In­dus­try play­ers are pin­ning their hopes on Art SG to give the com­mer­cial art scene a new lease in life.

Singapore Business Review - - CONTENTS - So­nia Kolesnikov-jes­sop

In Jan­uary, the Sin­ga­pore art scene re­ceived a shock to the sys­tem. Eight days be­fore it was due to start, Art Stage Sin­ga­pore, the city state’s premier an­nual art fair and the an­chor event of Sin­ga­pore Art Week, was abruptly can­celled. Cit­ing the “very dif­fi­cult mar­ket sit­u­a­tion in Sin­ga­pore as well as un­equal com­pe­ti­tion,” Art Stage’s Pres­i­dent Lorenzo Ru­dolf pulled the plug, not­ing that whilst the fair had brought over 500 gal­leries to Sin­ga­pore over the pre­vi­ous eight years, rel­a­tively few re­turned due to the lack of lo­cal sales.

An ar­che­typal Sin­ga­pore can-do spirit im­me­di­ately swung into mo­tion, in­clud­ing a Face­book page set up by Plu­ral Art Mag that helped gal­leries find al­ter­na­tive ex­hi­bi­tion spa­ces, whilst non-profit en­tity Art Out­reach, with the sup­port of var­i­ous govern­ment agen­cies and the Ma­rina Bay Sands (MBS), set up a pop-up event — at the MBS’S ex­hi­bi­tion space now aban­doned by the fair — which brought to­gether 14 gal­leries that had in­tended to show at Art Stage.

Art mar­ket par­tic­i­pants noted that the com­mu­nity’s abil­ity to re­spond on short no­tice at­tests to the strength of the vis­ual arts ecosys­tem. How­ever, with the dust now set­tled, many in the art sec­tor say the with­drawal of Art Stage after eight years raises fun­da­men­tal ques­tions that need to be ad­dressed. “The neg­a­tive sig­nal of Art Stage’s

sud­den de­par­ture turned into eu­pho­ria for a suc­cess­ful Art Week with­out Art Stage, but the ques­tion re­mains as to what’s next,” says Richard Koh, of Richard Koh Fine Art.

It’s not easy for a gallery here to fork out $50,000 for a booth at an art fair. The price points for the art­work are of­ten not high enough to jus­tify such ex­pense.

Fair eco­nom­ics

The Sin­ga­pore art mar­ket has been a tough nut to crack for art fairs. After a strong start, Art Stage saw the num­ber of par­tic­i­pat­ing gal­leries steadily dwin­dle from a high of 170 in 2016 to just 84 in 2018. Be­fore the plug was pulled, only 45 gal­leries had re­port­edly reg­is­tered for this year’s edi­tion. Other fairs like the Sin­ga­pore Con­tem­po­rary Art Show, the Mi­lan Im­age Art & De­sign Fair, and the Sin­ga­pore

Art Fair, have come and gone, whereas hav­ing run two edi­tions a year for four years, the Af­ford­able Art Fair Sin­ga­pore cut back to one in 2018.

“The un­der­ly­ing eco­nomic re­al­ity is that it’s not easy for a gallery here to fork out $50,000 for a booth at an art fair. The price points for the art­works are of­ten not high enough to jus­tify such ex­pense,” says Jas­deep Sandhu, founder of Ga­jah Gallery, which par­tic­i­pated in the first eight Art Stage fairs, but had not planned to par­tic­i­pate in this year.

Art Stage Sin­ga­pore, which has now been placed un­der pro­vi­sional liq­ui­da­tion, was charg­ing S$67,500 for a 90sqm booth and $26,250 for a 35 sq. m booth, ac­cord­ing to

the fair’s ap­pli­ca­tion form. By com­par­i­son, the in­au­gu­ral bou­tique fair S.E.A. Fo­cus, which was or­gan­ised by STPI - Cre­ative Work­shop & Gallery and sup­ported by sev­eral govern­ment agen­cies, of­fered 35-sqm booth for only about $6,300.

Sandhu points out that with more af­ford­able booths, S.E.A. Fo­cus ad­dressed one of the ma­jor is­sues the Sin­ga­pore art mar­ket cur­rently faces as, “the price of art in South­east Asia is not high enough to sus­tain an ex­pen­sive fair,” but adds the bou­tique fair may need to con­sider a new lo­ca­tion and a slightly larger for­mat if it is to re­turn in 2020.

