A new wave of VIPs is driving the market at the increasingly popular Art Stage Singapore – a mammoth showcase for the region’s dynamic art market
By Jemma Galvin
What do art collectors see that escapes so many others? When considering a purchase, is it the excitement of status, the promise of wealth or a desire to share a truth with the world that drives them to spend? The golden eyes of collectors will be firmly focused on Singapore this month, when Art Stage Singapore throws open its doors once more.
A behemoth of a fair, Art Stage attracted more than 40,000 visitors last year – up 25% from the 2012 gathering – and even more are expected this month.
From January 16 to 19 at Marina Bay Sands, hundreds of galleries, artists, curators and collectors are expected to descend on the hotel to show, sell and buy the best contemporary art the region has to offer.
The event represents further evidence of a recent global shift in the appreciation of Asian, specifically Southeast Asian, art.
Sotheby’s, the world-renowned auction house, first started selling pieces in its Southeast Asian art category in 2001. In April last year, it sold 165 works – 96% of those it had on offer – at its Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art auction. The $14.5 million takings caught global attention.
Art Stage Singapore has followed suit, opening up the region’s art market to an even greater degree. Last year, Indonesia was in the spotlight, with the dedicated Indonesian Pavilion showcasing 50 of the country’s most exciting artists.
At this month’s event, Art Stage’s Southeast Asia Platform brings a series of new projects to the fore, including site-specific works, interactive installations and conceptually driven works – highlighting the emerging trend towards non-traditional art making and buying in the region.
Yet it’s not the artists or galleries that are proving to be the major players in the region’s art market – it’s the collectors.
According to Lorenzo Rudolf, Art Stage’s founder and director, the fair has “positioned collectors as VIPs, connecting them directly to the art through various special programmes and offering them incomparable VIP treatment”.
Educated, wealthy and regionally aware, the collectors are driving the Asian art boom that began some ten years ago when Indian and Chinese works burst onto the global stage and were snapped up by international collectors and institutions.
Singapore now has more millionaires per capita than any other city in the world, according to a study by Boston Consulting Group, and Indonesian billionaires outnumber those found in Japan, according to Forbes. Such bulging Southeast Asian wallets, combined with the strong connection between collectors and their countries’ traditions, have produced a rank of collectors quite unlike any other.
“The strength of the art market in Southeast Asia lies in the fact that most collectors are from within the region,” says Simon Soon, Art Stage’s country advisor for Malaysia and a PhD student in modern and contemporary Southeast Asian art history at the University of Sydney. “This means that their collections are more focused and that long-term collectors are very knowledgeable about the development of art in the region.”
Dr Oei Hong Djien is an Indonesian former tobacco grader and the owner of the OHD Museum in Magelang, central Java. Djien, 74, has spent the past 30 years amassing an impressive collection of modern and contemporary Indonesian art, and continues to search for historical pieces to complete his comprehensive assembly of work. His collection spans more than 100 years, beginning with paintings by the Romanticist painter and pioneer of modern Indonesian art, Raden Saleh (1807-1880).
“Until recently, only Indonesian collectors collected Indonesian art,” says Djien. “But because of globalisation and the Asian art boom, Indonesia is getting increasing interest from the international art market.”
The work of Chinese-born Indonesian artist Lee Man Fong has been a recipient of this attention. The artist, whose works often depict scenes of traditional life, made history in November last year when his “Bali Life” (1962-64) sold for $4.7m at Christie’s in Hong Kong – the highest price ever realised at auction for a work by a Southeast Asian artist.
Currently residing in Singapore, Filipino husband and wife Lito and Kim Camacho have been collecting art since 1980, initially with no grander plans than finding a means to decorate their first home in New York City. Their early acquisitions were dependent upon what they could afford. Now, a more refined, considered approach has taken over.
“We look for art that appeals to us emotionally, intellectually or visually,” says Lito, a Harvard Business School MBA holder and the vice-chairman for Asia-Pacific at Credit Suisse AG. “We prefer artists who are global in importance and who have a place in art history.”
The Camachos’ collection now encompasses more than 30 years of work that has evolved from Filipino genre art, which they took a liking to in their early days, to Filipino masters and other Southeast Asian art that the pair was drawn to in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“Having a strong local collecting base means that the artists are not necessarily beholden to international whims, which translates to aesthetic and discursive fads,” says Soon. “On the other hand, the market can at times become a force for parochialism in shaping taste and sensibility, such as the case with Indonesia pre-2008 and Malaysia today – where new talents are immediately sucked into the vortex that demands large-scale paintings on canvas.”
Many factors influence the who, what, when and where of art collecting. Patterns and trends emerge in line with economic tides, yet it is the human and intellectual potential of art that most industry specialists say should be at the front of a collector’s mind when choosing a work to add to their compendium.
“Collecting is a conversation-driven process, at times requiring the buyer to step out of his or her own comfort zone to challenge his or her thinking and sensibility. After all, part of buying is also to learn a little more about the complex histories, values and ideas that inform artistic practices today,” says Soon.
However, the relative stability of art as an investment cannot be underestimated in a volatile global economic climate.
“Our art collection, in theory and on paper, has been our best-yielding investment, doing better than real estate, stocks and bonds,” explains Lito. “Having said that, we have only sold two pieces in 30 years. It is more of an obsession than an investment.”
No doubt, buying good art is a good investment. And if a collector is buying out of a love for the art itself, and not the love of stockpiling or selling it, it is unlikely stress or regret will follow, says Soon.
“It is reprehensible to collect merely to shore up one’s investment portfolio,” he says. “Investment can be seen as an incentive, but should never be the driving passion that compels one to collect art. More often than not, the sad fate of artworks is that they are locked up in a temperature-controlled Singaporean warehouse, never again to see the light of day.”
However, according to Roger Nelson, Art Stage’s country advisor for Cambodia and a PhD student in contemporaneity in Cambodian art, not all investments are monetary or in opposition to the appreciation and dissemination of art for the betterment of society.
“The best thing about art as an investment is that it is also an investment in human growth – both for the buyer and for the artist,” Nelson says. “I like to think that, in general, art is an ethical investment; one that isn’t contributing to the desecration of our natural and built environments; that isn’t keeping workers’ wages low; and that isn’t displacing communities.”
Rudolf, famous for his work on Art Basel and the launch of Art Basel Miami, agrees: “Art is a way to reconnect to your inner self. It’s like what Picasso used to say: ‘Art is a lie that tells us the truth.’ Art is a piece of culture – the value of it cannot be quantified.”
If the emerging trend of artists producing and collectors buying installation, multimedia and conceptual art continues, those temperature-controlled vaults may not be added to for some time. Collectors are moving away from the familiar, the durable and the non-repeatable, instead showing interest in practices involving photography, video, performance, installation and other media, says Nelson. This is just as well, he says, as these works are some of the most exciting coming out of the region.
“The younger generation of collectors is more inclined to collect installation and multimedia art,” Djien agreed. “I think this will be the trend in coming years. Painting has been fully explored.”
Art Stage has the infrastructure, geographical location and global reach to allow Southeast Asian art and artists to achieve their potential. And it’s the collectors, many of whom are attending Art Stage 2014, that hold much of the power in driving this journey forward.
`“I see a rapidly growing interest and curiosity in contemporary art among people in the region,” Rudolf says. “The potential growth of Southeast Asian art is beyond imagination.”