“Acting Regional to Get International”: an Interview with Magnus Renfrew on Taipei Dangdai

by Mara Sartore
April 24, 2018
Mara Sartore
Renfrew Magnus

A new international art fair, Taipei Dangdai will open in Taipei in January 2019. The inaugural edition of the fair will bring together 80 exhibitors from Asia as well as strong selection of leading galleries from outside the region that have shown a continued commitment to showcasing their programs on the continent.

On the occasion I’ve interviewed fair director Magnus Renfrew, to learn more about this world-class art event, which aims to provide exhibitors the opportunity to broaden their collector base and giving international exposure to a growing number of artists and galleries from across Asia. The inaugural edition of Taipei Dangdai will be held at the Taipei Nangang Exhibition Center, and is presented by UBS.

Mara Sartore: I would like to start from your background. You directed Art Hong Kong before it was acquired by Art Basel and you have been the director of ABHK from 2012 to 2014. So from an HK perspective what has driven you to explore Taipei as a new art fair destination?

Magnus Renfrew: I really felt that the scene and the fair in HK has developed to a very high level and there’s no doubt that ABHK is the global art fair for Asia but I think there’s now the room for other art fairs to develop within the region. Look at the situation in Europe for example, it’s not just Art Basel, there’s Frieze, Fiac, Art Brussel, Cologne and Dusseldorf and so on. The scale of the potential market is substantial and I think that the offerings that there are currently in different parts of Asia, don’t necessarily satisfy the needs of the local audience both in terms of potential exhibitors and indeed collectors; so there was an opportunity there to try to create something that steps up the level of quality.

MS: I see, I’d like to understand a bit better since, as you know, MCH has been acquiring other regional fairs like Art India so I was wondering in this global art market where more and more collections, as – in the words of Johan Jervøe, Head of Marketing of UBS-  will look more global. Does local market actually exist? Will the Taipei fair have a special look into the regional galleries and artists or do you think that it’s a matter of bringing western galleries to Taipei and Taiwan? How do you envision this?

MR: Sometimes regional is perceived to be second-best, as in local, regional versus international, and that’s how people think of things. But for me regional is international, I think that people have a misunderstanding of what international means. International very much gets interpreted with a Western, European or American aesthetic. I think there’s a need right now to be more representative of what’s going on in other parts of the world. Global really needs to incorporate more of a sophisticated understanding of cultural context from outside of Europe and America so our desire is really to be regional on purpose. We want to be regional we don’t see it as a second best, we see it as a point of difference and a point of interest. The vast majority of galleries that we will have in the fair will come from Asia, indeed we will have a commitment to Asia so there are a number of galleries that are very active in the region and galleries from the west that are very active in the region as well. We want to have a strong focus on the region but, at the same time, it is important for us to get the balance right; some of the domestic collectors within any given context want to feel that there’s a difference with other offerings, they want to see a strong line up of international galleries which means galleries outside of their own domestic setting. That internationalism includes galleries from Asia but also galleries from the West. We are getting a strong interest from Western galleries who have a long established relation with the region.

MS: I would like you to tell us a bit more about your partnership with UBS. I’ve interviewed Johan Jervøe and I asked him the same question. How was the partnership with them born?

MR: I’ve been working on this project already for a year and a half, I first approached UBS, with whom I have a strong relationship since when I tried to persuade them to sponsor Art Hong Kong in 2009 (which didn’t work at that time). They’ve been following the progress of the fairs in Hong Kong and they were pleased to be involved when it became ABHK. It was quite natural for me to tell them about what I was trying to put together and the potential in Taiwan. Already from an early stage they were really receptive, we both agreed that we were serious about partnering up and we set the deadline to try to get things together in order to announce a partnership. I’ve been speaking to a lot of people, potential exhibitors, gallerists and collectors over the last year so there’s already a lot of speculation in the market about our activities but for us to go out there and to announce UBS as lead/presenting partner was something that will really speed up our progress now, so it has been something that was brilliant to secure their involvement so early on. It’s quite unusual for a fair to be announced from its inception with a sponsor like UBS.

MS: The fair will coincide with the Taipei Biennial. Are you collaborating with the Biennial as well as with museums and institutions in town? Are you trying to create an art week to attract a broader public?

MR: It’s still very early days for us. The first part of a fair’s cycle is to persuade the galleries to come and the second part of the cycle switches to marketing, vip programming and vip attendance. I’ve had early meetings with the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, who organize the Biennial and they have been very very open and receptive; we haven’t spoken formally about how we might be able to collaborate, but one of the things that I think is quite fortuitous in terms of timing is that rather than the fair coinciding with the opening of the Biennial (where sometimes I think that when fairs coincide with opening of biennials it feels like one is riding on the tail of the other’s marketing campaign), the fair coincides with the end of the biennial. My hope is that we can reactivate and energize their activities as well. I hope it will be very constructive in that sense.

MS: This brings us to my last question which is about the current art scene in Taipei. How’s the current art scene there, are there many galleries, how do you think the fair will change the city art scene?

MR: If you speak to most exhibitors at ABHK or to galleries that have a strong relationship with Asia, they almost without exception will talk about the strength of collectors from Taiwan and their sophistication. Taiwan has a very established collector base, a very established gallery scene, there are some really high quality galleries there. There are around 140 galleries in total which gives you a sense of the scale of the market that is required to sustain that number of galleries, but one of the things that I was really surprised about was that after my departure from Art Basel and during my time with the auction house Bonhamns (which spent a lot of time in Taiwan), I was frequently coming across collectors at auctions who I had never met before in the gallery context. So I guess that one of the things that is not really understood in the international scene is the importance of Taiwanese collectors, their activity in the auction market: they are one of the key constituencies in the region for sourcing consignments for auctions. There’s a really established history of collecting, not only related to contemporary art. Collecting is in the DNA of the audience there so I think there’s a real potential.

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