The new bou­tique fair, which was lo­cated at Gill­man Bar­racks in the hope of at­tract­ing vis­i­tors to the some­what iso­lated art en­clave, had more than 10,500 vis­i­tors over the five days, a far cry from the 26,500 vis­i­tors that at­tended Art Stage Sin­ga­pore last year but com­par­ing quite favourably with the 12,000 vis­i­tors that at­tended the wellestab­lished Af­ford­able Art Fair in 2018.

“There wasn’t a big crowd, but there was qual­ity at­ten­dance, I mean peo­ple that ask good ques­tions and are truly in­ter­ested in the art,” says Guil­laume Levy-lambert, co-founder of Art Porters Gallery, which nearly sold out works of­fered at the stand, which ranged from $880 to $10,000. “We also take the view that par­tic­i­pat­ing in a fair is a long-term out­reach. It takes time to grow a col­lec­tor base; it’s not just about sales, but also about the con­nec­tions you make that will de­velop over time,” Levy-lambert adds.

New en­trant

Art mar­ket pro­fes­sion­als are now pin­ning their hopes on Art SG to bur­nish Sin­ga­pore’s pro­file as a re­gional art hub. The new fair is due to launch on Novem­ber 1 at MBS and is run by sev­eral of the peo­ple who de­vel­oped Art HK be­fore it was sold to Art Basel in 2013. One of the co­founders, Mag­nus Ren­frew, is also run­ning the new Taipei Dang­dai fair that took place in Jan­uary. Ren­frew says Art SG will be “re­al­is­tic in terms of scale,” start­ing with about 80 booths, and points out it is po­si­tioned to cre­ate a hub fair for South­east Asia: “We’re not try­ing to repli­cate Art Basel in Hong Kong. But right across Asia now, there are op­por­tu­ni­ties for re­gional fairs. I be­lieve gal­leries from across Asia and be­yond would like to have a high-qual­ity and se­lec­tively-deter­mined art fair in Sin­ga­pore that can pro­vide them with the op­por­tu­nity to con­nect with new col­lec­tors from the re­gion as well as their ex­ist­ing col­lec­tors.”

Hav­ing re­cently par­tic­i­pated in the Taipei Dang­dai fair, Sandhu says he is con­fi­dent that Art SG or­ga­niz­ers have the “ex­pe­ri­ence and ca­pac­ity” to at­tract a strong ros­ter of gal­leries. How­ever, he stresses that to be suc­cess­ful the new fair will need to bring in col­lec­tors from across the re­gion.

Jeffrey Say, Pro­gramme Leader of MA Asian Art His­to­ries at LASALLE Col­lege of the Arts, says Art SG will need to learn from the lessons of art fairs that have not been able to sus­tain them­selves: “It needs to do mar­ket re­search to be ac­quainted with the de­mands of the Sin­ga­pore mar­ket. It needs to do its best to at­tract blue-chip in­ter­na­tional gal­leries, but it will also need to main­tain good re­la­tions with the lo­cal gal­leries. Whilst the fo­cus on Asia or South­east Asia is well-in­ten­tioned, you won’t at­tract in­ter­na­tional buy­ers. It needs to have strong pro­gram­ming, and fringe ac­tiv­i­ties.”

Say also notes that although art fairs may be an im­por­tant part of the art ecosys­tem, they are just one com­po­nent of it: “We need more ground-up ini­tia­tives, and more pri­vate bene­fac­tors and phi­lan­thropists to come for­ward to sup­port these ini­tia­tives. We need an in­de­pen­dent art scene and art fringe, and not only state-sponsored ac­tiv­i­ties. We used to have a thriv­ing in­de­pen­dent scene in the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s, but most went un­der be­cause of a lack of fund­ing. And, of course, there is an ur­gent need to ed­u­cate and nur­ture an art au­di­ence be­cause even if you have the best shows, if you have no au­di­ence, all your ef­fort would have been in vain.”

In a state of flux

The dif­fi­cul­ties faced by fairs are in­dica­tive of the state of the wider com­mer­cial art sec­tor, which has been in flux in re­cent years. The top-down ex­per­i­ment of de­vel­op­ing the art dis­trict at Gill­man Bar­racks has had only mixed suc­cess. Seven years after its open­ing (2012), only five of the ini­tial 13 gal­leries re­main. Last Novem­ber, El­e­ment Art Space, which had moved from Raf­fles Ho­tel Ar­cade to Gill­man in 2017, closed its gallery there to fo­cus on ex­pand­ing its art ad­vi­sory and con­sul­tancy ser­vices from a new lo­ca­tion, not­ing in an email to gallery clients, “a clear need for ser­vices in South East Asia based upon

