Singapore: Designing an Arts Marketplace

With its centralized approach to governing, Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party, in power since the republic’s birth in 1963, has created an economic juggernaut. But can the city-state that forbids chewing gum create a premier arts marketplace and incubator?

Singapore: Designing an Arts MarketplaceOver the last decade the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to make Singapore a “Global arts city” by 2015. One recent high profile effort is seen in Art Stage Singapore, the second edition of the city-state’s contemporary art fair boasting 130 galleries from 18 countries, which ended its four-day run yesterday (January 15).

But first, some facts and figures for why Singapore’s central planners want a piece of the arts pie. According to The Global Art Market in 2010, Crisis and Recovery by arts economist Dr. Clare McAndrew (the 2011 edition will be released in March at TEFAF Maastrict) the global market for art and antiques bounced back far stronger than equities in 2010, as a whole rising by 52% and reaching a total of €43 billion; the most significant development in recent years has been the phenomenal growth of the art market in China, which nearly doubled in value since 2009, and now represents 23% of the market compared to 34% in the U.S. (China has consistently gained share since 2006: its auction sales have increased nearly nine times in six years, with 2010 representing by far the largest rise to just under €6 billion). As Sotheby’s sales for the first half of last year were up 55% to $3.4 billion, a new all-time high for consolidated sales for the first half of a year, and arch rival Christie’s also reported stellar sales of $3.2 billion (read all about it: www.artnet.com/magazineus/news/artmarketwatch/sothebys-bests-christies-8-5-11.asp), and as the fall auctions from London to New York to Hong Kong saw numerous records, there’s no reason to conclude the final 2011 figures will be any less jaw-dropping (especially when compared to equity markets that have yet to top a two-year trading range).

Additionally, the Asia-Pacific region now has more millionaires than Europe, and is closing in on the U.S. (Asia: 3.3 millionaires; Europe: 3.1 millionaires; U.S. 3.4 millionaires), and given the propensity for, er, financial discretion in China and several countries in Southeast Asia, the figures for Asia are conservative); private museums throughout Asia are mushrooming, as are the number of high profile art collectors.

So then, it’s not rocket science to deduce why those at the helm of Singapore, Inc. crave culture. First, it’s a simple equation: art equals money. Second, it’s a growth business (apparently, lately, very high growth). Third, there’s a lot of new money in Asia, much of it hungry for art, and even more of it potentially able to develop an arts appetite, and that money is growing faster than it is in the West. And then there’s the catalog of ancillary benefits: prestige, tourism, jobs, quality of life, plus art as a catalyst for creativity across disciplines and industries.

To foster Singapore as a cultural hub, the government has implemented numerous tax incentives—among them tax-free, state-of-the-art storage and display facilities the size of six football fields (and this is but stage one; Christie’s is reportedly one of the principal tenants. The city-state is also rapidly building new cultural institutions, such as a national art gallery comprised of the former city hall and supreme court, scheduled to open in 2013.

Such efforts should be compared with those of Hong Kong, which continues to wear Asia’s art marketplace crown and hardly sitting still. After New York and London, the former crown colony is the world’s third largest auction market (figures in The Global Art Market in 2010, Crisis and Recovery combine mainland China and Hong Kong). The city is also in the midst of a massive $2.1 billion West Kowloon Cultural District, which includes a contemporary museum called M+ (the first phase is scheduled to open in 2016), the renovation of the Central Police Station heritage site to an exhibition venue (scheduled to open 2014) and the opening of the Asia Society’s new premises in Hong Kong early this year. The current breadth of the city’s non-commercial arts scene is also impressive, and is illustrated by the exhibitions and projects organized by numerous organizations, Para/Site Art Space, Asia Art Archive and Fotan Open Studios among them.

On the commercial side, Western galleries are flocking to Hong Kong, among them hundred-pound gorillas such as Gagosian, which opened last year, and White Cube, scheduled to open this spring—an influx which is catalyzing the opening of more Asian galleries, particularly from China. A sign of boom times, a 60% stake in Asian Art Fairs Ltd., the owners the eleven-year-old Hong Kong International Art Fair, ART HK, was purchased by MCH Swiss Exhibition Group, the owners of the Art Basel brand (at the time, Art Basel directors Annette Schonholze and Marc Spiegler stated, “the mid-term goal is to convert ART HK to the Art Basel brand as the third platform for our leading international art shows”). With 260 galleries from 38 countries, ART HK 11, held last May, saw 63,511 visitors, an increase of 37.7% from the previous year.

Singapore: Designing an Arts MarketplaceIf Singapore’s goal were simply to become Asia’s principal art market, it might well seem a Sisyphean attempt. But its aim is likely more tiered and long-range, as well as strategic. Lorenzo Rudolf (left), the veteran art-fair organizer and arts world heavyweight, was the director of Art Basel from 1991-2000, and founded Art Basel Miami Beach in 2002 and Shanghai’s ShContemporary in 2007. He is currently the director of Art Stage Singapore. In the January issue of Art + Auction (which was published online January 13), he participated in a Q&A, with several of answers pertaining directly to Singapore’s leaders’ artful aspirations.

Rudolph’s response comparing Singapore and Hong Kong as art centers? “It’s no coincidence that these two cities are the financial centers of Asia … Singapore, like Switzerland, is a hub for private wealth management, a place people can bring their money and art in security. In both places, the state is also investing a lot in culture. Singapore understands that Asia needs a place for exchange, for dialogue. It has developed an artist-in-residence program flanked by a Kunstahalle to bring together emerging artists from all over Asia. The bigger market will be in Hong Kong. But in terms of dialogue, exchanges, and new formats, Singapore will be the center.”

Rudolph, and by extension Singapore, is thus focusing on the city-state as a platform for pan-Asian art (as opposed to strictly Chinese): “The scene here [in Asia] is still very fragmented: I don’t see many Indians going to China or Japanese going to Indonesia … Singapore is too small to have its own art scene, but it’s at the crossroads of China, India, and Southeast Asia. Those are the three strongest and fastest-growing economies and art markets in Asia.” (Rudolf’s full Q&A.)

It’s notable that Rudolph is branding Art Stage Singapore “The Asian Art Fair.” It’s also significant that this year’s fair produced a campaign with the theme and tagline “We Are Asia,” with press materials explaining that “The fair has taken the role of Asian art advocate by elevating them to a level of international importance, and by positioning them as strong and competitive players in the global market.” The next three to five years will show if the strategy works.

Singapore: Designing an Arts MarketplaceNowhere perhaps better illustrates Singapore’s big money, SuperSized, multi-pronged approach than Marina Bay, a massive land-reclamation project born in the 1970s and in overdrive for the last decade. Marina Bay itself is a huge freshwater reservoir fed by the Singapore River. Ringing it as an ever-growing lifestyle center that now includes numerous architecturally significant hotels, theaters, casino and convention center (the home of Art Stage Singapore), the world’s largest floating stadium, a residential and business tower component that will eventually double the size of Singapore’s existing financial district (making it equivalent to Hong Kong’s Central business district), and to underscore Singapore’s “Garden City” sobriquet,

Gardens by the Bay, a monumental series of three waterfront gardens spanning 101 hectares that combines horticulture with eye-popping architecture (the largest of the three, the 54-hectare Bay South garden, is set to open this June).

Part II of this story: An art and design walk around Marina Bay.

Myers, Andrew, writes extensively about architecture, design, and the fine and decorative arts for the Robb Report and Modern Luxury families of magazines, as well as 1stdibs.com and a catalogue of sh ...read more

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