Art Market
Southeast Asia’s Art Market Expands Beyond Singapore
Photo courtesy of Art Stage Singapore.

Photo courtesy of Art Stage Singapore.

Despite its roster of internationally renowned artists and handful of mega-collectors with museums overseas, the Southeast Asian art market has only recently found a prominent footing in the global art community. As its collector base shifts from domestic to international acquisitions and the region’s arts infrastructure scales up, Southeast Asia is emerging as an important pillar in the global art market.

Southeast Asia is more politically and economically diverse than most other regions, and its national art scenes reflect that in terms of available infrastructure and opportunities. There is a wide gulf between the small city-state of Singapore’s whopping 155,000 millionaires and Cambodia’s 2015 GDP of just $18.05 billion. But Southeast Asia’s countries share a dynamism that is increasingly attracting the attention of collectors both at home and abroad.

The region’s art scene is anchored by Singapore, a politically stable financial center with an international population. Although Singapore’s own art market is not the strongest in the region, it plays a practical role in unifying the region’s various artistic centers, helped by advantages such as the Singapore FreePort, which opened in 2010. Indicative of its role as trade hub, the city-state’s export of all art increased by 40% to $304.5 million in 2014, according to the most recent TEFAF Art Market Report. This makes it the largest-value exporter of identified emerging markets. In particular, Lorenzo Rudolf, founder of Art Stage Singapore, one of the region’s first international contemporary art fairs, credits Singapore’s international quality in facilitating the city-state’s role as a key regional hub for what he described as “a very fragmented market, a lot of national markets.”

Since its first edition in 2011, Art Stage has grown from 121 galleries upon its inauguration, to 197 galleries in 2015, contracting again to 173 galleries from 33 countries in 2016, 75 percent of which were Asia-based. The fair’s growing stronghold has spurred further developments around the region. “A lot of things began to move with the arrival of the art fair,” he said.  

One of those was contemporary art cluster Gillman Barracks, which opened in 2012. Housed inside a former military barracks, it initially drew a host of international galleries including Ota Fine Arts (Japan), ShanghART Gallery (China), and Future Perfect (Australia). Further bolstering their numbers, Arndt Fine Art joined the ranks in 2013, followed by Pearl Lam Galleries one year later. By 2015, however, one-third of its tenants had left, citing low footfall and insufficient infrastructure.

For incoming international galleries, a long-term regional strategy remains crucial. As dealer Matthias Arndt explained, Southeast Asia lacks the infrastructure present in the West to develop artists’ careers. “We had to advertise our offer and expertise first, and build trust that our offer of opening international markets and bringing a new audience to Southeast Asian artists was serious. Only then could we start the core work [of preparing] new markets and audiences for Southeast Asian Art.”

Despite the downtick in the number of galleries at Gillman Barracks, Joanna Stumpf, co-founder and director of Australian import Sullivan+Strumpf, is satisfied with her decision earlier this year to establish an outpost there. Possibly indicating a recent change of fortunes for the out-of-the-way art hub, she specifically cites an international crowd of collectors and visitors. “We have met people from every corner of the globe here,” she said. “It might not be in the center of the city, but if you are interested in contemporary art, you will come to Gillman.”

The inconsistency of galleries’ prospects in Singapore in recent years can be attributed to multiple factors. Most notably, the fact that a friendly business environment and high number of international visitors comes with certain contradictions in its local population. “Singapore is an easy place to work in but the reality is there are too few collectors [there],” reckons Richard Koh, founder of an eponymous Kuala Lumpur space in 2005. Throw sky-high rents, a sudden saturation of international players, not to mention current trends for purchasing art both online and at fairs all into the equation, and the challenges become all too clear. Koh’s gallery briefly moved to Singapore’s HeluTrans arts venue in 2015, but the venture was short-lived “because the landlord wanted the space back,” he explains.

