The Growing Pains of the Singapore Art Market

With more than a hundred events across the island in January, as part of or coinciding with Singapore Art Week 2018, art lovers were spoilt for choice. These events included an inaugural visual arts festival featuring outdoor artworks and public programmes, an Instagram-worthy festival of light art in the Civic District, and a night-owl party at Gillman Barracks. More than 9,000 people attended Gillman’s Art After Dark programme, many slowly crawling through the 12 crowded galleries, while others were just soaking up the festive and musical atmosphere.

First organized in 2013 by the National Arts Council to create additional interest around Art Stage Singapore, the 12-day event has come to eclipse the flagship art fair. Art Stage Singapore started with much fanfare in 2011 as an answer to Art Basel Hong Kong (called Art HK at the time) but it has lost momentum in recent years with attendance dropping from a record 51,000 in 2015 to 26,500 this January and the number of exhibitors has dropped from 197 at its peak in 2015 to 84 this year, with big guns like White Cube, Paul Kasmin Gallery, Galleria Continua or Pearl Lam no longer present. At the same time, despite several years of low foot traffic and weak sales, the Gillman site has slowly but steadily seen increased attention averaging 500 visitors a day, according to the National Arts Council, and open house events usually drawing over 4,200 visitors — almost double the number visiting such events in 2015.

Singapore’s art sector has continued to receive a lot of support from government agencies and the public’s interest is undeniable, but translating this into commercial success is still a challenge for many players.

“On the positive side, I do believe we have a wonderful set of collectors for our population size. Singaporeans have the capacity to buy a lot of art when it’s well priced, and they can be quite broad-minded about what they collect as well. And, unlike say Hong Kong, our market is no longer dependent on expats for sales, so the base is there, and not going anywhere. But the main problem is that Singapore is too small! There is only so much a collector can buy before their walls get filled up,” argues Pwee Keng-Hock, owner of the long-established Utterly Art gallery.

Growing pains
As the art sector has developed some galleries and event organisers may have been overambitious, sometimes leading to commercial failure. Pwee describes much of the art at Gillman as having been “too contemporary and expensive, and often irrelevant to the local collector” and points out that even on it’s more modest scale Art Stage may be “too big for every gallery that takes part to go home happy, rather they head home smarting with the bill and unfulfilled expectations.”

Art Stage is just one of the local events that have faced difficulties in recent years. The Singapore International Photography Fair and the Singapore Art Fair, both launched in 2014, never returned after disappointing inaugural editions, while the Singapore Contemporary Art Show, launched in 2016 only enjoyed a two-year run. Even the well-established Affordable Art Fair, which had ambitiously moved to two editions in 2014, has decided to revert to just one edition this year. “This decision was not taken lightly but we feel strongly that it is what the local market needs right now,” says Affordable Art Fair’s director, Camilla Hewitson adding that reverting to the once-a-year format will allow for a more closely curated experience for visitors and also “encourages a sense of urgency to buy.”

Meanwhile, the state-led initiative of Gillman Barracks, which saw a cluster of 13 hand-picked galleries open in the former military compound in 2012, has had mixed success, with only six of the initial galleries remaining, though new galleries have been brought in to try to inject new life into the ever-evolving art cluster.

One of the main problems at Gillman Barracks has been its decentralized location. However, Angie Chan, co-owner of home-grown gallery Chan + Hori, which recently relocated to Gillman from the now closed Raffles Hotel Arcade,  has been positively surprised to find higher foot traffic at the new location. "It is mainly form tourists, which doesn’t necessarily equate to sales" she remarks, "and while collectors would often visit the old location at lunchtime or after work that happens less at Gillman Barracks due to its location."

Yet Chan remains undeterred and is committed to help make Gillman the go-to arts destination in Singapore. In collaboration with the National Arts Council, Chan +Hori launched the nine-month-long DISINI festival, replete with funky outdoor artworks and an activity program that included moonlight yoga, action parties, and break dancing. “We hope this kind of event will help develop the next generation of art collectors, making art more accessible to the Millennials,” she explains.

