IN 2009, there was just one art fair in Singapore. In 2010, there were three. By 2014, there may be as many as 10 art fairs of varying sizes, including four large-scale ones.
Are there enough buyers to support so many fairs? Will the phenomenon threaten the livelihood of galleries that have been here since before the global art craze? And will it affect the quality of the works of popular artists compelled to produce more within a shorter turnaround time? Questions abound.
Of course, Singapore isn't alone in experiencing the explosion in art fairs. Across the globe, major cities are witnessing a dramatic rise in fair numbers, fuelled by a few major factors. They include a growing interest in art, the desire to own something unique that no one else has, the media frenzy surrounding stratospheric record prices at auctions, and a belief - misguided in many cases - that art is a solid form of investment.
"In an image-overloaded age where everyone can see and download almost any image they want from the Internet, buyers want to possess a unique artwork that's exclusive," says one gallerist who didn't wish to be named. "But the trouble comes when they read all the headlines of blue-chip art fetching these crazy prices at auctions, and they think the art they're buying will one day fetch those prices too. . . Well, there's a good chance that it won't."
The gallerist estimates that less than one per cent of the artworks being sold in the world has resale value.
Still, the art craze shows no signs of abating. Next year, there may be in Singapore as many as four major art fairs, three hotel art fairs, one major photography fair and two small-scale but not insignificant fairs. The organisers are optimistic about the market, some citing their own solid numbers to prove the cynics wrong.
The four major art fairs taking place next year are Art Stage, the premier art fair in the country; Affordable Art Fair, which will now hold two editions every year instead of one; and the Singapore Art Fair, a new event by the organisers of the successful Beirut Art Fair.
Camilla Hewitson, fair director of Affordable Art Fair (Singapore & Hong Kong), says: "Affordable Art Fair has 16 fairs globally so we are able to track the general success of a fair by comparing data across the board, but also taking into account local differentiators.
"Both London and New York have two AAF editions a year and following such a success rate in Singapore over the past three years - in terms of visitor numbers and gallery interest - it was a natural decision to launch another AAF fair in Singapore in May (following the usual November fair)."
Last year, the AAF Singapore attracted 16,000 visitors and rang up more than $4 million in sales - $1 million more than the previous year. In fact, compared to its first year in 2010, the numbers marked a 68 per cent increase in visitorship and 129 per cent increase in sales - sterling figures indeed.
Meanwhile, the organisers of the brand new Singapore Art Fair (SAF), set to open next year, are relying on the country's reputation as a cosmopolitan city and hub for South-east Asian art to attract buyers.
Laure d'Hauteville, who is the CEO and fair director of the Beirut Art Fair (BAF), thinks they can transfer the success formula of the BAF onto our shores with SAF. She says: "We specialise in art from the Menasa region (Middle East, North Africa and South Asia) but we see similarities between them and South-east Asian art. Beside the growing interest in the art of South-east Asia and Menasa, they address similar issues like urbanisation and post-colonisation."
Reflecting on the competition, she says: "We're not worried about the other art fairs. Each one has its own unique identity, and ours is quite different from theirs. And we're expecting many art collectors originally from the Menasa region to congregate in Singapore for this event."
SAF hopes to feature between 80 and 100 galleries, a figure that's comparable to Art Stage's 130 galleries and Affordable Art Fair's 101.
Filling smaller niches
At the other end of the scale, smaller players are finding ways to enter the market and carve their niches. Next week, seasoned New York art dealers Jerry Gun and Mary Pan will debut Spot Art, a new art fair dedicated to South-east Asian artists under 30.
It will showcase more than 200 works by 70 young artists, selected by by a jury of well-known art professionals including artist Milenko Prvacki, curator Iola Lenzi and Patrick D Flores, professor of Art Studies at the University of the Philippines. Because of the professional jury and the lower price points of the artworks - between $500 and $5,000 - the event is expected to draw strong interest.
Mr Gunn says: "Many talented young artists in South-east Asia don't get to show their works outside of their country because the art scene or the gallery system there is small or doesn't even exist. So we see our effort as something of a social enterprise, bringing works by promising regional artists to one place."
While all this is good news for artists and art collectors, the art fair phenomenon is a double-edged sword for the galleries. Gallerists say they are well aware of the attractions of the art fair: Art lovers get to see a wide variety of art from many galleries under one roof. There is also the thrill of buying quickly as fairs typically last no longer than three or four days.
But for galleries, the costs of taking part in art fairs aren't low. It's not uncommon for galleries to fork out between $15,000 and $30,000 for a mid-sized booth at a major art fair, and then not selling enough art to break even. In fact, a few have made substantial losses - one as much as $50,000 - after failing to sell a single piece of artwork. Competition, after all, is fierce at art fairs as local galleries go toe-to-toe with international galleries boasting big-name artists.
One gallerist echoes others when he says: "The art fair sales model seems to appeal to a lot of Singaporeans because it has a sort of supermarket mentality - you have to buy it now or you'll lose out.
"On the other hand, the galleries' way of selling art is more relaxed. You come into the gallery, you get a chance to meet the artist and understand his or her practice, and usually you have more time to consider whether you want to buy the work. . . I hope the latter mindset will seep in."
The gallerist adds that usually after a major fair, business at his local gallery is "slow" for two months.
Still others were more sanguine about the situation, seeing the fair as a not-to-be-missed opportunity to meet new collectors who may otherwise not think of buying art or seeking out their galleries.
One says: "Nothing beats having a big crowd milling about your booth. . . At the end of the day, you just have to compete better, find stronger artists, connect with new collectors, and sell more aggressively. It is a free market, after all.
"But you know, judging from my experience, don't be too surprised if some of these art fairs disappear after just one or two editions."
Spot Art runs from Oct 26 to Nov 4, 2013, 11am to 9pm at ARTrium@MICA 140 Hill Street.
Afforable Art Fair Singapore 2013 runs from Nov 21 to 24, 2013, at the F1 Pit Building, Republic Boulevard.
For a complete calendar of the art fairs next year, see "More art than you have walls for".