Challenging Times Ahead for Art Fairs in Asia

A newspaper clipping on the cancellation of Art Stage Singapore, in the Singapore Straits Times.

The abrupt cancellation of Art Stage (AS) Singapore a week before its January 25 opening has caused ripples in the region’s art scene.

The fair’s founder-president Lorenzo Rudolf, a Swiss national behind the success of Swiss Art Basel, blamed the canning on “exorbitant prices, a weak local market” and “unequal competition,” lambasting a peripheral fair, SEA Focus, at Gillman Barracks, for “cannibalism” (of its potential clients). Gillman Barracks offered a 35-sqm booth at SG$6,300, compared to AS Singapore charging SG$26,500 per booth, and SG$67,500 for a 90-sqm space.

So, was Rudolf staring crestfallen at a potential loss in 2019? estimated the cost of organising AS Singapore to be about SG$1.5mil (RM4.5mil). The fair was supported since its inception in 2011 by the Singapore Tourism Board, the National Arts Council and the Economic Development Board. This year, the logo of its main sponsor, UOB, was conspicuously missing although it threw its weight behind SEA Focus.

In an e-mail media post after the cancellation, Rudolf griped: “No new galleries and hardly any new collectors and buyers, is this the necessary incentive for the weak local market?”

The debacle was not all that unexpected. Booth take-up had declined in recent years, ending in an abysmal 45 in the aborted 2019 edition. The figures were discouraging: 95 in 2018 (which included 20 free booths for Collectors Stage), 131 (2017) and 143 (2016).

More dire news lent credence to Rudolf ’s allegations. The less prestigious Contemporary Art Fair lasted only from 2016 to 2018, while Singapore’s Affordable Art reverted to a once-a-year affair after ambitiously being held twice a year.

Those who had committed themselves faced daunting “losses” in terms of freight charges (of art works, some of which were huge), taxes, flight and hotel-stay cancellations, and other expenses. It was announced on February 12 that Rudolf ’s company of the same name had been put on provisional receivership on January 31, and that a meeting of relevant creditors was scheduled on February 28.

Jimmy Chua with a vintage 1964 Thawan Duchanee painting, Christ on the Cross.

At the time of writing, there is no news of the fair’s Jakarta spin-off slotted for August, after it had skipped its proposed third edition in 2018. Again, will it be missed? Well, Art Jakarta, under Tom Tandio and Enin Supriyanto (artistic director), is confirmed for the August 30-September 1 date, while May (3-5) will see a new Jakarta fair, Art Moments, helmed by collector Leo Silitonga.

Further trepidation for AS Singapore was caused when a rival mega fair, Art SG, announced in 2018 that it will debut inSingapore in November 2019. (Singapore-born Shuyin Yang has been named as Art SG fair director.) It initially had the backing of the MCH group, but the Art Basel fair czars pulled out later. But Art SG is still formidable with the crack triumvirate of Tim Etchells, Angus Montgomery and British-born Magnus Renfrew, who is basking under the success of his new Taipei Dangdai (TD, “Dangdai” meaning “Present Moment”, January 18-20, 2019). It is noteworthy that South-east Asia boasts of a burgeoning population of 650 million with increasing economic means.

With AS Singapore out, Art SG will invariably assume the ermine mantle of Singapore’s “flagship fair”, probably with a new Singapore Art Week (SAW). It certainly begs Rudolf ’s claim of the Singapore market being “stagnant” and “saturated.”

Jimmy Chua, a leading Singapore collector and art-fair “acolyte”, opined that despite AS Singapore’s exit, Singapore continues to be relevant, citing its own niche, a good location and an excellent supporting infrastructure.

True, true.

Singapore’s ambitious SG$68mil Renaissance City plan decades ago has put into place a world-class visual and performing arts ecosystem chockful with international events. The opening of its National Gallery in 2015 ensures stops from top-notch travelling exhibitions like the Yayoi Kusama’s Life Is The Heart of Rainbow (June-September 2017) besides thematic collaborations with world-renowned museums. From 2006, it staged the Singapore Biennale, while art spaces such as Gillman Barracks and in Fort Canning Hill opened up.

A multimedia presentation on the Singapore River from i Light Singapore's bicentennial celebrations.

Light art installations from i Light Singapore's bicentennial celebrations.

i Light Singapore exhibition: (Clockwise from left) Works by Mona Hatoum, Donald Judd, Anish Kapoor, Peter Kennedy, Tatsuo Miyajima and Olafur Eliasson.

