Cover Suhanya Raffel (Photo: Alex Maeland)

Suhanya Raffel, museum director of M+, tells Tatler why opening the museum was a once in a lifetime opportunity and why, despite all the unrest, M+’s business strategy ensures success

Envision is a series designed to bring hope to Hongkongers amid the uncertainty and isolation of the pandemic. Each week, we publish letters of encouragement and messages of positivity from the city’s most influential leaders in the realms of art, culture, business and sport. These deeply personal, first-person accounts from the community can be read as love letters to Hong Kong. In these trying times, the series inspires and serves as a reminder that we’re all in this together, and that we will bounce back stronger than ever.

Asia's Most Influential honouree, Suhanya Raffel has dedicated her life to the arts. When she joined the M+ team as executive director in 2016, the Sri Lankan-born, Australia-raised gallerist was accustomed to large-scale projects, having worked as the deputy director of the Art Gallery New South Wales in Sydney and as a curator at Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane.

In 2019, Raffel took over the top job at M+ and says she can’t imagine a more prolific role. “[Being a part of this museum] is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s very rare to get an opportunity to do something of this scale, magnitude and purpose. The last time such a public response to a civic institution was seen was when the Centre Pompidou opened in Paris in 1977, or maybe when the Tate Modern opened in London in 2000,” she says.

Read on for how Raffel navigated the pandemic, how M+ has used its building façade as a powerful communication tool, and why she’s so confident in Hong Kong’s imminently returning to glory.

April 6, 2022

My mental health has been fine [in the pandemic] because I’ve been so busy. Covid-19 started in the lead up to M+’s opening and we were extremely busy. It was a miracle that we were able to [open something] so extraordinary in 2021: with a museum of this scale, we were bringing art in from all over the world. We were installing art, employing people, training staff and running internships, and we were able to do all these things successfully. When the people of Hong Kong walked through the doors of the museum, they were celebrating this fabulous new global institution along with us.

My family is scattered all over the world. My husband and I are here, but I have two sons in Australia. I haven't seen them for two years. I am planning to visit them during the summer. Many M+ employees have not travelled for two years either, partly because we’ve all been focused on this really major event. [Being a part of this museum] is a once in a lifetime opportunity for all of us, and we all felt committed to that.

It’s very rare to get an opportunity to do something of this scale, magnitude and purpose. The vision is so strong and our team has 27 different nationalities. We’re always thinking about issues relating to diversity, sustainability and accessibility. Being able to do something so wonderful is what keeps us all here. When we opened in November, it took a lot of people and enormous energy to deliver and execute the project. We had about 50,000 people visiting us each week. Nothing like [M+] has ever been seen in Hong Kong. And actually, the last time such a public response to a civic institution was seen was when the Centre Pompidou opened in Paris in 1977, or maybe when the Tate Modern opened in London in 2000.

It was exhilarating to be able to open the museum because the city invested so much into West Kowloon as a district and institution. It was, of course, hugely disappointing to have to close our doors after two months but, at the same time, the reality was that there was a very serious Covid-19 situation facing Hong Kong.

Covid-19 has given [the team] a feeling of a global museum community. It’s one of the silver linings of the pandemic. It was very challenging for families, especially those with children, to stay at home in tight living spaces. We also couldn’t open to international audiences. So we pivoted [our business strategy] to provide alternative viewing methods for our audience. Our team had a real sense of purpose doing this because a museum is a learning resource and we wanted to provide all kinds of learning opportunities to others. We had virtual tours of the opening exhibitions, we collaborated with the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design in Manila, and MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum in Chiang Mai to launch the moving image streaming platform Watch and Chill: Streaming Art to Your Homes, which shared videos by contemporary artists from across Asia. M+ also launched Touch for Luck in late January, which is an interactive digital work that allows the public to use their mobile phones as a remote and play a game that synced to the building façade.

Speaking of façade, during this fifth wave, we also used the [LED screen on the exterior of the] M+ building to share supportive messages to the city. We wanted to use the building’s high-profile exhibition space creatively. We projected a message a simple and short message: “Stay Well. M+You”. The building has been a tool for creative content and a way for us to show new commissions.

We will have a new commission that we will announce in May. I’m unable to talk about it right now, but watch this space. There are at least five new things that will be revealed ahead of our reopening.

It’s really important to be positive about the future and to have hope. We need to always think about the next step because Hong Kong is such a vibrant, dynamic city. I can already feel the energy starting to come back [since travel restrictions eased two weeks ago]. Every city in the world has gone through the pandemic and Hong Kong is no different. We have very strong and creative people here. We will come back stronger than ever.” —Suhanya Raffel

Suhanya Raffel is an Asia’s Most Influential honouree from 2021. Discover the changemakers, industry titans, and powerful individuals who are making a positive impact on the region in the Asia’s Most Influential list from Tatler.

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