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.