ART HK 11 Hong Kong art fair: Mystery man behind Hong Kong art fair success – Charles Ross


Stand aside Magnus Renfrew. Stand back Tim Etchells. The credit for the undisputed and outsized success of the Hong Kong International Art Fair (ART HK) goes to a young-looking rake-thin man who keeps an intriguingly low profile.

Charles Ross. Image from

Charles Ross, Deputy Managing Director, Single Market Events. Image from

The mystery man is Charles Ross and surprisingly he is neither an arts professional nor Asian. When the history of the art scene infrastructure at the start of the 21st century is written, Ross will figure large. It was Ross who dreamed up the vision and it was Ross’ hands on management of staff hiring, sponsorship, promotion and booth sales which has made the fair such a success.

Cleverly promoted from the beginning as “the Art Basel of Asia”, the fair has grown into its fluff and just a few weeks before the fourth edition of the art fair, in May 2011, Art Basel announced its purchase of a controlling stake in the fair.

So who is this man? And how did he manage to swoop into Asia and within just four years create an event which has turned the global art market infrastructure upside down?

A fifteen year veteran of the events industry in the UK, Ross has worked since 2001 as Business Development Director of the privately-owned event management company Single Market Events (SEM), set up by Tim Etchells. In January 2011, in recognition of his astounding achievements, which included steering this brand new art fair through a financial crisis-induced rocky second edition, Ross was promoted to Deputy Managing Director of the company.

Website for Single Market Events (SEM). Image from

Website for Single Market Events (SEM). Image from

Art Radar first met Ross in Hong Kong at an Asia Art Archive lecture when the fair was still little more than a twinkle in his eye. He was in Hong Kong to scout and learn. Anupam Poddar, India’s leading collector of contemporary art and founder of its first museum, gave a spell binding talk to a rapt audience of art enthusiasts.

But Ross wasn’t quite as impressed. He found it dull. In fact, not long after he astonished us by admitting that he had only just learnt that there was a difference between modern and contemporary art. The art world is known for being esoteric and elitist. Insiders don’t let just anyone in. At the very least you need to understand who is who, what’s what and use art terms fluently.

So was it sheer neck or luck which made Ross break through the barriers? Back in the early Nineties a Hong Kong art fair would last only two editions before it would fade. What are the factors that helped Ross succeed where others had not?

Ross does not let the bulges of multiple phones and PDAs spoil the line of his well cut suit, designed to fill out his narrow shoulders. Like a hawk, he hovers outside the fair entrance on opening night, eyes watching everything as he greets and manages. His dapper European style makes it hard to tell he is British, but his natural instinct for assessing status points to his British class-shaped social upbringing. This understanding, along with his prodigious capacity for hard work, has served him well; his ability to quickly identify and align the fair with influencers and players in the tight-walled world of fine art has been vital to its success.

No doubt the factors behind the success of the fair will be argued in lecture halls for years to come.

We add some of our own theories to the debate:

Experience in new event promotion

Single Market Events has a track record of initiating and managing more than a dozen cultural events in the UK, such as London Fashion Weekend and the BBC Good Food Show. Consequently, Etchells and Ross understood the importance of serious promotion and were adequately funded to make a sufficient splash. Early iterations of ART HK’s website boasted about its marketing spend of a quarter of a million pounds. Indeed, influential Journalists from around the world were flown in and treated like mandarins.

Strong crisis management

New art ventures often flourish at the top of the economic cycle, and this is even taken by some as a strong predictor of an imminent downswing. Sure enough, after the first edition of ART HK in 2008, the markets crashed resoundingly. The fair limped through 2009 without sponsorship funding after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The fate of the fair seemed sealed. But Single Market Events took quick remedial action. Lesser galleries were accepted but shrewdly contained in a separate quickly set-up showcase called ART FUTURES. Single Market Events took in partners to share the funding risk and the fair survived.

Money printing and stimulus

From 2008 to the present day many parts of the world continue to struggle with recession. Hong Kong has been luckier. Massive amounts of newly printed US money flowed to China, which was already engaged in super-sized stimulus activities. The resulting inflation boosted asset prices in China creating a happy environment for art sales. Organisers have allowed Hong Kong International Art Fair to ride this wave of favourable macroeconomic policies.

But what’s next?

During the ART HK 11 opening press conference one journalist asked Managing Director Etchells why the fair was being sold to Art Basel. Why not keep the fair? “We felt this was the best next step for the development of the fair in the future” was the muzzy answer.

ART HK 11 press conference: (from left to right) David LaChapelle, Alistair Hicks, Richard Chang, Magnus Renfrew and Tim Etchells. Image by Art Radar Asia (CBKM).

ART HK 11 opening press conference: (from left to right) David LaChapelle, Alistair Hicks, Richard Chang, Magnus Renfrew and Tim Etchells. Image by Art Radar Asia (CBKM).

In fact, the esteemed economist Nouriel Roubini, who warned about the 2008 crisis, recently predicted that the wheels will come off the Chinese economy in 2013. ART HK was not set up for the good of art by enthusiasts; it was set up by businessmen for profit. The move to cash-out at this point may prove to be their shrewdest yet and not just because of economic trends but also because of the advent of serious competition.

The first edition of Art Stage Singapore, held in January 2011, received “Wow!” reviews and staked a claim as a potentially substantial rival to ART HK. Meanwhile, top-branded European fair Art Basel, which had already expanded it’s brand to the US with a show in Miami, was considering its options in response to the rise of Asia. ART HK owners are wise to let Basel buy ART HK, rather than have to compete with it when it set up its own fair or bought Art Stage Singapore.

Tim Etchells opened the ART HK 11 press conference by praising and thanking Fair Director Magnus Renfrew for his contributions. “We took a big gamble on him but he has more than lived up to expectations.” He joked that Renfrew has been popularly dubbed “father of the art fair”, which worried Etchells because that means he might be the grandfather. Ross doesn’t do press conferences and he doesn’t have a moniker. But make no mistake, the Hong Kong International Art Fair is the flourishing child of Charles Ross… and his bride called inflation.


Related Topics: art fairs, Hong Kong art venues, art professionals, promoting art

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