In honour of International Women’s Day this March, we’re featuring four female leaders who are making a mark in Hong Kong. In part two of our story, we shine the spotlight on SUHANYA RAFFEL.
Fostering Arts & Culture
As the Museum Director of M+, Hong Kong’s new showcase of visual culture, Australian expat Suhanya Raffel is tasked with the role of helping build the city’s cultural capital.
What brought you to Hong Kong?
The M+ project has always been on my radar. I’ve been visiting Hong Kong since the early 1990s. I was keenly aware of the major cultural infrastructure programme that is the West Kowloon Cultural District when it was being formulated.
The role of Museum Director was one I couldn’t resist. The idea of bringing a major cultural institution into fruition through building a unique collection of art, design, architecture and moving image in Asia – all while working with a major architect, Herzog & de Meuron, on the museum building – is an exceptional opportunity. I’m here to see M+ transform Hong Kong and take a preeminent place amongst international museums of equivalent scale.
Hong Kong is unique. It’s really a people-based cosmopolitan city and its primary resource is its people. Reflecting on this, I think about the movement of ideas and the positioning of the city beyond its finance credentials. I want to lead a museum in a city that’s investing in cultural capital. This is thinking for the future.
What’s been the highlight of your expat experience so far?
A highlight for me has been getting to know people beyond the cultural sector and into other parts of the city’s life. It’s such a dynamic and energetic place that the experience of living in the city itself has been a real highlight.
And the toughest challenge?
Despite being a great city, Hong Kong has lacked large-scale cultural infrastructure. Establishing one piece of this, the M+ museum, is my daily challenge. Within the institution, I’ve taken an active approach to engage a local audience base that hasn’t traditionally grown up with a worldclass museum or a museum-going habit
We’ve approached this by establishing Mobile M+ which was an itinerant exhibition programme in the city, followed by 11 exhibitions in the M+ Pavilion since its opening in 2016.
We’ve also established a programme called M+ Rover, a travelling creative studio that tours local secondary schools and community centres, knowing that we need to reach into the community to develop our future audiences – all this while putting together a unique collection and building the museum. I love the challenge and there is nowhere else I’d rather be.
What is it about modern art that captured your heart (and career)?
I always wanted to be a part of the creative cultural sector. Dedicating myself to a career in art museums felt natural and one that I was drawn to from a very early age. I grew up in a family that was immersed in music and the arts.
Although I have experience across the range of modern and historical art, the contemporary art world of Asia has been a particular aspect of my work. I felt it needed added advocacy, especially in the West where so many museums focused on Asia as a pre-modern, archaeology based material culture rather than a modern and contemporary one.
To this end, much of my professional work has also been championing the practice of contemporary and modern Asian artists and architects as being of equal importance with their international colleagues.
Has your experience being a female leader in Asia been positive?
I’m the second Museum Director of M+ and I’m very honoured to be in this position of influence, as both a woman and as an Asian woman. It’s been a very positive experience here at the museum working with my M+ Board Chairman Victor Lo. Together, we worked hard to establish gender parity on our board.
There’s a willingness to establish change here, and the Hong Kong cultural sector has a number of influential women, so it’s a pleasure to be a part of this eminent company.
During your long involvement with the arts, how has the struggle changed for women aspiring to a creative career?
The awareness of women artists has been raised in recent years across the world. And it’s only now, over the last decade, that we’re starting to see more women in leadership roles in museums across the world.
The art world has been taking action to be more gender balanced and that has also meant directing energy into research. This means we get to see and know more about these previously overlooked figures.
Locally speaking, Asia Art Archive has executed several campaigns about women in art. Tai Kwun did an exhibition and public programmes about “violence of gender”. M+ has been refining its already sizeable collection by adding more works by women artists, architects and designers, especially from Southeast Asia and South Asia. It’s ongoing work and deeply important.
You’re on many boards, including the Board of the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM). How do you bring people from different backgrounds together to follow a vision?
My board commitments are about shaping conversations and being involved in cultural dialogue. I take these commitments very seriously because they’re also professional commitments to the global cultural sector. These are forums that are influential as they work towards establishing best practice parameters with global perspectives at their base. Broadening the table to be inclusive of voices from other parts of the world is more important now than ever, as we live in complex times that can be very divisive as well.
Within M+, we are a microcosm of the world, with over 19 nationalities in our workforce. I see this as a huge strength, as together we’re all focused on delivering an ambitious new museum to the world, bringing important civic functions that reflect the city’s cosmopolitan heart.
How can other women help support your endeavours?
Join M+ as an M+ Pioneer, our entry level membership programme, or any of our patron programmes. I would love to welcome you all!
Check back here for part three of our International Women’s Day Story.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.