"The museum can play an essential role in enriching the everyday experience in people's lives"

10 March 2022

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Suhanya Raffel, Director, M+, Hong Kong, and Member of the Board of CIMAM.

Interview with Suhanya Raffel, Director of M+, Hong Kong, and CIMAM Board Member, for the yearbook publication of Tendencias del Mercado del Arte magazine, Spain. Originally published on February 2022.

Which were your first memorable experiences with the Art and Museums?

Looking back my decision to train in art history was both impulse and passion. It was a formative decision to study art history rather than science. I was considering the study of the sciences because my father was a doctor, and I come from a family of doctors, and there was an unspoken expectation that I too would follow in this profession. My mother was a musician, a pianist and teacher and was very involved with music and with the world of artists and playwrights, and the championing of cultural work in Sri Lanka. At the time of my tertiary education decision - we had migrated from Sri Lanka to Sydney, Australia - and to the surprise of my family, on my return home from enrolling at Sydney University, I announced that I enrolled in Art History as my major. Thinking back going over the subsequent conversations with my parents, I know that the decision was the right one for me, one that has stood me in good stead.

At the time I was enrolling to undertake my undergraduate study, in the late 1970s, there were no professional degrees to assist in finding museum work. Rather the pathway to the museum was to obtain a strong base in art history and at the time Sydney University offered the best options for me. This included classical studies in European art histories as well as a recently formed Film Studies module which brought the Fine Arts unit at the university into studying a 20th century discipline.

Many of the decisions undertaken in my career development have been marked by following my instincts and driven by what has interested me. I never thought or set out to be a museum director, but I did have an interest in museums and the public institution. After I finished my undergraduate Fine Art degree at Sydney University, I went to London and spent about ten years there. It started with an internship at the TATE. At that time, there was only one TATE, what is now described as TATE Britain, and I recall one of the jobs I was asked to do was to help in the research for what became Tate St Ives. At that time, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth were considering a major donation, of their studio and estate, and TATE needed assistance with the collation of some of that material. So, I was one of those young people who worked on preparing what was to become Tate St Ives.

After that I also spent many years in the UK working in the pre-modern space, not just on the modern and contemporary. I was very interested in Greco-Roman antiquities and the pre-modern Asian world, and of course, London was the focus of a lot of that work. I worked in a conservation studio preparing reports on antiquities. There were amazing sculptures, paintings, calligraphies, and other material in circulation through the UK and through the auctions. It was also the time when the early conversations around provenance histories were beginning to circulate, especially in relation to antiquities, archeological object and the movement of cultural objects. These were the consequence of how the UNESCO agreements on the protecting cultural heritage were starting to take shape and the beginning of a much needed regulatory environment being instigated around the marketplace.

During my decade living in London, I always left in early November and returned in early February as I hated the damp dark winter days. I would spend these three months traveling and seeing art. I went to the south of France, Italy, Greece, Mexico, India, Sri Lanka, East Africa using my time to research and look at art and culture. I was interested in the rich and diverse art and visual cultures of these places and felt certain that to travel, to see and experience these many places firsthand was an important education in its own right. I might add that this is something very common amongst a certain generation of Australians too who embarked of similar sojourns backpacking around the world.

In the mid-1980s, I returned to Australia for a year to undertake a museum studies course at Sydney University. At that time, I was part of the first cohort of twelve people who participated in the fledgling diploma that established the professional museum studies course at the University.

After my decade based in the UK, I returned to Sydney Australia, mainly because I wanted to have a family. In 1994 I went to Brisbane because my husband, who also works in the arts, began a major position there. At that time the state arts institution, The Queensland Art Gallery (QAG), had just started the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art project. I knocked on the door of the art gallery and said, "You need me because if you're working with this material -and, I was very interested in contemporary work from the region - you need people like me who come from the region, and who have a network of contacts and can help develop this extremely new area of interest." From there, I spent nineteen years at the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG), moving through the institution from researcher, curator, Deputy Director and finally as the acting director before I left to return to Sydney. Over those 19 years in Brisbane, I established a major collection of contemporary Asian Art, oversaw the embedding of the Triennial as a core project of the museum which argued for the expansion of the museum to the Gallery of Modern Art, which doubled the size of the institution. The establishment of the then groundbreaking collection of contemporary Asian & Pacific art through the Triennial together with working on the museum building expansion broadened by perspectives of how museums act in their cities and the roles we can play. This work also formally established the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art’s credentials as a leader in this area of scholarship and collection building.

Looking back, I was motivated by the fact that I felt very passionately that the Asia Pacific contemporary art conversation did not exist in any formal way within the canonical frameworks of Western art institutions. Up until the 1990s, Asian art and Pacific art was designated as an important aspect of the pre-modern historical canon.

I am a part of the Sri Lankan diaspora in Australia, and I know I'm part of a living contemporary culture and wanted to advocate for broadening the conversation to include these canons as part of the modern and contemporary discourse. I became convinced that this needed to be part of the work of the public art institution as these are the living places where the memories, histories, stories and cultural discourse are presented through the collections and exhibitions programs. This is where we remember who we are to shape who we can be in the future in the most complex ways, and for me, that was the reason why I participate in and develop the work I have been doing over these part three and a half decades. It is what brought me to Hong Kong, to deliver M+, which we just did eight weeks ago so very successfully. We have welcomed over 375,000 people over these first seven weeks.

