Magnus Renfrew is a vibrant power to be reckoned with in the art world. The 35-year-old director of ART HK 11, Hong Kong's annual international art fair, has enjoyed a rapid career rise and attributes his success to his passion for art.
He was named by the 2010 ArtReview Power 100 as one of the most influential figures in the art world. He is one of only three art fair directors on the list.
Being one of those who established ART HK in 2008, Renfrew's leadership has established the fair as Asia's leading contemporary art event and helped develop Hong Kong into an art hub.
The fair, to be held from May 26-29, is into its fourth year and its rising popularity can be demonstrated by the rapid increase in the number of gallery participation and its attendance figures which reached 46,000 last year from 19,000 in its inaugural year. The number of leading galleries which took part last year totalled 155, compared to 101 in 2008 and they included a number of high profile exhibitors such as Gagosian, White Cube and Lisson.
This year, the fair is expected to draw even more attention with over 250 galleries from 30 countries participating and including exhibits from the world-renowned galleries of Barbara Gladstone and Marian Goodman. This year’s fair will showcase the very best of the next generation of gallerists and artists, and sees the launch of ASIA ONE – a platform for galleries and artists from Asia.
Tell us about your career
I studied art history at university. After university, it was either working in public relations or for an auction house as a trainee for half the money. I chose half the money because I wanted to do something I was passionate about.
In 1999, my first job was as a trainee picture specialist in Edinburgh. I got to see great things, bad things and everything else in between. I worked in that job for nearly three years and then I moved to London. I first got into contact with Asian art when I had to put together a contemporary Asian art collection for an auction.
Before that, Asia and China were not on my radar at all. Having done a lot of research to prepare for that auction I came to realise the sheer scale of it all and was amazed. In 2005, in the lead up to that auction I came across a gallery owner who offered me a job in Shanghai.
Why did you come to Hong Kong?
I worked in Shanghai from 2006-07 as head of exhibitions for Pearl Lam's Contrasts Gallery. It was an amazing learning experience. I learned Putonghua and met a lot of interesting people and made studio visits. Shanghai was fascinating. In 2007, I was approached by the owner of ART HK who invited me to help start up Hong Kong's first international art fair.
What does your daily work involve?
For the first six months from June onwards, much of my time will be spent on getting galleries to commit to the fair. For the inaugural fair in 2008, I took 40 trips around the world in six months. It's all very time consuming and exhausting. [But] I do get to meet a lot of interesting and successful people, and people from some of the most famous galleries, curators, artists and collectors.
The second part of the cycle, from December leading up to the fair in May, I will focus on getting collectors to come, and on final preparations, taking care of logistics, marketing and public relations.
What are the challenges of your work?
The challenges are changing. Initially, it was all about persuading people to come to Hong Kong to attend the fair. Now it's about managing expectations. I have had galleries asking me to guarantee a certain high level of sales before they would commit to join the fair. I think they missed a very important point here * it's very important to build a strong profile in Asia by being visible.
The second challenge is to reduce the intimidation factor and educate potential Asian collectors that it's okay to ask questions and, in fact, they must ask questions. I also want to increase the accessibility of the fair, making it more welcoming for visitors. One way of achieving that is to educate galleries that they must have different levels of pricing to allow people with different levels of affordability a chance to buy art pieces.
What's your advice for young people?
Get as much experience and as early as you can. Choose a job that helps you gain experience rather than one that pays better when you are young. A lot of young people tend to wait until they are given permission to do things. I think they should take the initiative to create their own opportunities.
What's the best part of your work?
It’s a real privilege for me to be part of a great team which is so dedicated to making the fair a great success. In my day-to-day work I am also lucky enough to be able to meet many interesting people from different cultural backgrounds and learn about different cultures and arts from different parts of the world.
What are your secrets to success?
Take opportunities as they come. Look at me - I wouldn’t have expected myself to be running an international art fair in Hong Kong when I first started out in 1999. You have to be prepared to have changes in your career path and be flexible with changes. And do things that you love to do, so it doesn’t seem like work even when you have to work really hard.
What are your upcoming plans?
The art fair is gaining momentum year after year. It’s getting increasingly exciting and hugely popular. Hong Kong is really becoming a focal point of international art. It’s great to be part of its development and success. I have no plans at this stage to change my career.
- Renfrew thinks it's a privilege to be part of a team dedicated to making the fair a great success
- In his day-to-day work, he says he is also lucky enough to meet many interesting people and learn about different cultures and arts