What makes for a good art fair?
'Sales, dialogues, exposure and interest - all from the artists' perspective. They're also thinking about whether or not something fits in their current collection'
- Matt Carey-Williams, one of the directors of London's influential White Cube gallery
IF Art Stage Singapore made a brash and bold debut three years ago, opening with a bang which fizzled out a bit in its second year, it looks like it has found its groove in its third edition.
The mood among gallerists was generally upbeat after the doors swung open to invited guests and the media on Wednesday evening - with new and returning gallerists alike gushing over the serious buying interest from the crowd.
"I like Singapore - I like the pace, the warmth and friendliness, and the seriousness of the buyers. So coming here was definitely the right move and I'll definitely want to be back again," declares Catherine Kwai, managing director of Hong Kong's Kwai Fung Art Gallery.
"I feel that people are good collectors here, from the way they are asking questions," she adds, referring to the smorgasbord of interested queries and buyers for Korean artist Lee Lee Nam's digital art works which average around $50,000 each. She wasn't able to pin down her buyer demographic, who seem to be of different nationalities, "but most seem to be based in Singapore and or, at least, have homes here... not that it really matters anyway," beams Ms Kwai, quite pleased that she heeded the bidding of her client, Bank Sarasin, to participate in the art fair.
Ms Kwai's sentiments about the serious interest were pretty much representative of many gallerists at this year's art fair - never mind its controversial kick-off a few weeks ago over the large platform given to Indonesian artists this year. One gallerist even called this the year that would make or break the fair. "Sales were good in the first year, but bad in the second. So we thought this would be our last year if sales continues to be bad."
It looks like most would return though. On Wednesday, comments like "high quality" and "mature" were bandied about but more importantly, sales were brisk. A good vibe was felt as important art people air-kissed one another and discussed the high points of a work, and bargained discreetly on the side. This adds to the score on Art Stage Singapore's founder and fair director Lorenzo Rudolf's report card, which all interested parties - from artists to galleries, to the relevant government authorities - are doubtless keeping a close track of.
As Singapore's headline event when it comes to the contemporary art market, this year's edition draws 130 galleries representing 600 artists, with 75 per cent of its exhibitors from the Asia-Pacific region, and 25 per cent from Europe and America. The focus, Mr Rudolf has said, is on "Asia, specifically South-east Asia". Out of these, there will be some 33 booths featuring young and emerging artists.
Eighteen Singapore galleries are in, up from last year's 12; while there's a significant contingent from Australia this time around - 12 galleries - compared to half that number last year. About 60 per cent are returning galleries, with the rest being new exhibitors.
Last year, the four-day global contemporary art fair attracted 32,000 paying visitors who forked out $30 a pop to enter the fair. This year, the target has been raised to 35,000 visitors, at $33 for the day pass.
This time around, Art Stage's focus is further sharpened on the region. "It is the global door to South-east Asia," declares Mr Rudolph, "and brings the international market to South-east Asia."
But more than just a marketplace, he adds, it's a place to bring the art world together. This is one of the reasons some 40 to 50 artists have been invited to attend so that there's not just a lot of art, but a lot of artists too.
The regional focus resonated with Tel Aviv's Erez Zemack, who says that his eponymous contemporary art gallery is one of the few who represent international artists in Israel. "I got interested because it's a way to penetrate the Asian art market. We've been to Shanghai and now Singapore - to learn about Asian art and to introduce the artists we represent," says Mr Zemack. His gallery has one of the largest booths this year primarily featuring the gigantic portraits painted by French artist, Philippe Pasqua, and photo-realistic works by Israeli artist Yigal Ozeri.
"The atmosphere here is much warmer - and I mean the attitude of the visitors," quips Mr Zemack, comparing the fair to Shanghai. By Wednesday evening, he'd sold a few works - including one to an art investment fund, which bought the biggest work. Four of Ozeri's works were sold to Singaporeans and foreign collectors.
Now, Mr Zemack is also perusing the galleries so that he can collect at least one Singapore art work for his own collection. "I'll probably do that today (Friday), which tends to be a slow day for fairs."
Australia's James Dorahy Project Space is another one who subscribed to Singapore as the gateway to other Asian cities - and picked Art Stage as its first international art fair to participate in. Gallery director Mr Dorahy brought only one emerging artist's work for Art Stage's Project Stage - Sydney-based South African artist Sherna Teperson's carefully constructed octahedrons which address climate change, but specifically the rhetoric around the topic.
"A lot of Australian galleries go to Hong Kong, but because of my price points, this is a better starting point," he says.
What returning gallerists are saying
If Chinese artist Yue Minjun was looking for a model for another one of his grinning portraits, he'd find one in Matt Carey-Williams, one of the directors of London's White Cube gallery, who was quite pleased with how the first day went. "We've had interest in Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst and also other individual artists. Several of Antony Gormley's works have sold to private Asian collectors, and we've had a lot of interest in Rachel Kneebone's work, so it's been a good first day," he shares.
"Compared to last year, the market feels more fulfilling - the art that everyone else has brought seems more sophisticated, and the type of conversations we're having with collectors are also more interesting."
White Cube has brought works (averaging £100,000 ($194,300)) that American and European collectors would buy, says Mr Carey-Williams, and the response has been tremendous. "There's a big community of collectors here, but they've just not been exposed to this level of art so much," he reckons.
What makes a good art fair? "Sales, dialogues, exposure and interest - all from the artists' perspective," he says, adding that a lot of people have been coming to them with probing and right questions. "They're also thinking about whether or not something fits in their current collection."