What role should a museum play in today’s society? What are museums for in the XXI century?

The museum is place that offers many things to many people, and at this time of pandemic, it is also a place of well-being. These institutions move between the many roles they play, both locally and beyond, in terms of research, collaboration, knowledge sharing, developing capacity, training as well as being places of leisure, looking, learning, retail and dining. All of these activities are often linked and offer a variety of experiences while being a resources for our various communities.

But more immediately, the fact that we just opened the museum in pandemic time here in Hong Kong, in a city where we are closed to the rest of the world, the museum has allowed me to witness how this new museum has been welcomed in Hong Kong. I've found that people come to the museum because it offers a place to slow down and look, a place to reflect, to share new experiences, a place to learn, a place to pause, enjoy and celebrate being together.

Just seeing how the Hong Kong community has embraced M+ has been extraordinary, which to me demonstrates the institution's role in touching the imagination of the community here. It has already become a place for people to come to think about the histories of the art, design, film, moving images and architecture, to investigate and explore what it means to be in our place here, in relation to our highly urban cosmopolitan cityscape, its relationship to Asia, and the broader international world. It has been a great affirmation that the museum can play an essential role in enriching the everyday experience in people's lives.

In a world that has become much more material, where so much of our lives are driven by material things, it's nice to reflect on how some of those things function as objects of historical significance, of social relationships, while also giving us insight into aesthetics and the choices that people have made over the last hundred years.

It has been a very important lesson to see this museum's role in contemporary society in Asia. And I say Asia because museums have developed differently in different parts of the world, and the museum experience is still a relatively new one in Asia, where many museums are now being made in this part of the world.

Part of this is also reinventing and repositioning the institution in relation to communities, research, and knowledge creation. And that is very exciting.

I feel like we are making history at M+. We are on the cusp of all kinds of things. And while these are challenging times due to several reasons that include the pandemic, social problems in the city, and political tensions, we are also navigating this situation to create an institution that is very real for us. And at the same time the opinions so apparent in the West about who we are and how we behave here in Asia are also being played out. It is through these many complexities that the work of the museum inevitably brings negotiation and connections together in the most inventive ways to ensure integrity and knowledge are shared.

What has the art world -and museums in particular -learned about the pandemic?

The pandemic has brought with it several challenges, including diminishing resources, how we can afford our museums, redefining our business plans, refining staffing structures and questioning how we value our work and account for the financial resources that we need to secure in order to continue to survive.

But these are not purely transactional realities. The museum itself brings an energy to a city, a different cultural capital, and it's a crucial aspect of the museum's existence. The pandemic has challenged the museum community and made us think about engaging with the local more than ever before.

One of the advantages of M+ in opening the museum now, is that while waiting for our physical museum to be ready we still worked on our collections and curatorial content with audiences and developed quite an innovative out-of-the-box thinking culture. The digital space was an essential part of this thinking and the delivery of these programs included ensuring that we worked across various languages on these digital platforms.

Museums have embraced the digital museum more than before to connect with communities during the pandemic. Technology has allowed us to cast a wider network, and we're more connected than ever. This means we are talking about things, sharing, strategizing, improving, expanding our work, which has pushed the boundaries of the museum beyond the purely physical space.

This parallel digital museum is now an intrinsic part of our work, and it is clear that when we do a digital symposium or a roundtable, the number of participants through these digital portals reaches a much wider audience. For example, we reached more than 800,000 people in the last year and a half just in relations to the M+ digital education program. We developed programs for families and children, and we think the museum offers an informal equal learning opportunity. The pandemic gave us opportunities and challenges, and it continues to do so.

May museums be drivers for economy recovery?

I certainly believe that the opening of M+ will be an economic engine of recovery for Hong Kong, and we have seen it happen in other parts of the world. Museums are part of larger economies, and the cultural economy is a seriously important one. We participate in significant ways building the cultural capacity, and we are part of a more extensive tourism industry network.

In a world that is starting to question issues around sustainability, travel, and to look more carefully at how we are doing things, it's an exciting time to review what the tourism industry looks like. I would say the advantage that Hong Kong has, in terms of Asia, is that we are very close to many places that’s just a train ride away. So, for example, the Greater Bay Area, we can reach 30 to 40 million people within a half-hour to an hour’s metro ride. That kind of catchment of people is unique and important because there are no public institutions of scale-like M+ for those people to go and visit and use. After all, we are also a resource, and the museum is an essential part of the development of society.

We think very carefully about sustainability work and at M+ we are very interested in being content producers so that we don't just fly things in but work with bringing art that is closer to home because we have to talk much more about the cultural work of this region. If we don't do it ourselves, we become the footnote of someone in Europe who talks about us in a way that is might be tangentially interesting but not central.

What are the most important debates in the contemporary art scene now?

