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Art assault starts now
ART Stage opens to the public next Thursday amid gloomy market headlines. Now in its fifth year, the country's premier art fair has come a long way in establishing itself as South-east Asia's biggest commercial art attraction. Today, more than 100 art events are set to take place in conjunction with Art Stage, including dozens of solo exhibitions by leading artists and two major regional art prizes.
But the faltering global economy and art market woes - from the closures of several galleries and the flattening out of Asian art prices - are making everyone stay cautious about their outlook for 2015.
Art Stage founder and fair director Lorenzo Rudolf says he's "not negative" about the prospects of sales, but he is "not expecting 2015 to be a record year in sales" either.
"In the past year, we've held talks and events in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Hong Kong, China and Korea. We focused on meeting collectors through dinners and receptions, people whom we know definitely collect art," he says. "We expect them to come."
Despite the gloomy economic signs, Mr Rudolf notes: "We have to push on in building the market. We cannot live all the time in hype."
The straight-talking Swiss clearly knows something about ignoring hype: In late 2012, the fair's announcement of plans to include a large showcase of Indonesian art within the fair drew plenty of local criticism for prioritising a foreign art scene over that of the host country.
But when it was erected, almost every art lover and critic raved about the high quality of works and how the Indonesian Pavilion became the anchor attraction of the fair.
Similarly, when Art Stage arrived in 2011, not a few gallerists complained about Mr Rudolf's brash business style which seemed to fit poorly in a face-saving society like Singapore. But some of these same gallerists are now reserving their most important exhibitions for the Singapore Art Week period to capture the crowd of international buyers descending on the country for Art Stage.
Too much, too soon?
It's almost a case of "I told you so", especially since the successes of Art Stage and Affordable Art Fair in Singapore led to an explosion in 2014 in the number of art fairs here - nine in 2014, compared to just one in 2009. Notably, however, sale performances for most were not strong. Some, such as the Milan Image Art & Design Fair, drew such a poor turnout that the gallerists were texting members of the media to complain.
Mr Rudolf says: "Singapore has to be careful, it is a young market - not as established an art world as New York or London. Just because there are 10 art fairs, doesn't mean the market is 10 times bigger. When it has these many fairs, many people get confused. They don't understand what is good and end up buying something else."
While that may sound like a self-serving statement coming from an art fair organiser, it is arguably a fair one. From the standpoint of quality alone, Art Stage still offers better art compared to any of the other art fairs - even one that is arguably more popular among Singaporeans.
"Art Stage is not an art fair for the elite - it's for everyone. Yes, we have pieces priced above S$100,000. But we also have hundreds of pieces that are below S$10,000 that would be considered to be in the more affordable range. We understand ourselves as a temporary museum to show the best art - it's not about just renting out booth spaces to galleries. We have to educate, educate, educate, so people understand what good art is."
Gallery or art fair?
He cites an example: "I was recently at the opening of Yang Fudong's exhibition at the Centre of Contemporary Art (in Gillman Barracks). There were about 30 or 40 people there. Yang Fudong is a superstar of the art world. His works are amazing. If this exhibition was held at another city, you would see people queueing up in the streets to get in.
"So one must think about how to position art in a much more serious way. It's not about selling merchandise - it's about a culture, a way of life. There are good quality shows here. But we need to bring the people to these quality shows. So we need to educate."
For that reason, Art Stage organises or participates in art talks and panel discussions around the year.
One issue, however, that dogs the larger art scene is the alarming frequency with which galleries are closing or downsizing. The phenomenon is taking place in numerous cities around the world and has been attributed to the rise in popularity of the art fair.
Art lovers increasingly prefer going to art fairs to see a wide selection of art showcased by local and foreign galleries - instead of going to a gallery which typically shows two dozen works or so within a smaller space.
The lower footfall, on top of rising rents, overhead costs and slowing business, have forced well-known galleries such as Richard Koh Fine Art and Artesan Gallery to close their physical spaces, and others such as Chan Hampe and Kato Duo to downsize.
Considering that successful art fairs are essentially made up of a large collection of strong galleries boasting good art, it seems paradoxical that the art fair effect should impact galleries so adversely.
Mr Rudolf says: "There's a trend there, no doubt about that - but I don't agree 100 per cent with the assessment (that art fairs are to blame for galleries' decline.) The fact is, many galleries also get their revenue today from showing at art fairs."
"What's happening now is that the small and young galleries have problems because they can't or don't yet know how to play in the global landscape. Meanwhile, the big galleries have the resources and substance to get the collectors and the artists. The art market functions like a luxury market. When there's new money in a market, the top segment does well - and the niche segments do well too. Those in between and not clearly defined suffer.
"Galleries today really need to think about. . . (how to) establish a very clearly defined identity. I'm sometimes surprised at how some are suffering, but go on and on without thinking how to reposition themselves or changing their programmes. Art is innovative, and yet so many galleries are too traditional."
Art scene slowly growing
Putting aside gloomy headlines, though, Mr Rudolf is cautiously optimistic about the future of the Asian art market.
He says: "While we cannot say that the market is growing like mushrooms in September, we do see a growing interest in art collecting. In general, the Asian art market is moving and contributing new energies to a quite saturated international market.
"The global art market is getting more decentralised. It's not just New York and London today; there are art centres thriving all over the world. Don't get me wrong - the big market is still being controlled by Western infrastructures. But that's only a matter of time.
"Here in Singapore, I've seen how the South-east Asian market has evolved, In 2011, everyone was talking about Indonesia, and then there was talk of Singapore. Now we talk about the Philippines and Malaysia. In the latter cases, I've seen their presence at Art Stage more than double from the time when we first arrived - which means the scenes and markets are moving."
"So we want to be part of and partner to all these developments. . . That's how we see our role and that's what makes it fun."
Art Stage Singapore takes place from Jan 22 to 25, 2015, at Marina Bay Sands. Tickets from $10 (concession group ticket) to $64 (for a four-day pass) are available from Sistic