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Will the Real Singapore Arts Scene Please Stand Up?

Much has been said about the Singapore visual art scene in recent weeks.

Depending on which media outlet one might be reading, the country seems to be lurching from being a much-lauded hub to one of abject “stagnation.” Sometimes, “ground is lost to Hong Kong,” and other times, it is a leaky bog of a landscape which requires emergency “stop-gaps.”

It’s been a drama of soap-operatic proportions, kicked off perhaps by Art Stage Singapore founder Lorenzo Rudolf’s controversial comments, which one art industry insider told us was clearly an instance of “ungrateful foreign talent biting the hand that’s fed him for many years.”

On the other end of the spectrum, observers agreed that Rudolf was no more than an honest messenger, delivering hard truths which needed to be communicated.

Yet others in the middle ground shared with us that Rudolf was not entirely wrong in his comments, as objective facts seemed to support his statements – the Affordable Art Fair, for instance, has “consolidated” its showing in Singapore into a single event, down from being a twice-yearly affair.

Nonetheless, the Singapore arts scene cannot and indeed, should not be defined by the mere success or failure of one large-scale commercial art fair. Says one industry pundit:

“What about The Substation, what about all those kids who take over spaces in decrepit malls, or in Geylang to do those blink-and-you’ll-miss-them avant-garde art shows? These are what makes up Singapore’s arts scene, not just one art fair.”

Then, on 31 May, came the official announcement that STPI Creative Workshop & Gallery  (STPI Singapore) will be organising a new curated ‘showcase’ of around 30 art galleries during Singapore Art Week 2019, to be located in one of the open spaces in the Gillman Barracks visual arts precinct.  To be named S.E.A. Focus, the show will have a broad local and regional (i.e. Southeast Asian) emphasis. Hot on the heels of that announcement, came another bit of news that AngusMontgomery Arts, Tim Etchells and the MCH Group (Art Basel’s Swiss parent company), the founders of Art HK (which later evolved into Art Basel Hong Kong), would be launching one more new fair, to be called Art SG. Reportedly, this new fair will feature 80 local, regional and international galleries and is scheduled to take place in early November 2019, at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. Cited by one commentator as Singapore’s chance to “have a Hong Kong moment,” could this fair be the white knight Singapore’s been waiting for?

While Art Stage Singapore did not comment on its plans for 2019, the fair had this official statement to make:

“More than 10 years ago, Lorenzo Rudolf recognised the artistic potential and significance of Southeast Asia for the international art market and driven by his analytical thinking, pioneering spirit, cultural openness, respect and foresight, he set up international art events in Singapore and Jakarta which have influenced and changed the region.”

Rudolf himself offered this view, which he requested we publish in its entirety:

“This new fair is the attempt of Art Basel – or rather of Messe Schweiz – to hit three birds in one go. They aim to provide direct and exclusive access to the extremely potent economic elite of one of the world’s fastest-growing regions; they aim to get total market control of the ever more professional and self-confident Southeast Asian art world; and, finally, they aim – the carefully selected date of the event leaves little room for another conclusion – to create a direct competition and weakening of its emerging market competition in Asia: Shanghai.

Quite a smart step from the perspective of a global player aiming to dominate and control the international art market! But there are also some fundamental questions: Does the chance of globalisation, especially in the art world, not rather lie in the richness of cultural diversity than in the concentration on and the diffusion of a few “brands”? And does the chance of the global art market not rather lie in the acceptance and promotion of the diverse cultural identities and strengths and the resulting individual structures than in the complete and comprehensive orientation of a global luxury market?

 Monopolisation or diversification, the future will show it.” (sic)

For an industry that’s meant to be mired in inertia, might Singapore have 3 major art fairs to contend with next year?

We sat down for a conversation with Emi Eu, Director of STPI Singapore, and organiser of S.E.A Focus to see if she could help us get a handle on things.

Our chat at the STPI premises

Thanks for meeting us Emi, our first question is this:  Do you think Singapore needs another art fair and how do you think your new fair, S.E.A Focus fits into the existing landscape?

Well, that’s the thing, and I want to stress this, it is not an art fair.

