Art Market

Art Stage Singapore Director Lorenzo Rudolf on Helping Asia Kick Its Addiction to Art as Investment

Molly Gottschalk
Jan 19, 2016 11:36PM

Few have better insight into the art scenes of Southeast Asia than Lorenzo Rudolf, who, following a decade at the helm of Art Basel, went on to found one of the first large international fairs in China, SH Contemporary, and finally, Art Stage Singapore, which opens its sixth edition this week.

Portrait of Lorenzo Rudolf courtesy of Art Stage Singapore.

In the mid-1990s, then as director of Art Basel, Lorenzo Rudolf was approached with the idea to start a fair in Singapore—but the timing wasn’t right. By 2010, the calculus had changed and Art Stage Singapore was born with the ambitious goal to create a dialogue—and market—between the West and Asia’s emerging but largely segmented art scenes.

Artsy caught up with Rudolf on the fair’s impact on the growing Southeast Asian art scenes and why—amidst a fluctuating Chinese economy—more than ever, we have to learn to see art beyond investment.

Molly Gottschalk: Having run Art Basel from 1991 to 2000, you’ve been recognized for expanding what began as a trade show into an archetype of what an art fair is today—and for placing Basel at the center of the art world. Was the latter also the goal, for Singapore, when you founded Art Stage Singapore?

Lorenzo Rudolf: Art Stage is the result of a long logistical development. I left Basel because I was asked to come to Frankfurt, where I left the art world for three years to go into the book world. In 2007, I got together with two partners to launch SH Contemporary in Shanghai—the first big international show in China—but we separated because, like is often the case, a ménage à trois is not so easy. However while I was in Asia, I fell in love with the region, which was at the time still marginal in terms of contemporary art, and decided to continue on. At this time, and still today, Asia was a continent with a lot of interesting emerging art scenes, that were all segmented with no dialogue among them. You had experts in Chinese art or Korean art, but while I was never a specialist in one country, I was one of the very few who had an overview of all of Asia. But then came the question, what is the next step?

In the ’90s I was approached by Singapore—come do something in Singapore, they said—but I said it was too early. In 2008, after I left the fair in Shanghai, the timing was right. I went to Singapore, Southeast Asia, and found a world which was starting to become international. Singapore needed a fair, or fairs, which would promote not only international art but Southeast Asian art—what we needed to do was build up art scenes, infrastructures, and credibility. Today, even though the fair is a private company, we are involved in a lot of discussions about which direction Southeast Asia—and especially Singapore, at its center—should develop to become a hub for contemporary art. This is what initially attracted me to the idea: To develop something new and to be part of a big new challenge.

MG: To what extent do you think you’ve achieved that goal?

LR: We are still at the beginning, not only in Southeast Asia but in many parts of Asia. During the Cold War, only three countries in the entire continent really experienced the development of modern and contemporary art like in the west: Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. All of the other countries started their journeys into contemporary art only 15-20 years ago. So the region is still very much emerging. When I look back to the fair’s first edition in 2011, here in Singapore, I remember we had to organize our satellite and fringe events around the fair ourselves. I recall very well a long discussion with the government, who said, if you want to do an international art fair, which is in the end a marketplace, you also need some good exhibitions—and there is nothing. Eventually they gave us a budget for a museum exhibition.

Today, after five or six years, we have a so-called Art Week around these fairs with over 100 events. We have a gallery district called Gillman Barracks, and we have three or four new museums. Clearly, certain things happen on their own, but the fair was a catalyst and a door-opener for many things. In the last three to four years you can see an international interest in Southeast Asian art—from private collectors to big museums like the Tate and Guggenheim. In other words, we are part of an entire development, and in the end that is a big satisfaction.


MG: This year, the fair describes itself as an “agora,” as in the meeting place in ancient Greek city-states. Can you elaborate on this, and what might make Singapore a particularly valuable intersection for China, Southeast Asia, and India?

LR: If you think about what we have to do here, there are two goals: First, we have to build up a market in Southeast Asia. Contemporary art is still something small, for the elite. We don’t really have contemporary art education in schools. There aren’t many museums in most countries. You really have to explain what contemporary art is. To do that we have to reach not only the ones who know about contemporary art, but we have to reach new people. That means we have to put contemporary art in a bigger context.

Second, we have to promote Southeast Asian contemporary art internationally. Out of many discussions with collectors in the west, we’ve learned that their knowledge of contemporary art, especially in Southeast Asia, is of colorful, beautiful ethnic paintings. But we have an art scene and artists in Asia like the West—they’re a part of our daily lives and reflect what is going on. Out of these meetings, we’ve decided to position contemporary art in a bigger context than what the classical art fair is doing—not only as pure marketplace where goods are exchanged but also ideas, debates, and new things, which is why we invented the Southeast Asia Forum. Here, we choose a topic that is relevant for Southeast Asia but also relevant to the entire world, and around these topics, build up debates that go beyond the classical art world. We bring these topics up among artists, politicians, and scientists to discuss. This year, the topic is around urbanization. In Southeast Asia, you have mega-cities like Manila which are growing without control and are full of social tensions.

In the Forum, we put art in a much wider context so that people can begin to understand that art—contemporary art especially—is not only something aesthetic that has to hang on the wall in a museum. It’s part of our daily life, and by building a bridge for contemporary art, we can explain and in the end, build up a bigger art scene and market.

MG: The fair is launching CATALYST, a publication which will include country-specific market reports with insight into the Asian market. Can you share any particularly valuable takeaways?