We used to have a thriv­ing in­de­pen­dent scene in the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s, but most went un­der be­cause of a lack of fund­ing.

care­ful schol­ar­ship, ut­most dis­cre­tion and un­bi­ased, ob­jec­tive ad­vice.” In March, Pearl Lam Gal­leries was the lat­est to de­fect from the precinct, mov­ing its per­ma­nent space to a new gallery in Dempsey Hill, Sin­ga­pore’s more vi­brant life­style and din­ing hub. Whilst it re­fused to comment on the rea­sons be­hind the move, it stated that it was in­tend­ing “to em­bark on a new chap­ter that will bring a fresh ap­proach to its en­gage­ment with the art mar­ket.”

One ma­jor sus­tain­abil­ity is­sue for art gal­leries in Sin­ga­pore is the high over­head costs (rental and staff) when com­pared to the av­er­age price of lo­cal art in the re­gion. Sandhu points out, “The over­head cost in re­la­tion to the av­er­age price of the art be­ing sold in the re­gion is still a bit dis­pro­por­tion­ate,” adding “That said, whilst 15 years ago that prob­lem was acute, we’ve made a lots of progress. Back then Sin­ga­pore artists were sell­ing for around $1,500-3,000, to­day there is a good num­ber of artists sell­ing above $30,000. Whilst $3,000 to $5,000 is a com­mon price for a young artist, it’s not enough to sus­tain him, but it has pro­gressed a lot.”

An­other is­sue of­ten raised by gallery own­ers is the still-small size of the col­lec­tor base, even though it has grown and in­cludes many with high dis­pos­able in­comes as Levy-lambert notes: “It’s true that it’s a small col­lec­tor base, but peo­ple have spend­ing power, and even in a new mar­ket there are al­ways op­por­tu­ni­ties.” How­ever, he also points out, “it’s not easy, and as a com­mer­cial gallery, you re­ally need to work at it to bring foot traf­fic in. It’s still very much a pi­o­neer ef­fort be­cause there isn’t a cul­ture here to go ‘crawl some gal­leries’ over the week­end. Out­side of open­ing night — when peo­ple come not al­ways for the right rea­sons — it’s still very hard to get peo­ple in.”

Like­wise, Marie-pierre Mol, co-founder of In­ter­sec­tions Gallery says, “I don’t think that the col­lec­tor base is too small, but that the lo­cal ac­tors have to learn to deal prop­erly with the lo­cal col­lec­tors. I don’t have mir­a­cle so­lu­tions but be­lieve that it will re­quire pa­tience, fo­cus and per­se­ver­ance.”

Sandhu is op­ti­mistic for the medium term out­look: “I think we are at a point of the cy­cle where things are start­ing to sta­bilise. Most of the gal­leries that are here now will prob­a­bly still be here in the next three years.

It’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that there are nine to 12 pretty se­ri­ous gal­leries in Sin­ga­pore when we only have a pop­u­la­tion of 5 mil­lion. By com­par­i­son, I would say In­done­sia and Malaysia have maybe two to three very se­ri­ous gal­leries each, so the ra­tio of pro­fes­sional gal­leries to the lo­cal col­lec­tor base is ac­tu­ally very high here.”

Gal­lerist Richard Koh is also feel­ing pos­i­tive and re­cently opened a per­ma­nent space in Gill­man Bar­racks. “I see the mar­ket re­cal­i­brat­ing be­cause the client base in chang­ing. More peo­ple from the re­gion are col­lect­ing based on in­ter­est and pas­sion, when in the early days it was all about in­vest­ing in the art. I also see more younger peo­ple start­ing to col­lect,” he says.

The over­head cost in re­la­tion to the av­er­age price of the art be­ing sold in the re­gion is still a bit dis­pro­por­tion­ate

The num­ber of par­tic­i­pat­ing gal­leries at Art Stage fell to 84 in 2018 from 170 in 2016

Dream of Be­yond Part 2, Maitree Siri­boon, 2010, as part of pub­lic art show­case LOCK ROUTE. Im­age cour­tesy of the Na­tional Arts Coun­cil

Yeo Kaa, ALONE BUT NOT LONELY, 2018, In­stal­la­tion view

Bridg­ing Realms Credit Game of Life, Justin Lee

Land­scapes, Le­ga­cies: Visu­al­iz­ing Alam Mi­nangk­abau, Group Ex­hi­bi­tion, In­stal­la­tion View

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