Art SG will finally open – and it looks splendid

Helmi Yusof, The Business Times, June 16, 2022

Several mega galleries have confirmed their participation for next January.


ART SG is finally going to debut in Singapore – and it’s set to be the biggest and most glamorous art fair the country has ever seen. Over 150 galleries from 30 countries have already confirmed their attendance, with more to come in the coming months. Among them are mega galleries Gagosian, White Cube, Pace, Lehmann Maupin, Perrotin and Thaddaeus Ropac, all of which have multiple gallery locations and a slate of top artists. 


For some of these galleries, it will be the first time they’re showing in Singapore. Many had stuck to Hong Kong as the base for cultivating relationships with Asia-based art collectors: Hong Kong is the world’s gateway to Chinese wealth, and closer to Japan and South Korea compared to Singapore. Before Covid-19 struck, the pre-eminent Asian art fair was unquestionably Art Basel Hong Kong, which attracted over 240 top-tier galleries from 35 countries and over 88,000 local and foreign visitors. 


But the recent troubles in Hong Kong, from its recurrent political tensions to its shaky handling of the pandemic, have anxious galleries looking south to Singapore. 


Art SG was initially envisioned as a mid-size art fair with just 80 galleries. But that number has now doubled to almost 160, catapulting Art SG into the league of big fairs. It was supposed to occupy just 1 floor of Marina Bay Sands’ convention centre.  It will now occupy 2 floors. 



Marina Bay Sands will be the venue for the inaugural ART SG. Marina Bay Sands


Shuyin Yang, Art SG fair director, says: “During the pandemic, we kept talking to potential exhibitors in order to put Singapore on their radar. And gradually the idea of Singapore started to make sense to them in terms of the country’s strong infrastructure, great hospitality, and the ease of communication, banking and shipping.


“They also started to see a number of their clients from mainland China, Indonesia and across Asia relocate to Singapore, establish family offices, and buy their second and third homes here. Now everybody knows somebody who has relocated to Singapore. And with Singapore reasserting its ‘safe haven’ reputation to a higher degree during the course of the pandemic, exhibitors have now bought into the idea that Singapore would make for a good alternative base outside of Hong Kong.”


Dramatic turnaround


These events helped turn around Art SG’s fate – which for a while seemed to hang on a knife’s edge. The new art fair had announced in July 2018 that it would debut in 2019. It was to be held by Art Basel’s parent company MCH Group in collaboration with Sandy Angus and Tim Etchells, the co-founders of the art fair Art HK (which later became Art Basel Hong Kong.)


But a series of events quickly upended its plans. Just 4 months after the announcement, MCH Group withdrew its involvement, as part of its larger divestment strategy from regional fairs. The organisers postponed the fair to late-Nov 2019, and then to Oct/Nov 2020, to give its exhibitors more time to prepare. But Covid-19 struck, resulting in 2 more postponements.


Although the art media ran stories with headlines such as “The latest blow to Singapore’s fledgling art market” and “Will Art SG ever happen?”, “ the postponements may have been a blessing in disguise. It allowed Yang, the fair’s co-founder Magnus Renfrew and the organiser The Art Assembly to deepen their conversations with potential exhibitors and convince them that Singapore is an attractive venue for selling art.



ART SG co-founder Magnus Renfrew and fair director Shuyin Yang. Joyce Yung


As political and public health tensions ratcheted up in Hong Kong, Art SG saw more galleries signing up for its January 2023 date. In something of a turnaround, the MCH Group announced in Jan 2022 it is taking a 15 per cent stake in Art SG. 


Yang says: “When we started out, we were really building a regional fair for a regional audience. We thought Art SG’s natural catchment areas were Southeast Asia, South Asia and Australasia. But there have been some interesting shifts in the past 2 years. And we’ve found that the audience base has greatly diversified and expanded within and around Singapore. So we’re now building a fair that’s much more international in scope and with many more international players. The collectors who have expressed interest in coming are now coming from beyond Asia.”


Jumping January


Art SG is now set to run from 12 to 15 Jan 2023, with a vernissage on 11 Jan. It is right in the middle of Singapore Art Week, a decade-old island-wide celebration of visual arts led by the government body National Arts Council (NAC) and featuring over 100 events. 


SEA Focus, a boutique art fair organised by art gallery STPI and supported by NAC, is also supposed to take place during Singapore Art Week. However, SEA Focus was initially conceived to partly fill the void left behind by art fair Art Stage’s dramatic exit in 2019 – so it remains to be seen whether SEA Focus’ raison d’etre is still relevant in view of Art SG’s now-confirmed launch in 2023.


Yang says: “With all the travel restrictions in place during the pandemic, galleries have had time to pause, reflect and refine their strategy. They want to get more face-to-face interaction with existing collectors and meet new collectors. And the way to do that is through art fairs… And, you know, Southeast Asia is a sleeping giant: There are big collectors here but they tend to be very low-profile. So you need to have an awareness of Southeast Asia and be engaged with these collectors in some way to be aware of how strong the potential is.”


Art SG will comprise the main “Galleries” sector featuring leading galleries; the “Focus” sector featuring galleries presenting solo/duo artist programmes or themed shows; the “Futures” sector for young galleries under the age of 6 years; and the “Reframe” sector for galleries presenting art made or presented using digital technology. There will also be public art programmes involving large-scale site-specific installations, a curated film sector, as well as critical talks.


On the surface, it appears to be no less exciting than your average Art Basel Hong Kong programme.


Some caveats


Observers of the art market are “pleasantly surprised” by the turn of events.


Chong Huai Seng, who only last week launched his Family Office For Art to capitalise on the expansion wave of family offices here, says: “The top galleries are following the scent of money. With a record number of family offices being set up in Singapore, as well as the record property prices for Good Class Bungalows and condominiums, the galleries are guessing that these rich property owners would be looking to buy some blue-chip art to decorate their new homes. The galleries are testing their theses by participating in the inaugural Art SG.”




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