Art Market

Art Assembly Co-Founder Magnus Renfrew on the Future of the Asian Art Market

Arun Kakar
Aug 17, 2023 3:44PM

Portrait of Magnus Renfrew by Yusuke Abe. Courtesy of the Art Assembly.

Interior view of Photofairs Shanghai. Courtesy of Photofairs Shanghai.

Few know the contemporary Asia-Pacific art market as well as Magnus Renfrew. As co-chairman and global director at the Art Assembly, which he co-founded with Sandy Angus and Tim Etchells, Renfrew works with six art fairs in the region: Photofairs Shanghai, Sydney Contemporary, India Art Fair, Taipei Dangdai, and most recently, Art SG and Tokyo Gendai, which both launched earlier this year.

Renfrew has longstanding ties to the Asian art market. He was a founding director of Art HK in 2007, the fair that became Art Basel in Hong Kong—the largest art fair in Asia—in 2012; and in 2017, he published a book about his experience, Uncharted Territory: Culture and Commerce in Hong Kong’s Art World.

Tokyo Gendai, the newest fair in the Art Assembly’s stable, launched last month and was another sign of the group’s ambitions in Asia, a continent whose art market has evolved considerably in recent years.

Artsy caught up with Renfrew to discuss the aftermath of Tokyo Gendai, as well as his views on the continent’s art market more broadly.

Interior view of Tokyo Gendai, 2023. Courtesy of Tokyo Gendai.


Arun Kakar: It’s been over a month since the conclusion of Tokyo Gendai. What are your reflections on how the fair went?

Magnus Renfrew: I think it was a great beginning. We had a solid lineup of galleries who all went to a real effort to bring their best material, and the quality of the fair was really exceptional. Galleries have been very positive and VIPs have reported to us that they’ve really enjoyed the experience of coming to Japan. We had a wealth of different cultural experiences on offer, so I think people got a real taste of what Japan has to offer. But again, it’s still just scratching the surface. It piqued people’s interest, and I think that they’ll be wanting to come back and explore further.

A.K.: Are there any aspects of the fair that you’ll look to build on next year?

M.R.: We really want to build our collaborative approach with different foundations, government agencies, private collectors, institutions, and so on. It’s been brilliant to see how people have galvanized around the fair. We want this to be something that Japan feels as its own, and that everybody can feel the benefits of. People really got a sense of what this could be in the future, and we want to build it steadily and expand as the market expands. But we’re not in any particular rush. We’re here for the long term.

A.K.: Do you think after the fair, and from your experience in the build-up to it, there’s a sense that the art market in Japan is changing?

M.R.: It’s too early to tell if the fair has had an impact on local collecting. The idea of collecting over the coming years is going to help expand the audience and collector base for contemporary art within Japan. That’s one of the things that an art fair can do: put the spotlight on a particular place, but also on contemporary art and collecting; and give it a moment of relevance where it can be the topic of conversation for people who perhaps haven’t collected before and are interested to get engaged.

Tokyo Gendai has been successful at sparking those conversations already. Our aspiration is that we can really build momentum for the market in Japan domestically, but also bring in international collectors who can come and discover the great work that Japanese artists are making.

Interior view of Art SG, 2023. Courtesy of Art SG.

A.K.: This year the Art Assembly launched Tokyo Gendai and Art SG in Singapore in addition to running other existing fairs in Asia. Can you talk more about your broader plans in the region?

M.R.: It wasn’t our original intention to launch two fairs this year. That’s really happenstance in terms of delays as a result of the pandemic. But nonetheless, it’s been great to have two very successful launches.

The Art Assembly has considerable experience in Asia, having launched Art Hong Kong with the stakeholders behind the Art Assembly in 2008. We’ve played quite a substantial role in the evolution of the contemporary art market in Asia over the last 15 years.

The situation in Asia has developed considerably since we first arrived. Each of the major domestic markets deserves its own art fair, and regional hubs such as Singapore—which acts as a hub for Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific—have an important and different role to play.

We don’t want to impose an external brand on a particular place; we want to emphasize the particularity of each fair and the contexts in which they take place. We’re really keen to celebrate the local context as well as to bring in international standards of practice in terms of selectivity that gives confidence for galleries to participate. Importantly, this element of selectivity also gives newcomers confidence in sort of taking the first step on their collecting journey. They know they can’t go too far wrong because everything has been through a rigorous selection process.

In terms of the broader strategy for the Art Assembly, our feeling is that through having these six different moments on the art calendar in Asia Pacific throughout the year, we have a constant presence, and we’re giving people the opportunity for multiple touch points in the conversations year-round. We’re able to share resources in terms of our VIP relations networks, and we now have people on the ground around the region who are working year-round to attract collectors and stakeholders from their communities to attend our fairs in different places. And we also have our local teams on the ground who have a fantastic knowledge of those particular scenes, and a nuanced understanding of the cultural production and landscape.

We’ve got deep roots in all of the constituencies in which we operate, but also very broad branches in terms of this network. The network effect is something that we’re looking to really try and build on over the coming years.

Exterior view of India Art Fair, 2023. Courtesy of India Art Fair.

A.K.: Across the fairs you work on in Asia, have you noticed a change in the collector base?

M.R.: It’s hard to generalize because people are collecting for different reasons. But one thing that we have observed across the region is a new generation of collectors coming through who are very curious, internationally engaged, and extremely quick to understand the market and the context of where an artist is coming from. They do research, ask the right questions, and they’re incredibly well-informed.

In a sense, the pandemic has probably accelerated some of this to a degree. You have the intergenerational transfer of wealth, but then there’s also incredible entrepreneurial wealth that’s being generated as well. Many of the fastest-growing economies in the world are in Asia at the moment.

Whilst Asia accounts for more than half the world’s population, it only accounts for 10% of the world’s art fairs currently. That demonstrates that there’s a huge potential.

Singapore is a prime example. It’s a hub for Southeast Asia, which has a population of 650 million people; is home to many of the fastest-growing economies in the world; and it’s approaching the size of Europe. Logic dictates that it deserves one major international fair. As the economic balance of power continues to tip eastwards, there’s going to be more than enough room for all of the fairs to really have long-term relevance and currency.

Interior view of Taipei Dangdai, 2023. Courtesy of Taipei Dangdai.

A.K.: There are now more than 350 art fairs each year. What are your general observations about the state of art fairs in the post-pandemic art market?

M.R.: Art fairs have great relevance in terms of helping to create a focal point on contemporary art. They have a convening power and are an exchange of ideas as well as a commercial exchange.

For us, whilst there are a lot of art fairs, one can’t necessarily be always looking at what everybody else is doing. You have to positively determine your positioning and your relevance. There’s an expression that resonates with me, which is that you have to chase the dream and not the competition. How can you be the best fair possible for this particular context? How can you help forge connections between the different constituencies? How can you bring international collectors in to discover the local scene? How can you promote the local scene externally? How can you encourage collectors to engage with a broader diversity of original art that’s being produced? All those things excite us.

When one says that there are more than 350 art fairs, they are at very different levels and very different geographies, appealing to very different kinds of constituencies. For us, we have a real strategic reason why we’ve chosen the places in which to operate, which is primarily because we see great potential for those scenes. It’s such a privilege to always be learning, to see all these incredible artists, and to discover the cultural scenes across the constituencies that we operate. It’s a constant learning process.

Arun Kakar
Arun Kakar is Artsy’s Art Market Editor.