I am not a fair organiser nor do I have any experience organising fairs for business. This is an initiative that kind of grew out of my being a part of the Art Galleries Association Singapore (AGAS) for the last 6 years.

I am trying to organise an event which will be able to meet everyone’s desires and wishes — one of which is that we in Singapore will be able to have an anchoring event for Art Week which can bring people together from both here and outside the country. Typically, this event would be Art Stage Singapore. With what’s been happening recently, we were just not sure if (Art Stage) would continue. This  debate has been happening for the last few years, and so we thought:

“Why don’t we actually start something, something that we can promise will happen [every year], whether it’s in the form of an art fair or not.”

It’s interesting that you’ve mentioned “the last few years.” From public reports, it seems that the doubt over Art Stage continuing on in 2019, only arose this year, after comments made in the 2018 edition of the fair.

When I first became an office holder of AGAS, the thing that we all talked about, was the unanimous desire of members for us to hold (art) events — one in the first half of the year, and another in the second half of the year. These 2 events each year would bring the arts community together, to do something.

And what is this “something”?

For galleries, it is, of course, an opportunity to make sales and for collectors, buyers and art lovers it is the chance to see something different. This is something we have always been trying to do. From 2014 to 2016, AGAS organized Art In Motion, with the support of the Singapore Tourism Board (STB). It was during this time – when STB and I talked – that we thought we should make this into Singapore Art Week. This is how Singapore Art Week came about, subsequently coming under the National Arts Council’s (NAC) purview.

For the second half of each year, AGAS members tried to organize a kind of group show, and we did that for 3 years in a row, with the last one being at Millenia Walk last November.

We’ve always tried to organize events, it’s just that we’ve had very limited resources because all the office holders of AGAS are volunteers and have their own businesses to run. We were not able to garner the support and resources needed to make our events more prominent on a national level. (Eventually), agencies like the NAC, STB and Economic Development Board (EDB) with whom we’ve worked very closely over the years, realized that it was perhaps time to give us more support — especially since (S.E.A. Focus) is something we are starting from within Singapore. It’s not about somebody coming in from outside (the country) to do a professional art fair.

This whole thing has really culminated from conversations we have been having for the past 4 years with the EDB. It is homegrown and an initiative from ground-up.

In 2019, for Gillman Barracks, we want to have an art show that takes the form of an art fair, but it is only a “fair” in the sense that it will take that physical form i.e. we will have booths, a tent and some selling. Given the pace of change in the international art landscape, I wouldn’t want to pigeonhole (S.E.A. Focus) within the art fair format. I think we need to be flexible, and adaptable, and be able to react to the market, or pre-empt the market. We need to be creative as we are in a creative industry!

What I’m trying to do with my team is to create an event that everyone can connect with, at one point or another because not everybody wants to go to another show where you can see art and then only buy and sell. We would like to create a more holistic kind of programming. The reason why contemporary art as an industry is so “on the front page” these days is because it has become a lifestyle. I would like to put that kind of element in the event.

So what then are the elements that make this “not an art fair”?

It’s not a fair because a fair typically is a business which requires 80-100 galleries paying certain amounts of money (to fair organisers). In this event, the booth and application fees will be there, but these will be very nominal.

Is this with a view to making things more accessible?

That’s right.

Would you have a response to the comment that the show is a “stop-gap”?

I think that was a mistake, a truly, genuine mistake.

Because if we are initiating something for Singapore Art Week, it cannot just be a one-time thing. I am envisioning that this will be happening every year, and therefore I have to work hard with the team. Let’s see what and how much we can do next year, and if we can sustain it.

From what you’ve said, it seems like these plans have been percolating for some time, and it’s hard to see how such a thing could be a “stop-gap.”

No, it isn’t at all.

This event is really to rejuvenate the local art landscape and to seed interest and support for a long time to come because I don’t think these (participating) galleries will go away after one year.

Do you know if Art Stage Singapore will continue next year?

That I don’t know.

I have heard that Art Stage applications have gone out, and some people I know have received them. But it’s fine, you know all these articles which say things like, “is Singapore big enough to have 2 art fairs?”