LR: The backbone of the catalogue is to build up an understanding among the different art scenes in Asia. Sometimes I make this joke that we do an art fair which is a marketplace for a market we still need to build up so that the marketplace can function. We are in a moment, especially in Asia but all over the world, where the art world is increasingly driven by the market. Today, what is good is what is expensive. The art world has become a more and more brand-driven world, where knowledge is not big. If somebody buys a $170 million Modigliani it will be in every newspaper, but the best exhibition you have in the world is not even mentioned. We have to come back to a more balanced discussion about art. If I want to explain what art is, and build up knowledge about art, I cannot do it by the numbers. I have to go deeper. So CATALYST is a tool to deliver more background information, and deeper information, of what an artist, and especially an art market, is.

In Asia we have a slowly increasing growth market happening, more and more in Indonesia, in China, in the Philippines. But we still have a tendency toward people buying what they know—that means their own national stuff, and then they go on to big international brands. I’m not against it—we need a dialogue with the West, we need to dialogue with the artists and tendencies—but that cannot always be the case.

MG: Are there particular countries or regions that are outpacing others, or segments of the market that are falling behind?

LR: The first interesting scene in Asia was Indonesia, which has by far the biggest scene and by far the biggest market. It also has historical roots that go back to the Revolution at the time of Sukarno, who was himself a big art lover and collector and until now the biggest collector in Indonesia. As in many revolutions, the allies of the revolution in Indonesia were the thinkers, so art began to have an important standing in upper class society. That is still the case. Over the years, you have hundreds of collectors and a really strong, big art scene but only in the mainland market—which was clear when the market went international. But there is a big problem in Indonesia. You have such a strong artist and collector base working hand-in-hand. The collectors are the friends of the artists. But you don’t have particularly strong galleries or museums.

At the moment, the most exciting scene is in the Philippines. They have much more influence from Western structures, as the country was the site of a long-time Spanish colony, and then an American base. You had an art scene which was growing an entire generation of artists, galleries, collectors, and today you have a vibrant, young scene. Something new is happening there, something which is not isolated between a couple of buyers and artists. It is the only country in Southeast Asia with a really serious, professional gallery scene. You have a lot of great exhibitions in galleries and museums, and collectors of the same, young generation, who are part of it, which makes for an entire scene that lives and grows.

Strowberry 4/30, 1993
Whitestone Gallery
Drawing Appendage (Diptych), 2014
Fost Gallery

MG: In September 2012, Gillman Barracks opened in Singapore with a flood of international galleries. Given recent reports on the decline of visitor traffic and that many of these galleries are moving out of the establishment, how would you describe the current state of the art market in Singapore? Is it still a fruitful place to be?

LR: What happened in Singapore is something that has happened in other places, even in Hong Kong, to a certain extent. There was a certain time when everybody, the Western world especially, was thinking: Asia is the big El Dorado. You go to Asia and you will be immediately be successful. In Singapore it happened in a very dramatic way. In 6-12 months, the number of galleries here increased by at least 100%, if not 200% or 300%. But the market—and education—was not increasing at the same speed. I think it’s a question of time. We were all probably a bit too enthusiastic. We thought everything would change within two to three years. But it probably takes longer; you have to wait until the younger generation comes into the market, the ones who studied in the West, who traveled, who have the background knowledge. It doesn’t happen overnight.

Also, the Asian art market is much more investment-driven than the Western market, which makes it much more prone to being affected by the larger economic situation. With Gillman Barracks specifically, it is a wonderful place but it is also an isolated place, which, due to people not knowing contemporary art well, meant it didn’t attract a lot of people. Altogether that created a situation where some of the galleries moved away. But other galleries are coming in. Again, it’s a question of time. Many people had these tough experiences because they jumped too high and too quickly into cold water. But I think like everywhere in Asia, in 10 years you’ll have a totally different discussion.

MG: The art market’s growth has been predicated on Asia’s involvement and expansion in the art world. What is the next step for the region in continuing its growth to be on equal footing with other international art centers?

LR: The market is still mainly dominated by Western structures—all the important galleries and auction houses in the world are Western ones. Even the best galleries in China are run by Westerners. We need to go in a more global direction. That would mainly be influenced by collectors in Asia, because collectors have the capital that we need. We saw it with the famous Modigliani, which sold to Chinese collectors. But I think the moment where these big collectors begin to not only run behind established western brands, but also understand a certain game to push and position their own artists, will come without a doubt and will change the market.

You also have a new generation of buyers emerging, between 25 and 40. It’s the first real generation who studied in the West, had international careers, worked in international companies, and traveled globally. In the West you also have that, but the difference between these individuals and their parents is not so big. In China, for example, the young people who are collecting grew up with a totally new lifestyle than before. Their parents grew up with communism. These kids grew up with capitalism. It’s another world.

MG: On January 7th, Shanghai’s stock market underwent the shortest day in its 25-year history (29 minutes) and closed after a more than 7% drop. What impact do you expect the economic fluctuations to have on the art market in Asia, or more broadly, the global art market, given the contributions of high-spending Chinese collectors?

LR: If you ask me this question in a week, I can give you a clear answer. But one thing is clear, especially here in Asia but also in the West: If China is breathing a bit strongly, you feel it everywhere. You see how strong the global dependency on the Chinese economy is today. But we have to create an event where art is not only seen as an investment. It has to be a cultural good, a discussion, a debate. In the end, art is an attitude, not only a product.

It’s clear that this will not be the strongest time for the market, but I’m still curious to see how the fair will go. If you have a good and established product, anywhere in the world in the art market today, especially on the higher end, it’s like a luxury industry: normally you sell. Everything that is new or not yet known will have a bigger problem unless it is very, very cheap and low risk.

But navigating this kind of challenge is exactly our job, in a time like this. We have the responsibility to back the art scenes, to back the galleries, to back the artists, to support them, to show that they have the value to be shown. We are part of this entire art world, we are all sitting in the same boat, and we have to fulfill our responsibilities especially in times that are not golden.

Molly Gottschalk