At the same time as AS Singapore, there were highlights such as:

  • i Light Singapore Bicentennial celebrations (January 28-February 24), with the anchor multimedia show,Bridges of Time, and Transporta (inspired by the Big Bang Theory) besides 31 other light installations with artificial luminescence at night, and more than 20 programmes. One of the centerpiece was the crochet giant sea urchin installation mounted by Choi + Shine Architects, standing 56ft tall
  • Minimalism: Space. Light. Object. at the National Gallery Singapore and ArtScience Museum. Starting on November 16, 2018, the exhibition and performances surveying Minimalism arts in the West and East, will run until April 14, 2019

While the collapse of AS Singapore may have been spectacular, Singapore Art Week, including SEA Focus, made up partly for the loss.

One of the centerpieces of i Light Singapore is the crochet giant sea urchin installation mounted by Choi + Shine Architects, standing 56ft tall.

Non-profit Art Outreach organised a pop-up show, with The ARTery offering 14 galleries a 30-sqm booth at SG$2,000. At Gillman, Richard Koh Fine Art showed Nadiah Bamadhaj, Anne Samat and Minstrel Kuik, while Shoosie Sulaiman held sway at Tomio Koyama. Stranded galleries found alternative platforms over 12 locations. For example, Banksy’s 2003 Bomb Love and Tracey Ermin’s lithographs (Tanya Baster Contemporary), Nyoman Nuarta (Linda Gallery), Aicon Gallery’s MF Husein at The Arts House; Yayoi Kusama and Yue Min Jun at Opera Gallery; Mr Brainwash at Eternity Gallery; three generations of Myanmar women artists at Intersections Gallery; HotLotz held a special auction waiving its commission of 19.5%; while P. Gnana @ Gnai ArtsTanglin created a protest work specific to the cancellation.

Other regional fairs such as India Art Fair (January 1-February 3), Art Fair Philippines (7th edition, February 22-24) and Art Expo Malaysia (the longest South-east Asian art fair with the 13th edition on October 11-13) are still surviving.

With Taipei Dangdai (TD), the poser is if it can challenge the exalted status of Hong Kong, especially Art Basel HK (under Malaysian-born director for Asia, Adeline Ooi), and some pundits are pointing at a revival, especially when auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s exited Taiwan in 2000 and 2001 respectively.

For a start, TD with a roster of only 90 booths despite some A-list galleries was not grand enough. In terms of ecosystem, it already has Art Taipei (since 1993, the first fair in Asia with sister fairs in Taichung and Tainan), Taipei Biennial (since 1992), Hong Kong dealer Calvin Hui’s Ink Now at Expo Dome, and a proposed contemporary culture lab on a seven-acre former air force site. Taiwan started opening up in 1987 with the ending of martial law, and in terms of censorship, it has the edge over Singapore and maybe even Hong Kong.

But tax-free Hong Kong has a slew of other incentives. Taiwan has a VAT of 5%, promotion tax of 0.04%, profit tax of 20%, of the wholesale/retail difference, though these are not directly art-related.

A work by London-based Malaysian Anne Samat presented by Richard Koh Fine Art.

In Hong Kong, there are M+ (where Uli Sigg’s main collection is based), Para/Site and gallery haven Pedder Building. Apart from the anchor Art Basel HK (March 29-31, 2019, with two days of preview), a burgeoning Art Central HK (March 27-31; Asia Contemporary (14th edition on March 29-April 1 and October 3-6), hotel fairs like Harbour Art Fair (3rd edition, March 29-April 1) and Affordable Art (7th edition, May 17-19).

A political cloud hangs over Taiwan since China's president Xi Jinping, in a New Year address, warned of retaking Taiwan, which it regarded as a renegade province. Other imponderables include the China-US trade war, which will have far-reaching repercussions. Singapore’s economy is projected to grow by 2.5%, down from 3% in 2018, and Taiwan’s growth rate is expected to dip to 2.4% from 2.7%. In figures released on January 21, China’s growth was 6.6% in 2018.

But if sales is the barometer of a fair’s success, then TD, held at the Nangang Exhibition Centre, has signaled that it is here to stay. Look at the sampling proof of TD’s Western-centric sales: Anish Kapoor (Mirror) US$966,600 (RM3.94mil) under Lesson Gallery; Yayoi Kusama (Infinity Net) US$1mil (RM4mil), Neo Rauch for US$650,000 (RM2.65mil), Wolfgang Tillmans US$350,000 (RM1.42mil) under David Zwirner; six Gunter Forg including two for US$400,000 (RM1.63mil) under Hauser & Wirth; Baselitz (Der Bote) under Thaddeaeus Ropac; with others including Anselm Kiefer, Antony Gormley and Darren Almond.

Perhaps, art fair organisers need to take cognisance of regional strengths and needs, and foster more innovative programmes reflective of the region, culture and “character” and with an eye on building up a younger set of discerning collectors. It bears reminding that Singapore once had a potentially world-class art and antique fair, Tresors (started in 1993), which folded after a few years; but its demise was because it was ahead of its time then.

Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary fantasy “movel” (a novel conceived as a mock movie) spun from a local legend.

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