I think it all really depends on what you have to offer.

You’ve talked about incorporating a kind of lifestyle element to bring S.E.A Focus out to a wider audience – it seems that’s one challenge with this event – bringing the art to new and different audiences. Are there any other challenges?

The challenge is always that resources are not infinite. I have finite resources and I have to work with them!  I also cannot neglect my very important activities with STPI– I am lucky to have very good colleagues to take care of the Workshop and the Gallery.

How would you draw people, who just aren’t interested in art, into S.E.A. Focus?

You know what we need? Beyonce and Jay-Z!

Within the arts industry, there are still conservative traditionalists (who think) “art is art.” I have been asked, “What do you think about Beyonce and Jay-Z’s move to the Louvre and the filming of that video?”

I mean, seriously, if they are the ones who can reach out to people that we can never, ever get to, then why not? Getting (people’s) attention is the most difficult first step in anything, especially in the arts. So I think we need that.

First stop, Met Gala, next stop Gillman Barracks? (Image from Shutterstock)

So, we’ve been talking to some gallerists and we get the sense that people feel that there is a little too much emphasis on Gillman Barracks. Why choose Gillman Barracks as a location for S.E.A Focus, as opposed to somewhere more neutral?

The clearest answer I can give you is, it’s just logic, it’s the cost.

In Singapore, space is the most expensive thing, right? And the advantage of Gillman Barracks is that the NAC manages Gillman Barracks and therefore we may be able to get some support and help. If we can save on some costs, whatever money we have can be redirected to the public and for all the programming that we want to bring to the public. So this was really a practical decision.

Initially, I thought it would be great to have our tent in the Padang. But just imagine, there is nothing around it. So the amount of money that I would have to spend in getting all the infrastructure ready – can you imagine? If I were MCH, I could probably do that, but I can’t.

Obviously, if you want to host an art fair you need a bigger space, and that’s why I’m telling you this is not an art fair, it’s an art show. It’s such a small space and we just want to make things very focused. Gillman Barracks has (its existing) galleries, so there will also be other opportunities to see different shows while you visit the art show. So in theory, it is kind of a natural space (for S.E.A. Focus).

Crowds thronging a recent edition of Art After Dark at Gillman Barracks

Was there any concern that gallerists outside of the Gillman cluster might feel alienated?

Oh yes of course, because Gillman Barracks, from what I understand, has an unpleasant originating history with the local galleries versus foreign galleries and everything…. but we just cannot please everyone and we have to go with the majority, and with what makes the most sense. (Editor’s note: For some background on recent issues with Gillman Barracks see here)

Gillman Barracks gallerist Khairuddin Hori made a comment about how Chan+Hori Contemporary wouldn’t join a fair like Art Stage, stating that, “galleries like ours wouldn’t participate anymore because if collectors are in town, they would come here.” I suppose that supports what you’ve alluded to about Gillman Barracks naturally attracting people. Is there going to be any kind of additional effort applied towards including galleries outside of Gillman Barracks?

In my last meeting as the President of AGAS a couple of weeks ago, I really encouraged all the members to apply to this show with projects that they have really put effort into. They should think about what they want to showcase because if they were to be invited to show with us the (assigned) space would be very small. So one has to be very, very strategic in many ways about how to show an artist’s work.

Khai is now the president of AGAS, so he too would really have to encourage the members to (take part).

My next question is connected with Lorenzo Rudolf’s comments about how the art scene has been “stagnant and inhospitable to museum-quality works.” If you could correct one misconception about the Singapore art scene, what would it be?

You know, Art Stage started really well, and sometimes museum-quality art is just not attractive to everyone. I don’t think (Lorenzo’s) wrong just in terms of that phrase, and you know museums collect things of an artist that are not only their masterpieces, but also artworks which may not necessarily be the best, but yet reveal something about the artist, their career path and their history.

So I think (this idea of) a museum collecting different types of “museum-quality works,” can be read in so many ways.

I think when he says “museum-quality works,” that means outstanding works. In the past 3 to 4 years, I do have to say that the quality of the exhibitors at Art Stage has gone down significantly to the point where there are even some design and decorative elements. This is something that we do not want to do.