Strong infrastructure
All art market players acknowledge that the government has worked hard to raise the profile of the arts in Singapore in their efforts to make it a viable art hub. In a bid to transform the once much derided “cultural desert” into a modern-day ‘Renaissance’ city, the state has invested heavily in its art and culture infrastructure from the S$600 million Esplanade Theatres on the Bay to the creation of the Asian Civilization Museum and the most recent unveiling of its crown jewel, the S$530 million National Art Gallery. Currently, the Singapore Art Museum is also undergoing an extensive S$90 million renovation that will add "double-volume" spaces to the former school in order to house larger installations, as well as enhancing facilities for technologically demanding multimedia works.

According to the Singapore Cultural Statistics 2017 report, government funding for arts and culture rose from S$280.6 million in 2010 to S$412.8 million in 2016, while the total nominal value-added by the visual arts represented S$628 million in 2015, compared with S$505.5 million in 2010.

“Over a relatively short time, Singapore has managed to develop a commendable artistic patina. It’s a postmodern experiment in the making, but all of this—meaning creating an artistic infrastructure from the ground up—is a huge endeavour. The problem is, we live in a world of instant gratification, where we’ve become conditioned to see results immediately,” remarks gallerist Sundaram Tagore of Sundaram Tagore Gallery.

“Although some might say that Singapore has been slow to realize a financial return on its investment, I would argue that an endeavour of this magnitude takes time. Just as with the stock market, you have to think about the long game and prepare for the natural ebbs and flows characteristic of any developing market,” Tagore adds.

A Southeast Asia role
While Hong Kong has now become firmly established as the premier commercial art hub in Asia—thanks to its concentration of auction business, premier art fair Art Basel Hong Kong, and growing influx of international art galleries—art market players in Singapore believe the city-state can maintain its position as a commercial art hub for Southeast Asia, notwithstanding rising competition from neighbouring countries.

“When it comes to the contemporary art markets of Singapore and Hong Kong, I think the common narrative is to compare the two, framing both markets as working in competition, but as a dealer in both cities, I don’t tend to think of things that way. It’s not a zero-sum game, from my perspective. When Hong Kong wins, it doesn't mean that Singapore loses—market growth in these two regions is not mutually exclusive. Both cities have tremendous strengths, just as they both have areas that require some improvement,” says Tagore.

“Hong Kong may have a more established foothold when it comes to blue chip or name-brand artists, but Singapore is a strong player in the Southeast Asia market. Galleries and cultural institutions here are particularly good at promoting talent in the Southeast Asian region—an area of growing interest with our clients in the West,” he adds.

Stephanie Fong, owner of FOST Gallery says that, at least for now, Singapore remains a leader in the Southeast Asian region for art (mainly trade, scholarship), “simply because things work in Singapore and people are still willing to pay the premium.” However she warns, “if our neighbours catch up, and they are catching up, and simultaneously, if we get too expensive, I am afraid that would really not bode well. We need to really capitalise on this lead time we have.”

Lorenzo Rudolf, the founder and art director of Art Stage Singapore and Art Stage Jakarta, points out “Singapore still has advantages over its neighbours: it is multicultural, it has the infrastructure and the money to invest. But all the other Southeast Asian countries are starting to catch up; and most of them have a much more vibrant and sustainable artist scene; and now they are also building up their infrastructure, all based on private initiatives. The danger is there, if Singapore is not waking up and acting quickly, it will earlier or later also be overtaken by them.”

Meanwhile, Jasdeep Sandhu, owner of Gajah Gallery, points out that from a commercial point of view Singapore retains many advantages over its neighbours. He points to its very efficient customs system that allows art to come in an out as easily as one transits through Changi Airport, as well as the support from art auxiliary businesses, such as art insurers and highly professional art handlers that can be trusted: “This is a very important link in an international art fair scene.”

Sandhu also points out that Singapore is a preferred selling platform for a diverse group of artists. “Most important, outside of each artist’s (home) country in Southeast Asia, I dare say that the next best city to sell your artwork would be Singapore. This is across the board, throughout Asia. A Filipino or Indonesian artist has more chances of selling in Singapore than in Shanghai, Tokyo or Beijing. We have a decent-sized base of collectors that not only collect Singaporean art but are willing to consider artist from around the region.

He adds, “Singapore’s main problem for the moment seems to be its high costs. In relation to the region and this will be a factor against it.” Though he concedes, “Perhaps in the future as art prices rise, this will claim less of an importance.”

As first written for Singapore Business Review April-May 2018 edition