Portrait of Suhanya Raffel courtesy of West Kowloon Cultural District.
Australian museum veteran Suhanya Raffel will leave the Sydney art world to head the forthcoming M+ Museum in Hong Kong, it was announced on Wednesday. Raffel will succeed previous executive director Lars Nittve, who left in January. She has signed up for a five-year contract and will assume office on November 1st.
The move might appear to be a step forward for the career of Raffel, who is currently the deputy director and director of collections of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. But becoming the executive director of the HK$5 billion (US$640 million) museum of visual culture will not be without its challenges. Both the local cultural sector and the increasingly politicized society of Hong Kong have contributed to the number of difficulties that have faced M+ thus far in its development.
The board of the West Kowloon Cultural District, where M+ will be located, praised Raffel’s vast experience in the art world and her longstanding involvement in Asian art. Raffel said she has been following the progress of M+ since its inception, adding that the museum, which will encompass 20th- and 21st-century art, design, architecture, and moving image, “reflects the local understanding of Hong Kong as a global city.”
Raffel has more than two decades of experience in museums and curatorship under her belt. She began her career at the Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) in 1994. She remained there until 2013 as the acting director, before joining the Art Gallery of New South Wales. She has led the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art since 2002 and took the helm of building the Asia Pacific collection and the China Project at the Queensland institution.
But whether Raffel’s sound experience will be sufficient to wage the battles ahead of her at M+ remains to be seen. The West Kowloon Cultural District, which is estimated to cost HK$47.1 billion (US$6 billion) to build, has garnered controversy since it was first tabled in 2000. The Herzog & de Meuron-designed building, which will house M+, is scheduled for completion in 2018. The museum will open to public in 2019. Construction of the M+ Pavilion, the district’s first permanent structure for M+ events, will be completed this summer.
The project has been under scrutiny due to the hefty amount of public money involved and bureaucratic red tape. Over the years, the museum-in-the-making has been a popular target for jabs from politicians and some members of the local arts community.
Swiss collector Uli Sigg’s part donation, part sale of his 1510-work-strong collection of Chinese contemporary art to M+ caused a great deal of debate in Hong Kong and China. Last year, previous West Kowloon CEO and renowned Australian arts administrator Michael Lynch and Nittve, the first director of Tate Modern, announced their departure from the Hong Kong project. Most senior members of the M+ curatorial team are foreigners.
Artist Chow Chun Fai said having another foreigner lead Hong Kong’s most important cultural institution could be an issue due to language and cultural barriers.
Unlike in mainland China, the majority of the population in Hong Kong speaks Cantonese—and was a British colony until 1997. And while Hong Kong retains its own legal system and freedom of speech due to its status as a Special Administrative Region of China, it has also faced increasing control from Beijing in recent years.
“There is a serious lack of trust in terms of politics and a great fear of increasing censorship. But as an outsider, [Raffel] might have the advantage to stay independent from the dark side of Hong Kong’s politics. Let’s hope she has enough to battle against that,” Chow told Artsy.
When asked about the challenges ahead of her, Raffel appeared to be at ease: “The art world without controversies would be a dull place, I think. Bring it on.”