Sustainability is a crucial conversation that includes how we are financially sustainable, what is our staffing plan through to business strategy, our carbon footprint and minimizing this, and how do we as an industry respond to climate emergency.

Another critical conversation is around diversity. The pandemic has revealed just how divided the world can be. It's happening rapidly, and it's uncomfortable to watch. The museum world needs to offer that space to pause and think about what human diversity means.

As part of our inaugural exhibition here at the M+, we have a very timely and beautiful work by Antony Gormley called Asian Field, which was the last fieldwork he did in 2003 in Guangzhou. It's a social project that required working with many people. He persuaded 300 people of all ages from the town of Xiangshan. He worked with clay, and each person he collaborated with was given three straightforward instructions: make a figure the size of a hand, the figure had to be able to stand up and have two eyes. This group of 300 people embraced this project and made over 200,000 sculptures.

This sea of sculptures is about humanity, the earth, it’s about difference and sameness, and it embodies diversity. It's a profoundly humanitarian project about who we are and whether everyone can be a creative person. It's a breathtaking project because everyone who sees it can recognize themselves and the vulnerability of all of us, but that none of these figures are the same as each other. So it speaks immediately to what it means to be a human being on earth, and our response to nature and the fact that we are, by nature, all different, and that that difference is a good thing. It offers avenues for thinking about many ideas including the nature of equality.

The third development is NFT and blockchain and what it means to move museums forward. I'm still trying to understand what NFT and Blockchain mean and how that transaction occurs. But at the same time, I know that this is a fast-evolving world that we must engage with.

What makes the Hong Kong art scene unique compared to other international art centers?

Hong Kong's cultural space across the non for profit through to the commercial galleries, auction houses and government art museum sector is very active. The most exciting thing about Hong Kong is that its historical trajectory has shaped the city's energy. It is a cosmopolitan city at its core. Thinking about issues of cosmopolitanism is very important to us at a time when that word is often left out due to debates around the construction of nation and national identity having to recognize the many different types of communities that populate places that include those living outside cities. Yet, Hong Kong is unique in this sense as we are a deeply cosmopolitan place with the term directly relating to city life. We live in one of the world’s most urban, dense, vertical cities that, before the Covid came, welcomed 80 million people every year augmenting the cities 7.5 million population. This results in Hong Kong being a very international city, or it was up until these last two year, where the city is now a completely closed one due to a Covid -19 strategy of zero tolerance. However, the assumption is that Hong Kong will return to its pre-covid status as a major global city.

Hong Kong’s internationalism is formed by always looking both inward at the city cultivating its various infrastructure interests and outward, seeking opportunity. We are now more than ever, a gateway into China as well as a portal through which China engages with the world. The cultural world constantly engages with this dynamic and is shaped by it too.

In the last ten years, a very considerable art market has been established, one that matches London or New York’s capacity and scale. Hong Kong has strong venues run by non-for-profit artists run independents, a government run series of medium scale institutions administered through a civil service structure, university museums and now M+, the later being the first international museum of scale. The burgeoning artist scene is supported by a serious collector community, who over these last two years have begun to support art production in substantial ways.

The biggest challenge facing young artists in Hong Kong is real estate, which is costly, and having access to affordable studios. When you look at the practice of artists here, you see that those who are limited by space to explore mediums, instead develop conceptual practices. Hong Kong is also a city that inspires many international artists who see it as a future city, sometimes dystopian and at other times utopian.

What do you think about the phenomenon of NFT’s? Does this intangible art challenge the way museums collect art?

It is undoubtedly challenging for museums to respond to NFT. Yet museums have constantly been challenged by people's inventiveness for as long as we can remember.

The museum's relationship to the nature of cultural object has constantly been tested in relation to where these objects come from, how they travel, and how they are conserved, especially if the materials are fragile. For example, I still remember reading discussions about whether photography should be in museums back then when it was a very new medium at the turn of the twentieth century. Now we take it for granted; photography must be part of museum collections.

In this way the phenomena of the NFT is the contemporary topic of the day, and will become another subject in a well-documented history of museums grappling with new forms of creative expression. It is so virtual and intangible, and this forms the basis of the challenge. How do we see this virtual transaction of a virtual object that exists in the other world? One of the greatest pleasures of the museum are our objects, our art, our paintings, our sculptures, our installations. To have something that exists solely in the virtual world is the challenge. We're at M+ are doing a lot of research and having conversations with other institutions to ascertain opinions. But I must add that in Hong Kong, this part of the world has embraced the NFT with great gusto.

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Suhanya Raffel at the CIMAM 2019 Annual Conference, Musem of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney.

As member of the Sustainability Committee of CIMAM: How can museums respond to climate emergency?

Museums can and do respond to the climate emergency by keeping it central to our operations and by incorporating it into our planning as institutions, insisting that it is crucial to all our various the conversation. Finally, we make sure that we express that sustainability within the institution, seeking an all-staff engagement with the position and by ensuring that it is an active part of the museums work.

At M+ we have begun to prepare to enlist a sustainability curator, a curatorial position, a senior voice that will help us structure both as programmatic as well as in content production to keep that work as a core activity of our work at the museum.