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Galleries are pulling out the stops for Singapore Art Week, with Sundaram Tagore Gallery showing Hiroshi Senju's flourescent waterfall paintings (above) and iPreciation exhibiting Ju Ming's sculptures at the Botanic Gardens.
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Galleries are pulling out the stops for Singapore Art Week, with Sundaram Tagore Gallery showing Hiroshi Senju's flourescent waterfall paintings and iPreciation exhibiting Ju Ming's sculptures (above) at the Botanic Gardens.

Gloom amid boom

The art market is expanding like never before. So why are galleries shutting down?
Dec 12, 2014 5:50 AM

ART lovers in Singapore could not have it better. The museums are showing the biggest names in Asian contemporary art. Nine art fairs were held this year, compared to just one in 2009. And once-elitist auction houses are now opening their doors to all levels of collectors.

The upcoming Singapore Art Week is set to take the market a notch higher. From 17 to 25 January 2015, there will be more than 100 activities set around Art Stage Singapore, the country's premier art fair (See below). Turner Prize winners Gilbert & George are coming to exhibit. Leonardo da Vinci's earlier painting of Mona Lisa will make its international debut in Singapore.

It's a win-win situation for everyone, no? Not quite.   

For gallerists around the island - those who have been in business long before the art boom of recent years - the buzz around the Singapore Art Week is being greeted with some wariness and exhaustion. In the past year, sales have not been rosy and many galleries have downsized or shut down because of rising rents, overhead costs and slow business.

Richard Koh of notable gallery Richard Koh Fine Art, declares: "Right after Singapore Art Week, I'm closing down my gallery." 

To be precise, he is closing down his brick-and-mortar space in Artspace@Helutrans, but plans to still hold pop-up shows from time to time. It's the same route taken by Roberta Dans of Artesan Gallery+Studio and Stephanie Tham of Galerie Steph. Both closed a few months ago but hold exhibitions on an ad hoc basis. 

Mr Koh, who's been in the art business for 25 years, says: "There's no point in having a gallery space and paying rent when people prefer going to art fairs instead of galleries. Things may look rosy during the Singapore Art Week, but that's not the whole picture."

This year, several galleries have closed, downsized or moved for largely financial reasons. Mr Koh's neighbour, ReDot Fine Art, is also closing after Singapore Art Week. Kato Art Duo and Chan Hampe Galleries have shrunk their retail spaces by half or more at Raffles Hotel Arcade. Gnani Arts in Tanglin and John Erdos Art in Dempsey have both closed. 

A couple of gallerists at Gillman Barracks, who prefer to remain anonymous, have also cited business as being "slow". They may not continue operating at the premier art cluster next year when their leases expire, even though the Economic Development Board, which jointly manages the venue with JTC Corporation and the National Arts Council, is hoping otherwise by introducing new eateries to the tenant mix.  

Vera Wijaya, founder and managing partner of Galerie Sogan & Art at Mohamed Sultan, says running an art gallery today has become increasingly complex and high-risk: "In the past, there were fewer art fairs, exhibitions and competition. It was much easier to plan for exhibitions and there was less competition for artists. In that sense, it was easier to survive." 

She adds: "Now the art scene is more saturated", citing online and foreign galleries at art fairs as giving art lovers more options. "We're taking part in art fairs to promote our artists and market their works. There are higher risks and costs."

Renting a booth in an art fair can cost her up to S$60,000, depending on its size. And there are other costs to factor in such as transporting and insuring the artworks - not to mention the physical toll that participating in frequent art fairs can take on the staff.

The lure of art fairs

For the art lover, visiting an art fair certainly beats going to a gallery which typically shows two dozen works or so within a smaller space. Art fairs present a wide selection of art showcased by local and foreign galleries from all over the world. During those few days, art lovers see and snap up works they like and think they wouldn't get another chance of buying.

All of this hits the bottom line of local galleries. Vera Ong, president of the Art Galleries Association Singapore (AGAS) and owner of Art-2 Gallery at Hill Street, has been in the business for 24 years. She notes: "Because of the many fairs and events going on this year, 2014 has been a somewhat quiet year for local galleries. The pie is only so big in Singapore, and collectors are willing to spend only so much of their money."

For Singapore Art Week 2015, AGAS will once again organise an event called Art In Motion which will take art lovers from one top local gallery to another on shuttle buses.

"We have some good galleries here in Singapore. People need to know that," asserts Ms Ong. "Foreign galleries are only here for the fair. Should anything go wrong with the artwork - say you need to restore or resell your artwork - you can't go back to these foreign galleries. If you buy from a local gallery, we can provide after-sale service."

In most art scenes, local galleries are the crucial commercial entities underpinning the survival of artists. Galleries sustain young artists by introducing and selling their works to collectors. They also promote the careers of established artists in numerous ways. 

Since the Asian art boom of 2008, the prices for Asian artworks have escalated, as has competition among galleries. The entry of more foreign galleries in Singapore has also led to fiercer competition over who gets to represent local artists. Indeed, some of Singapore's biggest artists have chosen to be represented by foreign galleries. Understandably, some artists feel this would provide better opportunities for their works to be presented internationally. Local galleries can potentially be left out of the equation. 

The new market reality also includes auction houses moving into the primary market, which was once the reserve of galleries. Now, instead of trading on just the secondary market - the market for existing art that has been sold at least once before - some auction houses may work with artists to obtain artworks directly, sometimes eliminating the galleries as the middlemen and their commissions.  

Jonathan Stone, chairman and international head of Asian art at Christie's, the world's biggest auction house, is aware of the realities facing galleries. He says: "Galleries are a very important part of the ecology. Auction houses, galleries and art fairs are complementary. Clearly it's a competition. But, like in a lot of businesses, it is complementary competition, with each needing the other because the roles are somewhat different.

"Christie's still tends to focus on the secondary market. So there's still a strong role in galleries in nurturing artists in a way that not always feasible for auction houses.

"Auction houses do work with galleries in getting primary works, and increasingly that's happening, especially in Asia . . . So if we feel that we have an artist that would be good in auctions and would appeal to buyers, then we would include it in a sale and it might be sourced by a gallery. . . the artist, in turn, would get the publicity."

Market worries

Meanwhile, there are other concerns such as the rising popularity of online art galleries among young art buyers, as well as slowing down of the Asian art market even as the Singapore art scene is revving up.

Mr Koh, who regularly attends major auctions around the region, says that many works by the "so-called hot Asian artists are not being bought at recent auctions." Last month's Larasati auction, for instance, saw no takers for several works by blue-chip names such as Zhou Chunya, Yang Shaobin, Christine Ay Tjoe and M Irfan. Other observers have also confirmed the doldrums in the Indonesian art market, which only a few years ago served as biggest engine driving the South-east Asian art market.

It remains to be seen if Art Stage Singapore and the Singapore Art Week, with its rich array of activities, can turn the tide at least for a week.

Paul Tan, NAC's deputy CEO and director of visual arts, says: "The art fairs and the commercials galleries are a critical part of the art eco-system. They are the interface between the artists' works and the collectors. And we welcome a vibrant eco-system. But at the same time, it's a free market and commercial decisions have to be made by the players."

"The NAC, for its part, will support any initiative that seeks to deepen the understanding of art and its practices in Singapore."

Ms Ong of Art-2 has no intention of closing down her Hill Street gallery or shifting her focus to e-commerce and art fairs. She says: "I believe galleries should exist as they are now. That's how serious collectors learn to trust us, by knowing that we are here and we are reliable." 

As the art landscape rapidly shifts, many gallerists are marking new coordinates and moving. But some - like Ms Ong - are hoisting their flags.