Why do you think that’s happened?

Honestly, I think it’s because quite a number of gallerists didn’t sign up.  It is very expensive to participate in an art fair. I know it because I do it, right? I also know a little bit about it because I’m in the Selection Committee of Art Basel Hong Kong.

A fair organiser’s job, especially a director of an art fair, it’s a 365-day full-time (job) because that person has to make sure the fair satisfies 240 clients, which are the galleries. In order to do that, what is needed? You have to ensure that your fair can bring in the buyers.

But how do you bring in the buyers? You have to make sure the content that you are providing to the buyers is of interest and of quality. So it (cuts) both ways. If you don’t focus on these two, the galleries will not (sign up again) and the buyers will not return, because you cannot offer the same thing all the time. And that’s why the choice of the galleries and programme is so important.

You mentioned 2 events a year, that this was AGAS’ original thinking, and so there’s going to be Art SG in November.

Yes, that’s why I think it’s really great!

S.E.A. Focus is going to be something that is really (regionally) focused and community-oriented. I want to make sure that it starts small and grows to be something which everyone will look forward to every year in January. Art SG will then bring in the international stuff that we want to see. I’m sure they will do a good job given their proven track record, and they do have a lot more resources than we do.

So will AGAS then be planning something else as well or has this “second event” gap been adequately filled?

So next year, there will be a gap from January to November which is like, 10 months. The following year will be much tougher because (the gap runs from) November to January, which is literally only 2 months. So my team and I will have to really think,

“Well, what we can offer that is different from Art SG, that will complement Art SG?”

I think this is the stance we’ll have to take. The Art SG organising team was very, very cordial and very professional. They let me know what they’re doing and how they’re going about it, I mean not in detail, but they had this plan they shared with me before they went out to press. I would like to work with them to see how we can make this whole thing really interesting throughout the year.

That sounds like a sensible way to approach things

Yes! They’re going to be really big, while we’re just a tiny thing. (This is what) we want to do, and what I think is needed, and they (Art SG) will provide the much bigger platform.

Do you think there are too many events that go on during Art Week?

There are definitely a lot of things going on in Art Week. Personally, I think we can trim some of it down and have much more focused curation.

One thing we’ve heard from gallerists is that the big institutions need to feed into that system a bit more. For example, when the show Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna opened in November 2017 at the National Gallery Singapore, that actually attracted many people who would not necessarily come to Singapore for Art Week. We heard rumblings that the National Gallery should have timed its opening to coincide with Art Week.

(S.E.A. Focus project director) Audrey (Yeo) has been reaching out to all the institutions to see what they’re doing. We want to adapt to their programmes and hopefully, we can work together to coincide our programmes with major things happening at the same time.

Thanks for your time, Emi! 


So there you have it folks, Singapore’s getting an anchoring event for Art Week which is smaller, homegrown and more community-based.

Our two cents?

S.E.A. Focus seems to be exactly the kind of event that we’ve been hearing local artists, gallerists and industry commentators ask for repeatedly. More official details are expected to be released in the coming weeks, and we’re frankly hopeful about what’s to come. Will the approaching “Hong Kong moment” save our art scene? To Lorenzo Rudolf’s very valid point, are we starting to see a kind of Art Basel-esque monolithic domination emerge over the Southeast Asian art scene? Perhaps, or perhaps not.  Or perhaps monolithic ownership by a single commercial brand need not equate to a loss of distinctive cultural identity – as long as the different markets are engaged in a meaningful and respectful way. As Emi Eu aptly sums it up, “it all really depends on what you have to offer.”

What’s clear though, is the fact that Singapore’s attempting to be nimble, to adapt to changing circumstances and to remain relevant and authentic. Will S.E.A. Focus as an Art Week anchor, be a come-down from the glitz and glamour of Art Stage, if the latter does not take place? Maybe. But there’s also a spunky fearlessness and humility about Singapore’s willingness to take a step back, recalibrate and reinvent itself if needed, in order to cater to new and more discerning audiences.

And as far as we’re concerned, that’s certainly something to be excited about.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


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