Uncharted Territory: An exploration of Hong Kong’s art scene with Magnus Renfrew – in conversation

Art Radar speaks with Magnus Renfrew, cultural entrepreneur based in Hong Kong, about his latest book on the city’s art scene.

Recently published by Penguin in July 2017, Magnus Renfrew’s Uncharted Territory: Culture and Commerce in Hong Kong’s Art World explores Hong Kong’s opportunity to become the cultural and creative hub in Asia that could rival New York and London.

Image courtesy Magnus Renfrew.

Image courtesy Magnus Renfrew.

Win a copy of Uncharted Territory: Culture and Commerce in Hong Kong’s Art World. Scroll down for details.

Uncharted Territory: Culture and Commerce in Hong Kong’s Art World provides a unique view of the city and its cultural and creative landscape, and explores the possibilities and challenges it faces in becoming the cultural hub in Asia. In the Penguin Special, Magnus Renfrew, previously Art Basel’s Director Asia and Deputy Chairman, Asia and Director of Fine Arts, Asia at Bonham’s in Hong Kong, looks at the driving forces behind the ascent of the city in the international art world, outlining the recent past and projecting into the future.

Art Radar chats with Renfrew about the book and his views on the Hong Kong art scene, its past, present and future potentials.

How and when did your idea for a book on Hong Kong’s art scene come about?

I was approached in the summer of 2015 by Penguin to write a short book (with a 20,000 words limit) as part of their Hong Kong Series to mark the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the transfer of sovereignty. My remit was to write about the recent past (covering the time that I arrived in Hong Kong in 2007 until the present day), and my thoughts on the future of the art scene in Hong Kong. I had been kindly recommended to them by someone within the cultural sphere in Hong Kong. I jumped at the chance without thinking too much about it. I have always enjoyed writing as a way of formulating and clarifying my thoughts but had never had the opportunity previously to have such a prestigious platform to write about art and culture for a broad audience.

What were you aiming to achieve through writing this book?

As I say, I did not think too much about it when I accepted the assignment. But as time went on, and through my research, the chance for Hong Kong to assert itself as a global hub for art and culture became clearer. If M+ can secure the right level of backing, both in terms of moral and financial support, then Hong Kong has the opportunity to be a cultural hub of global relevance. There is a genuine need for a major cultural institution of global credibility, outside of the context of the USA and Europe to provide a non-west-centric view of the world. It seemed that sometimes the scale of this opportunity gets lost in the politics and that this should be something around which the full spectrum of Hong Kong’s political opinion could galvanise. It is an opportunity there for the taking and I wanted to express that.

Image courtesy Magnus Renfrew.

Image courtesy Magnus Renfrew.

You have been based in Hong Kong for a decade now. How has the art scene there developed since you first moved to the city?

The art scene has developed a great deal in the past decade. When we first started laying the groundwork for ART HK [then Art Basel in Hong Kong] a lot of people we spoke to were initially skeptical and referred to the city as a “cultural desert”. It became clear as we explored the different facets of the art scene in Hong Kong that this was not a fair comment at all. However, it was quite difficult to navigate and the scene was quite fragmented – or at least that is how it seemed to me as a newcomer. The scene was dominated by the auction houses who had played an important role in building the audience for contemporary art from Asia. The gallery scene was mixed with some excellent pioneer galleries but also some very commercial galleries that lacked proper programming. The two first ports of call were (and remain) Asia Art Archive and Para Site. Para Site, then directed by Tobias Berger, was the first opportunity for me to get a sense of what was happening beyond the commercially focused galleries on Hollywood Road and Wellington Street, and it was inspiring to meet artists early on through Para Site and through Tobias such as Leung Chi Wo, Sara Wong and Lee Kit.

Fast forward ten years and you have 50+ galleries, a gallery association, Pedder Building emerging as a gallery hub with the promise of the purpose-built H Queens shortly, Art Basel, a burgeoning auction scene, the Asia Society and the imminent arrival of Tai Kwun, and M+, and with artists such as Lee Kit and Samson Young enjoying a very positive response to their participation in the Venice Biennale. Things are really beginning to come together. There is definitely much wider and more informed coverage of art in the mainstream media and I think that this is a sign of how far things have come.

How would you say the collector base in Hong Kong has grown in the past decade? What influence have new galleries, auctions houses and art fairs had on this, according to you?

The collector base has grown substantially in Hong Kong over the last ten years. But it should also be remembered that Hong Kong is also a draw and a focal point for collectors from outside of Hong Kong and that is one of its strengths. The galleries’ presence throughout the year has made a substantial difference through providing an opportunity to see art beyond the week of the fair or the peaks of the auction calendar.

What kind of role do you think the main art fair (ART HK – Art Basel), and later other smaller fairs, have played in boosting the art scene of Hong Kong?

ART HK was an event around which the art community galvanised. Through its scale it was able to provide a focal point on the international calendar to draw attention to Hong Kong. Those visiting Hong Kong for the fair were also curious to explore more widely the different facets of the art scene. Within Hong Kong the fair helped to build awareness of art as there were previously relatively few large scale exhibitions of art in the city. With the launch of Art Basel the spotlight intensified greatly. The boost that their reputation and reach could bring to the event took things to another level.

What major changes have you seen in artistic practice over the past decade in Hong Kong?

Over the last few years there seems to be a renewed sense of urgency, and artists are producing engaging and engaged works. Hong Kong is experiencing a period of change, and such times provide fertile ground for artistic investigation. In some ways art seems to be getting more interesting and more relevant.

Talking about infrastructure, how has that transformed in the past ten years in Hong Kong and what do you foresee for the future?

M+ is the last major missing piece in the cultural ecology. It has the potential to be transformative for Hong Kong and for the wider perception of art produced in Hong Kong, mainland China and Asia. It could be a game-changer globally, and a central driver of Hong Kong’s claim to be a cultural hub as well as a market hub.


Finally, what are some of your key projections for the future of the art scene and what ‘problems’ do you think Hong Kong will have to overcome in order to maintain and further develop its status as an international art hub and ‘the’ art hub of Asia?

With the rise of Asia and China, Hong Kong has every opportunity to become one of the most important cultural hubs in the world. M+ deserves the full-throated support of everyone in the art community and beyond to reach its full potential, which will be key in the city’s ability to achieve this position.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia


Win one of three copies of Uncharted Territory. Participate in the competition by answering these two questions below and sending your answers to hello.artradar@gmail.com by 10 November 2017. Winners will be selected by random draw.

1. What art fair did Magnus Renfrew help establish in Hong Kong?

2. What institution is, according to Renfrew, pivotal in the cultural ecology of Hong Kong?


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