A love for contemporary art led alumna Suhanya Raffel to an internship at Britain's top museum. Now her vision for a global museum in Hong Kong is becoming a reality.
Suhanya Raffel has a problem: the museum she has just spent five years building, quite literally from the ground up, is such a success that it is struggling to keep up with the thousands of people who want to visit every day. Audiences clamouring to see inside M+ will have to be patient: due to the pandemic, Raffel has been forced to reduce the number of visitors allowed to roam Hong Kong's newest museum, and to establish a registration system. It is, she says, all things considered a good problem to have.
It was incredibly exhilarating to open, after everything - COVID, especially - it felt amazing.
"Hong Kong is closed, so there are no foreign visitors." says Raffel, who is Museum Director at M+. "And the pandemic delayed the opening. But despite that, we opened very successfully." In the first seven weeks that M+, Asia’s first global museum of visual culture built on Hong Kong’s West Kowloon site, was open, it saw more than 370,000 visitors. "Hong Kong is a small city, so that is very validating," says Raffel. "It puts us on par with the opening of the Tate in London or Centre Pompidou in Paris."
And that is the idea. M+, founded with 8000 objects and over 50,000 archival items (many of them thanks to Uli Sigg, a Swiss entrepreneur and art collector, who donated some 1500 works of contemporary Chinese art) was built with the very intention to rival Britain's Tate, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Paris’s Centre Pompidou. The museum is not simply the largest in Hong Kong but the first of its kind for the region, in terms of its breadth of collection. The museum now houses one of the most significant collections of contemporary Chinese art anywhere in the world.
It makes Raffel's job one of the hardest - and best - in modern and contemporary art right now.
The Sydney graduate was never meant to end up here, though. Born in Sri Lanka, Raffel moved to Australia with her family at 14. Her father was a doctor (so was his father, and his), and there was an unspoken family rule that Raffel would follow suit. But it was her mother, ultimately, who influenced the young Raffel's career choice. A musician who was involved in modernist art and cultural circles in Sri Lanka, Raffel's mother encouraged a love of learning and exploration in her daughter.
"For me to work in the arts wasn’t entirely unexpected, but it did come as a surprise, I think," she says now from her home in Hong Kong. "My parents always told me that you need to do work that satisfies you. You spend so much time at work, if you don’t enjoy it you’re not going to have a very pleasant life."
At university, studying fine arts, and later, museum studies, Raffel was keenly involved in the campus museums and galleries, cutting her teeth at the Tin Sheds (where she learned about Australian art, which was not part of the official curriculum at that stage), Macleay and Nicholson museums.
It was the work that I had done at Sydney that got me that internship [at the Tate].”
After graduation, a move to the UK proved fortuitous.
"I became an intern at the Tate," she says. "There was a direct throughline from university to the Tate."
It was a time, she says, when the Tate was thinking about different relationships to its audience. "It was becoming more outward-looking, more purposeful. It was a good time to be there, thinking about how the museum could serve the population. It was a new way of thinking about public spaces."
This fresh perspective, and the experience she gained in London, served her well when it came time to return to Australia. Raffel's husband, Michael Snelling, had landed the director role at Queensland’s Institute of Modern Art; in turn, Raffel "knocked on the door" of the Queensland Art Gallery.
"I said, 'You need me,'" she recounts. "It was clear at the time that things were changing. I wanted to expand the dialogue around art in the Asia-Pacific."
Raffel's moxie paid off. She climbed her way up from being a researcher at the gallery to curator, and eventually became acting director of both the gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane. "Working there in those early days… it was like a blank page regarding this area of practice," she says. "It was so exciting."
Then in 2013, Raffel became Deputy Director and Director of Collections at the Art Gallery of New South Wales where she was responsible for all curatorial areas. During her time there, she worked on the gallery’s expansion project with the Pritzker Prize-winning architecture firm, SANAA.
Raffel joined M+ in 2016, taking over from previous executive director Lars Nittve. "They were very much at the stage of thinking about structure. It was very foundational: who did we need, and what skills were we looking for?" It was, she says, like "a start-up, really."
"There is a huge sense of accomplishment of bringing this to fruition," she says. Though she’s aware that it is still early days for the space, Raffel is keen for Hong Kongers to adopt the museum as their own. "Success, to me, is that people in Hong Kong understand that this is a place for everyone, and that M+ belongs here." One benefit of Hong Kong’s closed borders has been that only citizens of the city have been able to see the museum.
Art is such an important part of our community. During a pandemic, that is amplified. Museums are places of unity, memory, history, reflection. We need those things more than ever now.
"It’s a great thing that the museum opened to the city," she says, "because the city invested heavily in the museum." That said, she is keen for the artworks of the opening exhibitions to stick around a little longer. "The world has not seen anything yet, and so we want to extend that opening show beyond the first year. It is very significant for the region and it needs to be seen by the broader public."
When asked about censorship she said "I will say, our plans were realised as we intended them to be." She points to the incredible opening exhibition featuring M+ Sigg Collection, which she calls, "the most eminent collection of contemporary Chinese art in the world," spanning four decades. "That integrity is intact. We feel very proud of that."
For Raffel, art is more important than it has ever been, the pandemic having highlighted our need for connection and relation. Art, in all its forms, achieves those bonds.
Written by Lauren Sams for the Sydney Alumni Magazine.
Image credit: Keith Tsuji Photography and Lok Cheng Photography, courtesy of M+ Hong Kong