behave with people. My character is suited to work in Asia – I was brought up to respect people and to give people time. You need to physically give people time – have conversations, make them feel that they are important and valued. You need to develop personal relationships and friendships – business is based on how people get along and so it is important to set the ground for trust.
It becomes difficult to implement an international standard for selection (of galleries represented in the fair), because people assume that since they have a personal relationship with you, they have a better chance of getting in. And when they are not selected, they feel personally slighted.
You also have to deal with the intimidation factor – people often do not ask the question because they do not already have the answer. They do not want to ask the price because they do not want to lose face or look like they cannot afford it. We encourage galleries to be as forthcoming and un-intimidating as possible. And the fair also offers different levels of education through programming.
What is the difference in leading people in Asia vs. Europe?
We have a cross-cultural team and a flat management structure. We are not big into hierarchy and everyone’s role is equally important. It is a high pressure job, so you need to have a supportive environment. I am constantly travelling and so my work is often in parallel with the team in Hong Kong.
We also have a diverse advisory team that we use to seek introductions and build networks. It is important to have people who are respected in their own countries. Introductions are very important in Asia, so that you connect with the right people.
In China, it was quite difficult to manage people. Sometimes as a foreigner there can be resentment or questioning of your position. It becomes important to get an understanding of the culture and to gain people’s respect by working hard, rather than just bossing people around.
Is there a personality type in the arts? Is it different in administrative roles as compared to artists? Is personality a consideration when you are recruiting?
There are many stereotypes of the art world. The galleriests I have met have been demanding, intelligent, sensitive and have high expectations of themselves and others. In any organisation you need show horses and work horses. There are the ambassadors who win business and become the face of the organisation, versus those who are structured in their thinking. When recruiting, it is important for us to know how they will get along in the organisation. People here have to work as a team.
What is the personality of Art HK?
Humility – you are only as good as the last fair and the galleries that participate, so you take nothing for granted. Geographic diversity, accessibility and quality are defining characteristics of the fair.
We are an art fair that reflects and celebrates the diversity of the region. In the West, fairs are showing works to match the western aesthetic sensibility and have been slow to adapt to the changing world. Art means different things to different people and the purpose of art is not a universal concept. We want to be inclusive of the arts scene here, but not ghettoise it into ‘Asian art’. Artists do not want to be pigeon-holed as ‘Asian artists’.
Many other fairs in the region are run by local gallery associations or by people who are very powerful within the scene without having international credibility. They are not able to get international galleries that do not want to be seen next to galleries that are not the best in the region. We have broken that spell through the selection process and by getting galleries that are doing interesting things. We are balancing the flavour of the fair with 50% from Asia-Pacific and 50% from the rest of the world.
More information on personality and cultural difference: