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Growing pains in Singapore

May 11. 2016
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The art market takes steps back, but experts says all it really needs is time to develop

WITH THE CLOSURE of a commercial art museum and the exit of several galleries and art fairs from Singapore over the last two years, a persistent cloud of gloom appears to be hanging over the city-state’s art market.

The Singapore Pinacotheque de Paris, plagued by poor attendance and financial challenges, bowed out last month, less than a year after it opened.

The Gillman Barracks gallery cluster saw the departure of two tenants earlier this year, following an exodus in April last year – when nearly a third of the 17 galleries then chose not to renew their leases, citing poor sales and visitor numbers.

Two art fairs, Singapore Art Fair and Milan Image Art and Design Fair Singapore, have also been missing from the scene after high-profile debuts in 2014.

Industry observers say the spate of closings points to growing pains in a still developing art market, but they are mostly optimistic that the market will take off in time, if efforts to grow the visual arts scene continue.

While the economic value of the visual arts industry has increased over a 10-year period, it belies the struggle of galleries, such as Silverlens from the Philippines, which left Gillman Barracks last year. The gallery’s director, Isa Lorenzo, 41, says the art cluster, which opened in 2012 with 13 galleries, “was a case of too much, too soon”.

“The weakness was that there wasn’t much of an audience. We were aware there was a lack of a ready audience, but we didn’t realise the full extent of it,” Lorenzo says.

Malaysia-based gallerist Richard Koh, 51, who closed his eponymous gallery at Artspace@Helutrans in Tanjong Pagar Distripark last year, echoes the sentiment that Singapore has a “very small” art market, given its modest pool of collectors.

Yet it is this budding art market that drew the Affordable Art Fair to set up shop in Singapore in 2010. Its mission, says the fair’s regional managing director for Asia, Camilla Hewitson, 37, is to provide a platform that serves as a “starting point” for art buyers and artists.

“That Singapore is a young market is a benefit to us because it gives us the opportunity to convert people into art lovers,” she says.

Douwe Cramer, 55, show director of the Singapore Contemporary art fair, which launched this year, is equally upbeat about the potential for fairs such as his, noting that the country ranks among the richest in the world and is a major centre for private wealth management.

Experts agree that what the art market here is time to develop fully.

Art expert Matthias Arndt, 48, who has a gallery in Gillman Barracks, says: “Singapore is only 50 years old. Art and culture need time to develop and the art market in Singapore is still developing.

“We are seeing growing pains, but we have to build on what we have successfully created and, with the dedication of the galleries, fairs, art institutions and art associations, and the support of collectors, I believe we can achieve great success.”

Not all businesses in the art market, however, have the wherewithal to stay for the long haul.

Ute Meta Bauer, 56, founding director of the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, which anchors the art cluster at Gillman Barracks, says some of the galleries which were in the area told her they would like to return, but in a different capacity, perhaps as pop-up galleries.

She is confident that Singapore’s art ecosystem, which has a “healthy foundation”, will allow the art market that is part of the ecology of artists, galleries, museums, collectors and audience to grow. “We now have National Gallery Singapore, free access to museums, a bigger group of society that sees art as interesting and a solid group of collectors here and in the region,” Bauer says.

It is for this reason that Silverlens continues as part of Singapore art scene. It held a nine-day pop-up exhibition featuring Filipino artist Gabriel Barredo at Artspace at Helutrans in November to coincide with the opening of the National Gallery Singapore, which drew artists, curators and art lovers from around the world.

Similarly, Koh’s gallery in Malaysia continues to take part in art fairs here because he is able to meet and sell to regional collectors at these events.

Indeed, many art industry observers, such as Bala Starr, 50, director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore at the Lasalle College of the Arts, believe Singapore’s strength as an art market is influenced by its place in the wider art world.

“The art scene here needs to be connected to the world. Commerce occurs in the context of the wider scene. The biggest advantage for Singapore is to form a positive and consistent reputation as a backer of the arts in Asia,” she says.

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