Director has an artistic touch

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 April, 2011, 12:00am


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, from May 26 to 29, is in its fourth year and has attracted more than 250 galleries from 30 countries, including exhibits from the renowned galleries of Barbara Gladstone and Marian Goodman.

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. 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.

Privileged position

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