THE launch of the Indonesian Pavilion at Singapore's upcoming art fair Art Stage may have riled many Singaporeans in the art circles. But for Indonesian artists, the chance to showcase their works at next week's top-tier art event is a real boon.
Several Indonesian artists say the gallery system in their country is not as transparent and accountable as that of Singapore. While there are good galleries in Indonesia that support and promote artists, there are also several that exploit or cheat them.
A boon that may have now become a bane, the Indonesian Pavilion was announced late last year by Art Stage fair director Lorenzo Rudolf. It is a 1,000 square metre space featuring works by 38 Indonesian artists, and is much larger than the 75 sq m Singapore Platform featuring six local artists.
Almost immediately, it drew concern within local art circles that it was focusing on Indonesian artists at the expense of Singapore artists. Furthermore, because many of the Indonesian artists have no gallery representation, Art Stage is breaking with art fair conventions by acting as the artists' agent and claiming a commission for the sale of their works.
This puts Art Stage in direct competition with the galleries that are paying money for a space at the fair. (Art fair organisers normally provide the venue and marketing, but don't sell artworks to avoid a conflict of interest.)
Troubled art scene
For Indonesian artists, it was simply an opportunity to show their works to a broad base of collectors.
Some artists, like hot emerging artist Hahan, say the relationship between gallerists and artists in Indonesia is sometimes tenuous. He says: "We have gallerists who ask for higher commissions that the usual 50 per cent of the price of the artwork."
Other artists - who did not wish to be named - say they have had works stolen by dishonest gallerists. Still others reveal that there are gallerists who never paid them for works sold.
Such incidents are "actually common", reveals an Indonesian gallerist who requests anonymity. He says: "The Indonesian art world is not well-regulated, so I can understand why Indonesian artists approached Singapore's Art Stage to help set up a special showcase there."
Artist couple Erik and Erika, who are showing their works at the Indonesian Pavilion, say: "In Indonesia, there is almost no funding from the government for contemporary art, almost no infrastructure like a public- funded museum or gallery, and certainly no government strategy to promote the arts systematically. As artists, we are left to fend for ourselves and look for various opportunities to sell our works."
Meanwhile, industry observers in Singapore are extremely concerned about Art Stage's commission scheme.
Veronica Howe, the chief art consultant of local management One East Asia, says: "When an art fair organiser plays a double role including that of a dealer, its objectivity comes into question. By undercutting the dealers representing their respective portfolios, it could ruin the ecosystem of the art business structure.
"South-east Asia is working hard on building a proper structure in the art market. Undercutting the dealers would only weaken the effort."
Local artist Yen Phang agrees. He helped craft a letter of objection signed by several local gallerists and artists. He says: "We're not asking for the Indonesian Platform to be removed. We just want Art Stage to be more accountable and transparent. Considering that the Singapore government is putting money into this event, we need to look at how Art Stage is leveraging on the platform to benefit itself."
Art Stage is a private enterprise backed by the government in its bid to make Singapore a top arts city. It is supported by the Economic Development Board, Singapore Tourism Board, National Heritage Board and National Arts Council (NAC).
Fair director Mr Rudolf, however, says these accusations are unfair. "Firstly, we are not neglecting Singaporean artists. There is a record number of Singapore-based galleries this year - 18 altogether, compared to 12 galleries in 2012. Singapore is the largest participant by country, followed by China and Japan."
"Secondly, Art Stage is a private company - it's not part of the Singapore government. We will be footing the bill for the shipping of Indonesian art works to or from Singapore. So if the works sell, we will claim the commission to cover our costs.
"Thirdly, some people compare the 38 Indonesian artists featured in the Indonesian Pavilion versus the six Singapore artists featured in the Singapore Platform. But it is the NAC that programmes the Singapore platform - not us. We don't tell NAC how many Singapore artists to feature."
He declares: "I am not trying to be an art dealer. I am not trying to undercut anyone. I am interested in making Art Stage the region's best art fair. And if it wants to become that, it must showcase the best regional art and attract the top collectors. Indonesia has the best art in the region, but many of its artists do not have strong representation. We want to help them."
On the latter point, several local observers agree. Indonesia has a population of 240 million, or 40 per cent of South-east Asia's 610 million population. With its history, population and diverse cultures, it is "by far the most significant country when it comes to arts and culture", says Ms Howe.
Still, observers charge that Mr Rudolf has not created a level playing field. Participating galleries pay up to $19,000 in upfront payment for the rental of a space, whereas the Indonesian artists are offered a 50-50 split on the sale of their works - without having to pay for the space.
Furthermore, some gallerists in Indonesia feel slighted that their own artists are bypassing them to go to Art Stage. Hence, they are choosing to stay away from Art Stage. This year, there are four participating Indonesian galleries, down from seven last year and 12 in 2011.
On this point, an Indonesian gallerist who requests anonymity says: "Honestly, it's not the artists or Art Stage's fault that this has happened. Indonesian galleries could have done a better job of taking care of artists."
'Us versus them' split
Far from the trouble brewing in Singapore, though, many Indonesian artists say they are saddened by what seems to have deteriorated into an "Us versus Them" quarrel. Some say they now feel unwelcome in Singapore, even if the Singapore art circles have made clear they are not opposed to the special spotlight on Indonesian artists - only the manner in which Art Stage orchestrated it.
Indonesian artist Entang Wiharso, who is showcasing his works at Art Stage as well as at the Venice Biennale this year, holes himself up in a studio far from the city of Yogyakarta because he wants to "make art instead of gossip".
"If you ask me," he says, "I think Art Stage is not following the model of art fairs in the world. That's why it is bringing a lot of controversy. But somehow I think the organiser understands and accepts the risk of the bad opinion in the public's eyes. Hopefully, we can learn from this and turn it into a positive experience."
Adds Erik and Erika: "To us, the controversy shows that commercial values have, in this instance, trumped spiritual and artistic values. We just hope it won't affect the creativity and freedom of artists and ruin the art they make."