New M+ director brings Asia-Pacific vision to West Kowloon flagship

Rooted in Hong Kong, Suhanya Raffel is reaching out to MoMA and the Tate


M+, the flagship project of the $3bn West Kowloon Cultural District, has a new director. Suhanya Raffel joined the museum of 20th- and 21st-century visual culture, now under construction, in November. The move caps a career spanning 25 years in Australia, the country she emigrated to aged 13 with her parents, from her native Sri Lanka. At the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art (Qagoma) in Brisbane, she led the Asia Pacific Triennial, helping to make it the most prestigious contemporary art show in the region, while also building the museum’s collection of contemporary art from Asia, the Pacific and Australia. In 2013, she moved to the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney where she served as the deputy director and the director of collections.

Raffel succeeds the Hong Kong museum’s founding director, Lars Nittve, and joins the institution at a critical stage, three years before its projected opening at the end of 2019. She spoke to The Art Newspaper about building audiences for contemporary art, the role of M+ and its ambition to attract possibly two million visitors a year. Raffel spoke before the announcement that a branch of Beijing’s Palace Museum would be built in West Kowloon, a surprise late addition to the cultural complex on the waterfront site.

The Art Newspaper: Why did you decide to join M+?

Suhanya Raffel: I spent 20 years in Australia championing contemporary Asian and Pacific art and building the collection of Qagoma, which was foundational for the gallery but also for the country. Then, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, I was able to amplify the work that they were already doing with Asia. So it almost feels like my professional life has been leading up to M+, a museum that Asia needs, that has as its remit architecture, design, moving image, visual art and the visual culture of the late 20th and 21st centuries. This is a collection-building institution and that’s incredibly important to me. Collections are about the deep work of art history that will take place into the future. What M+ will do, and what it’s already started to do, is insert an art history about visual culture from this part of the world into our understanding of our time. That’s why I’m here and why I’ve joined a really distinguished staff, which has made fabulous acquisitions.

And you have had some notable gifts already, such as the part donation of the Uli Sigg collection.

If you look at the history of the great modern collections, they are always associated with a major benefaction of that scale because public institutions need that kind of relationship with collectors; it’s not possible to do it on your own.

Can you give us an idea of what your opening shows will be?

People need to know what we’ve been doing—we’ve been collecting so actively—so I think it’s really important that the collection should form the displays in our first year. Beyond that, we’re working on a rolling exhibition schedule. I’m really excited to be part of an institution that collects across disciplines. That creates rich possibilities and I think that to be able to do shows of architects from the region that have global influence would be fabulous.

Will you be showing international art? Do you hope, for example, to host shows organised by museums such as the Tate or MoMA?

Yes, definitely. The conversation with those institutions has already begun. Our collections and exhibitions will be rooted in Hong Kong and extend out into the wider region. And we want to take those collections and exhibitions out into the world. Equally, we want to bring the rest of the world to Hong Kong; it’s important for Hong Kong artists to be internationalised by being seen with their peers globally. We have huge interest in working on research projects with institutions like Tate. I think more than ever partnerships in the museum world will be very important.

So we can expect to see shows of major American or European movements at M+ in the context of local developments?

Yes. Depending on which artist and which period you’re looking at in terms of the collection here, Asian artists had conversations with Moscow or New York or Paris over those periods from the mid-50s on and they are fascinating. The art history is very rich.

How do you show conceptual art to a local public that isn’t familiar with 20th-century art history?

We need to build an informed audience; there’s no question that that’s part of the work that the institution needs to do and has already started. An institution can’t exist without an audience and, for an institution like M+, the audience has a very broad base so we’re working with schools, with communities with disabilities, and so on. We are starting to develop an informed audience base but that takes time. I saw what was possible in Queensland: when we did our first Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane, a city with less than two million people, we had an audience of 30,000. By the time I left, it was over 700,000. I’m very proud of that. The majority of that audience is made up of local people who visit four or five times. So they know that to understand an exhibition like the Asia Pacific Triennial needs several visits. The habit of returning to the museum took 20 years to build, but it’s been achieved; visiting art is now part of what people do on their weekends in Brisbane. M+ will do the same in Hong Kong. The museum will be free to visit, with a charge for special exhibitions, so we very much hope it will become a part of everyone’s lives.

Is part of your role to support local artists?

We will show their work; we already collect their work. We work with the arts development board to take Hong Kong artists to the Venice Biennale and that’s an ongoing commitment. The work of Samson Young is now being prepared for Venice and the show will then go the M+ pavilion [which opened in September to stage shows from the collection in the run up to the museum opening] after the biennale. Our first M+ pavilion show was devoted to the Hong Kong-based Tsang Kin-Wah and the subsequent design exhibition included the work of Hong Kong designers. Hong Kong artists are part of what we do, young and established, across the multi-disciplinary art forms.

Why has it taken so long to get to this stage? M+ is two years behind schedule.

I don’t think it’s been that long for M+ from the time that the architectural competition was launched, given the scale of the project. Qagoma took ten years to build in Brisbane and that is a much smaller new building. In West Kowloon an entire cultural precinct is being created and it’s incredibly ambitious, with performing art centres and park spaces. It’s a complicated site because it’s got major transport infrastructure that needs to be created as well. Construction on M+ started a year ago so it now feels very real and very exciting.

Do you have annual projected visitor numbers?

It’s something we are really looking at closely. Hong Kong has a huge number of international visitors; around 35 million people come into the airport every year. A percentage of those people have broad interests beyond just being on the board of financial institutions. So that’s one group of people we’ll seek to bring in. And clearly there is the local Hong Kong public. We want to ensure that we expand our audience base here, starting from schoolchildren. And then there are the mainland Chinese audiences who travel here. With so many different venues opening in West Kowloon, I think we can afford to be ambitious in terms of our visitor forecasts. We’re projecting between one and two million a year.

Do you have any concerns about censorship and curatorial independence? The chairwoman of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Carrie Lam, was also the chief secretary of Hong Kong [Lam resigned last month]. How can M+ be truly independent?

M+ now has its own museum board that’s chaired by Victor Lo. This week we’re having our fourth board meeting. So we’re starting to form a structure that gives the museum a standalone presence within the West Kowloon district. That is a sign of the museum’s need to be independent. Curatorial independence is vital; I’ll certainly champion it.