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.