Eyeing Recession, Art Stage Singapore Asks If Current Art Fair Model Can Survive

  • Photo courtesy of Art Stage Singapore.

    Photo courtesy of Art Stage Singapore.

The seventh edition of Art Stage Singapore closed on Sunday. One of the biggest fairs in Southeast Asia, this year’s edition saw 131 exhibitors from 27 countries gather under the roof of the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Center—down from 170 last year. Some galleries reported slower sales as well as purchases at a relatively lower price range in comparison to previous editions. Works that sold went mainly to buyers visiting from overseas, rather than Singaporeans.

“It’s not as good as we hoped, but it’s not as bad as we feared,” said Marcel Huisman, co-founder of Barcelona and Amsterdam’s Villa del Arte Galleries. Huisman noted that due to the global economy’s current impact on the art market, buyers at the fair were more conservative. The dealer reported that works priced between €14,000 and €40,000 ($14,901 and $42,574) had managed to find a new homes. “But it’s more difficult for works over €100,000,” he said. “People are not so relaxed at this price point.”

This tightening of purse strings follows the sluggish performance of Singapore’s economy in 2016, which has led to a grim forecast for its gross domestic product growth in 2017. In December, economists interviewed by the Monetary Authority of Singapore adjusted their projections for 2016’s annual GDP growth to 1.4 percent, down from their 1.8 percent estimation in September. These economists predict the growth in 2017 will be only 1.5 percent. Within this downgraded forecast, sectors including finance, insurance, construction, and the wholesale and retail trades are expected to be most affected.

“The art industry is the most traditional industry in the world. But times are changing, economically and politically,” said Lorenzo Rudolf, founder and president of Art Stage Singapore. He noted that the success of the non-commercial program of this year’s fair had prompted fair organizers to consider a change in the fair’s direction that might address wider issues of the art industry. “The art world is a mirror of the society. Most buyers are from around Singapore but not from Singapore. Singapore itself is a country based on materialism and consumerism and is even more affected by the international global recession. We are also in a situation where we need to think about the system [of the art industry]. Many galleries have to do art fairs because it is the biggest part of where their sales come from. But with a recession around the corner, can we go on like this?”

  • Photo courtesy of Art Stage Singapore.

    Photo courtesy of Art Stage Singapore.

Within this changing climate, a number of galleries still saw sales on opening day. Singapore’s STPI sold six works by Chua Ek Kay ranging from S$40,000 to S$75,000 ($28,000 to $52,500). The gallery also sold a work by Jane Lee for S$65,000 ($45,500) as well as a piece by Rirkrit Tiravanija for S$80,000 ($56,000). Sydney and Singapore-based Sullivan + Strumpf reported many sales below S$10,000 ($7,000), including works by Karen Black, Matthew Allen, and young artist Irfan Hendrian.

At Art Collective WA, the Perth-based gallery which exhibited at the fair for the third time, director Felicity Johnston noted she’d sold two large paintings by Eveline Kotai for more than S$20,000 ($14,000) each, to one local and one overseas client, during the fair’s first two days. Hong Kong’s Over the Influence sold a number of small installations by Abigail Goldman as well as paintings by Cleon Peterson, priced below the $5,000 to $6,000 range. “We sold to mostly visitors from Europe and one from Indonesia,” said gallery manager Sharlane Foo, the latter being a country whose collectors have wielded increasing sway in recent years. “The buying culture is rather conservative here.”

Gallery Kassi Tokyo made their Art Stage Singapore debut this year—the first time the Japanese gallery has exhibited outside of their home country. “Sales have been tough,” said the gallery’s Tasaki Masahiko, who said that they had higher expectations for the fair. “It’s very hard to find new collectors in Japan because the market is already mature,” Tasaki said. “Singapore, however, has a shorter history. But the people here are still trying to observe and understand art,” he added. “The buyers couldn’t decide and had to return two or three times. They are skeptical about the price of the new artists.” This situation is not abnormal for galleries exhibiting for the first time in a new market or art fair, where it takes time to establish a new client base. And Tasaki noted that from a booth featuring a range of ink art works by Inoue Yuichi priced below S$100,000 ($70,000) and sculptures by a range of emerging artists on offer for between S$6,000–S$15,000 ($4,200–$10,500), one work by Yuichi had sold for an undisclosed sum. 

  • Photo courtesy of Art Stage Singapore.

    Photo courtesy of Art Stage Singapore.

Art Stage Singapore is the lynchpin of the annual Singapore Art Week, a sprawl of some 100 events that speaks to a growing arts ecosystem in the city that will no doubt continue to help those new collectors develop. “I’m so glad this is actually the Singapore Art Week,” said Indonesian collector Diaz Parzada. “The Singapore Biennale is amazing. The gallery shows are amazing. And there are so many activities around—I had great fun at the Gillman Barracks’ Art After Dark.”

Boon Hui Tan, the vice president of global arts and cultural programs and director of Asia Society Museum in New York, returned to his hometown for the art week. He noted that “the art presented was very uneven in quality,” but added that he had seen an extraordinary number of international visitors. Tan also noted that while Singapore is the launch pad for Asian and Southeast Asian art, it will take longer for the young country to build a strong market.

“Developing a market needs time. You need to build credible institutions with clear missions, a pool of educated collectors who are interested in building legacies rather than investment portfolios, and knowledgeable arts journalists who help the public to see art in complex and subtle ways,” said Tan. “The market here is still in its early stages and will need time to grow over the next decade.”

  • Photo courtesy of Art Stage Singapore.

    Photo courtesy of Art Stage Singapore.

On this topic, the fair’s Southeast Asia Forum, a program comprised of a curated exhibition and a series of talks focusing on the socio-political and economic situation of the region, returned with great reception. The exhibition stole the show at Art Stage, featuring 22 politically charged artworks ranging from photography to sound installations by artists based in Southeast Asia or represented by galleries from the region (with the exception of one Austrian artist represented by an Austrian gallery). According to Rudolf, the Forum was designed as a platform to address these global questions—and to showcase Southeast Asian artists to the world as well as introduce them to the locals. He sees great potential for the Forum to unite the Southeast Asian art world. “The Forum is also there to explain to people in the emerging markets about good art, not by the dollar sign but the content.”

Rudolf noted that Art Stage Singapore has been “a fair with a Forum.” But with the success of this year’s Forum, that framing might change. “The fair should not just be about the market,” he said. “Can we make it ‘a Forum with a fair’ where market is only part of a bigger umbrella? Singapore has to reinvent itself in order to find an important spot on the cultural map.”


—Vivienne Chow