But while local collectors might be limited in their numbers now, conditions are ripe for change. There has been a marked rise in the number of high net worth individuals (HNWI) both in Singapore and across the region. For example, the number of HNWIs in India increased by a dramatic 26% during 2014.  Public interest in art has also been on the rise, particularly since the opening of Singapore’s National Gallery in 2015. This is also borne out by TEFAF’s recent analysis of Singapore’s comparatively low margin in 2015 between the average price achieved for artworks at auction ($37,385) and the median ($18,370). Despite the volume of sales being low, art achieves proportionally higher prices than markets such as the US and U.K. where figures are skewed by a handful of headline-grabbing record-breakers.

Graphic from the 2016 TEFAF Report.

Graphic from the 2016 TEFAF Report.

Across the border, Malaysia’s art market represents a stark contrast to that of Singapore, said Koh. He described its collector base as passionate and growing, but said its focus remains local: “It is opening up, [but there are] very few global collectors here.”

Also based in the Malaysian capital is veteran gallerist, and organizer of Gallery Weekend Kuala Lumpur, Shalini Ganendra. Since opening her eponymous space in 1998, she has observed “a meteoric development in the visual arts, fueled primarily by generational interest, economic mobility and aspiration, and speculation.”

A very similar situation can be found in Indonesia. The country’s established yet insular market was initially inspired in part by its first major collector, the late first president of the Southeast Asian nation, Sukarno. His influence helped to cement artists’ status in Indonesian society, sparking a trend for collecting. Little by way of local infrastructure has been available to connect the country’s collectors and artists—nor afford them international exposure—until recently.

To help fill this gap, Art Stage launched a Jakarta edition in 2016. It portrayed a palpably regional focus, drawing 15,000 visitors in its first foray. Art Stage joined the existing ART|JOG fair, started in 2008 as part of the Yogyakarta Art Festival before going independent in 2009, as well as Bazaar Art Jakarta, which was established in 2009. In 2017, the modern and contemporary art museum MACAN will open in Jakarta, courtesy of philanthropist and collector Haryanto Adikoesoemo, marking a further step to cement a strong regional art scene in Indonesia.

While local buyers are driving these national units within the broader Southeast Asia market, its artists are increasingly catching the attention of a global audience. Arndt Fine Art has played an important role in focusing an international spotlight. In particular, 2015’s “WASAK! Filipino Art Today” in Berlin served as a springboard in positioning the Philippines on western collectors’ radar. “Interestingly, contemporary art from the Philippines is not really perceived as ‘Asian’ so the Western audience can deal with the works better than as they would do with Chinese or Indonesian art,” said gallery founder Matthias Arndt. “There has been a strong fascination and curiosity for this new generation of Filipino artists.”

Beyond the considerable influence of galleries and across the broader arts ecosystem, Southeast Asian artists are turning heads. At Art Dubai’s 2016 edition, the annual curated program “Marker” centered on artists from the Philippines (such as Gino Javier and Julius Redillas), and a special showcase of works by late pioneer of conceptual art, Roberto Chabet. Driving interest elsewhere, the 2015 Hugo Boss Asia Art Award, organized with Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum, extended its scope to include artists from Southeast Asia, with emerging talents Moe Satt of Myanmar and Vandy Rattana of Cambodia making the shortlist. The prize’s winner, Philippines’ Maria Taniguchi went on to a solo exhibition at Hong Kong’s Galerie Perrotin in autumn 2016.

Following China and India, “the next region that’s interesting for Western collectors and that they’re curious about is Southeast Asia,” contended Rudolf. The fair director cites emerging talents like Aditya Novali of Indonesia, Christina Quisumbing Ramilo of the Philippines, and Korakrit Arunanondchai of Thailand in particular as names to watch. “More and more [the region is] part of the global art world,” added Rudolf. “It’s not so known as elsewhere, but it has a lot to offer.”

In Southeast Asia, an arts ecosystem is at once expanding, and firming up thanks to new museums, fairs, and an increasingly professional gallery presence. The strengthening of key economies in the region, witnessed by a growing number of high net worth individuals with the financial means to collect, helps to bolster the scene’s deepening foundations. And this has been further encouraged by an identifiable uptick in interest from abroad. Rooted in unique local markets and movements, considered together, the region is fast becoming a globally significant powerhouse—and one to watch.


Frances Arnold