The new realities

Published in Australian Art Collector, Issue 60, April – June 2012

Art HK director Magnus Renfrew believes the art world has changed. It’s a fact, he says, that all kinds of interesting work is now being produced outside of the ma in internat ional art centres of Europe and America. But has Renfrew ma naged to reta in the Hong Kong art fair’s focus on Asia since its change of ownership last year? He talks to Jane O’Sullivan.

There was a curious sense of both regional pride and disdain when the news came through in May last year that the Art HK Hong Kong International Art Fair had been bought by the owners of Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach.

On the one hand it was vindication of the fair’s success and the growing importance of Asian collectors in the international contemporary art landscape.

But it also raised eyebrows. Would Art HK become just another Art Basel outpost, showing the same galleries from the same countries? More to the point, did Asian galleries still have a future with the fair? After all, Art Basel and its American counterpart Art Basel Miami Beach are not exactly known for embracing Asian art (or, for that matter, Latin American art, or African art). And even before news of the change of ownership emerged, it was evident the 2011 edition of the fair had attracted ever greater numbers of galleries from Europe and the United States.

Director Magnus Renfrew is attuned to these worries. “There was a feeling last year that perhaps the fair had tipped slightly westwards, too far westwards, in terms of content and that’s something we’re trying to tweak back into its appropriate proportions.”

This year, 53 per cent of the 260 galleries exhibiting at Art HK are from Asia, though it’s worth noting that fair organisers have a very expansive definition of Asia which includes Turkey and Iran as well as, of course, Australia and New Zealand.

Renfrew has dramatically altered the fair’s floor plan so that the Asia One section, which presents galleries from Asia showing Asian artists, will be “right at the heart of the fair, in the middle of both levels”. It’s a significant change – last year Asia One was relegated to the upper floor, away from the main galleries – and one he says is largely due to the counsel of Art Basel’s floor plan designers.

“We’ve had many discussions internally with the Art Basel team and they share the view that it’s very, very important that the fair retains its identity,” he says. “The long-term aspiration is that the fair will be about 50 per cent galleries from Asia and 50 per cent galleries from the West.”

Renfrew reports a massive surge in interest from galleries since the announcement of Art Basel’s involvement, resulting in over 600 applications for this year’s fair. Alongside the Basel imprimatur, there’s no doubt that Art HK’s popularity with galleries also rests heavily on the decision to base the fair in Hong Kong, where there is no tax on the import or export of art and all the key markets are within easy reach.

Collectors, too, have shown their support. In 2011 Art HK attracted 63,000 visitors, around triple that of Australia’s most significant art fair, the Melbourne Art Fair. Noting how much Art HK had grown since its inception in 2008, critic John McDonald once called it the “infant prodigy” of art fairs. “In terms of numbers things have accelerated for us really rather rapidly,” Renfrew agrees.

As the founding director, Renfrew’s original concept for the fair – its Asian identity – has always been the driving force behind this growth. “I think there’s a sense of art fair fatigue in the West where you see the same work by the same artists, represented by the same galleries, be it in America or Europe or the United Kingdom. We wanted to present something that really reflected the new realities – and the fact is that there’s work being produced in all sorts of different interesting artistic centres that are outside of Europe and America.” It is a positive sign, then, that Art HK’s new owners appear to agree – all expectations to the contrary.

Renfrew also talks of how he wanted quality to become Art HK’s “real point of difference from other art fairs in the region”. His sales patter is, of course, smooth – “we’re the only art fair in Asia really to adhere to international standards of practice in terms of selectivity” – but Renfrew’s approach has an obvious upshot for collectors interested in seeing the best work.

“Often art fairs will be invitational, in that they invite their friends to participate or galleries that they think are interesting. It’s the opinion of an individual, often the fair director, that creates the line-up.” Other fairs, he says, have an application process but not a selection process. This kind of “all comers welcome” approach means that “the audience is not given any sort of guidance … about work that’s really interesting or work that’s perhaps more commercially pragmatic or decorative.”

By contrast, Art HK has a selection committee of six gallerists, all of whom straddle the fence between Asia and the wider international art world. “We have Waling Boers from Boers-Li Gallery in Beijing. We have Urs Meile from Galerie Urs Meile in Beijing and Lucerne. We have Maho Kubota from SCAI The Bathouse in Tokyo, Suzie Kim from Kukje Gallery in Seoul, Shireen Ghandi from Gallery Chemould Prescott in Mumbai and Emi Eu from Singapore Tyler Print Institute in Singapore.”

Renfrew says each of the six has a good understanding of the greater Asia region and also of how it’s contextualised in the international arena because of their “experience with dealing with international artists and with participating in major international art events”.

This year, the committee chose 14 galleries from Australia and New Zealand. Gallery Barry Keldoulis, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Anna Schwartz Gallery and Starkwhite have been accepted into the main section of the fair, however stalwarts Tolarno Galleries and Tim Olsen Gallery will be showing in the Asia One section.

For the main galleries section, which Renfrew describes as being “the premier section for leading galleries from Asia and around the world,” the selection criteria is “the exhibition program of the gallery, the artists that the gallery represents, and their proposal for the booth … The programming of the gallery is very important in that section. For Asia One and Art Futures [a section for young dealers showing artists under 35] it’s much more about the individual proposals for what will be shown at the fair. It’s very much a content-driven selection and it’s less about how established the gallery is.”

Also exhibiting in the Asia One section are Nellie Castan Gallery, Tristian Koenig, Damien Minton Gallery, Sullivan+Strumpf Fine Art, Ryan Renshaw Gallery, Ausin Tung Gallery and Neon Parc. Additionally, Anna Pappas Gallery has been accepted into the Art Futures section.

None of the six gallerists on the Art HK selection committee has an especially deep understanding of the Australian and New Zealand art worlds. (Locally based Asian art collector and White Rabbit founder Judith Nielson is on the fair’s advisory panel but is not involved in the selection process.) Renfrew, although he is keen to stress how highly he values the participation of galleries from Australia and New Zealand, concedes: “As you will understand, for a number of reasons it is not practical for us to have galleries representing every country on the selection committee.”

This may also be a reason why no galleries specialising in Indigenous Australian art will be present at this year’s fair. “If Indigenous artists are relatively unrepresented at this year’s fair, this is something that we will look at,” he offers. “During future meetings our selection committee may need to take additional expert advice on this particular area of art practice and how it fits into the international art scene.” It’s this kind of openness that suggests Renfrew is serious when he talks about Art HK’s focus on representing the new realities of the international art world.