The ringing endorsement was echoed by Ong Boo Chai, deputy director of Singapore Tyler Press Institute (STPI), who notes that the fair has gained momentum and there's a good vibe this time. "The events surrounding the fair are also tighter, so there's a bigger buzz," he says.
Richard Koh of Richard Koh Fine Art is back for the third time - and he's one of the rare galleries that have sworn off Hong Kong's fair, preferring to focus on Singapore instead. "There are just too many art fairs around!" he laments, adding that, as a gallerist, he also needs to give artists time to create work.
"Because we specialise in South-east Asian works, our market is here. And our buyers will come here. So it doesn't make sense to go all the way to Hong Kong to sell a $20,000 work. Art Stage has put Singapore in the spotlight and the gallery has done fairly well in it, he says. "Ultimately, whether a gallery does well or not is what they bring. You can't just plonk anything here and expect it to sell... you have to know the market."
There are, of course, some grumblings from seasoned art fair purveyors that a good bit of the art as well as artists are repeated and have been seen in Hong Kong as well as other fairs. However, brisk sales on the invitation-only day - which drew about 7,000 guests - attest to the success of this year's fair.
Works in the six-figure range have flown off the walls. Blouin Artinfo reports that Takashi Murakami's acrylic-on-canvas sold for US$550,000 to a Korean doctor, while Japanese master Hiroshi Senju went to an American collector based in Singapore for US$415,000. Gajah Gallery sold two I Nyoman Masriadi works for US$350,000 and US$200,000 respectively to Hong Kong and Indonesian collectors. At Nadi Gallery, Yogyakarta-based Handiwirman Saputra's pair of turquoise acrylic-on-canvases sold for more than US$150,000.
Meanwhile, the Indonesian Pavilion - which had been a lightning rod of controversy - turned out to be one of best segments of the fair. Several observers agree the works were of high quality. Bangkok-based art critic Brian Curtin said: "As an outsider unfamiliar with the scandal, I thought the works in the Indonesian Pavilion were some of the strongest and most striking works I'd seen. But I would have liked to see something with more contextualisation of Indonesia - instead of just a showcase."
The controversy erupted when Art Stage decided to feature 38 Indonesian artists - also representing their sales and pocketing commissions. Apart from the issue of a fair organiser doubling as art dealer, Singaporean artists also objected to the focus on Indonesian art. It also drew the ire of many Indonesian gallerists who decided not to participate in this year's fair.
Nadi Gallery owner Meli Angkapradita says that she didn't think the Indonesian Pavilion was competition, "But still, we don't thoroughly agree with what Lorenzo Rudolf is doing."
Chris Darmawan of Indonesia's Semarang Gallery also saw half of his works sold on preview night. He says: "We're really happy with the sales. It's been strong. It's my third year here and my Indonesian works continue to sell well, so we'll be back next year."
So, expect Art Stage Singapore to continue on - in case you're one of those who've heard rumours that Mr Rudolf's "three-year contract" to run the art fair is now up. Rumours started as early as last year that he had "sold" the fair but remained as director. "After all, he's known for his short attention span," says one source.
"I think Singapore is a paradise of rumours," booms Mr Rudolf into the phone when asked about it. In his Swiss-accented English, he declares that "we've never had a three-year contract with the government. Which isn't intelligent because one has to be independent.
Dealing with rumours
"Art Stage Singapore Private Limited is 100 per cent a private company, and we cooperate with government agencies only on projects - especially on how to position the fair and market it and so on," he stresses. "For me to invest in a fair is a long-term project," he continues, "and that's how we've approached it with the government."
This year's success - in the preliminary at least - could be due to the stronger efforts in marketing and outreach in the entire region. "It's normally not just one reason, but it's more like a puzzle. Every piece in it must function. We've sharpened our focus and content," he adds.
"There are more Singaporean, Thai and Indonesian galleries this year and this is what has brought the people in. They're not here to see Chinese art or Western art, but Southeast-Asian works."
Now too, there's an entire fringe week that's sprung up without Art Stage Singapore having to organise one. "So everyone is now cooperating. We're all sitting in the same boat and rowing in the same direction," he adds.
'We have the world's largest collection of South-east Asian art – what we do with it, how we curate it – I think it'll make an important statement in both the academic and collectors' fields'
– Lynette Pang, executive director, Arts & Entertainment, STB
As for the initially divisive Indonesian Pavilion, Mr Rudolf denies that it was. "It's just whether people understood it or not. And now that they see how it works, they have seen the benefit and what it means to the region."
As to how much the government had financed the fair, and whether they will continue to do so, Mr Rudolph points out that far too often, in Singapore, everything which is "culture" is seen to need financing by the state. "That is not necessary. As a commercial platform we have to be independent," he stresses.
Meanwhile, Art Stage Singapore is a stepping stone towards a more holistic art eco-system, says Lynette Pang, executive director, Arts & Entertainment, Singapore Tourism Board. "If you look at the development of arts in Singapore, it's a government investment that's been going on for the past 20 years or more. It's just that in recent years, it's the visual arts scene that has been taking off. So for the various government agencies, we have a long term view of this."
Looking at the future, there's also the Singapore Biennale, and all these visual arts events are leading up to the National Art Gallery opening in 2015. Notes Ms Pang: "We have the world's largest collection of South-east Asian art - what we do with it, how we curate it - I think it'll make an important statement in both the academic and collectors' fields."