TEXT / Selina Ting
IMAGES / Art Stage Singapore
Original Text published on COBO Social on 24 Jan 2017. Courtesy of COBO Social
With the increasing importance of Southeast Asian countries in the global economy, contemporary art created in these emerging scenes is also gaining its firm grounding in the international art market. To sell art from the region, according to Lorenzo Rudolf, a titanic figure in the art business, one has to brand it under the package “Southeast Asian art” because no one single country could survive solo in the keen competition. Singapore will and should continue to lead the market in the globalization process while maintaining its own competence in face of new challenges and opportunities.
No one knows better than Lorenzo Rudolf when it comes to art market in SE Asia. The PR professional who turned art fair director has three big brands under his belt: Director of Art Basel (1991 – 2000), Founder and Director of ShContemporary (2007 – 2010) and Art Stage (2011 to present). We sat down with Lorenzo during the Art Stage Singapore (12 – 15 Jan 2017) for a chat on the current state of things in SE Asia, particularly the role of Singapore and the fair in the region during a time of rapid change.
Both the Art Stage and Singapore Biennial draw a lot of visitors and attention with their focus on Southeast Asian contemporary art. How do you see Singapore’s role in the region?
Singapore has a very particular position in this area. First of all, if you want to make Southeast Asian art interesting, it has to be done as an entire Southeast Asian package, it’s the only way. We are in a globalised world and the competition is very keen. A single country has no chance of competing with the big scenes, like in China, Europe or America. We still have a situation in Southeast Asia, which is fragmented into national scenes. It was clear with the biennial that we should become a great platform that not only shows the entire Southeast Asia art scene, but also brings Southeast Asia together to exchange in a dialogue. It is not the Thai or Indonesian art scene, it is Southeast Asia as a whole. Historically and artistically, there are a lot of ties. If you look at this entire region, you realise there are many countries with a very strong, growing artistic scene, but there is a lack of infrastructure, as they don’t have proper museums or galleries. There is one country in the middle that is small but central, multicultural, easy to reach, well-connected and very developed. It is the centre of the wealth management, has a high standard of life and has the infrastructure, and that is Singapore. So it’s logical that Singapore has become the hub of this entire region. That is what we try to do and that is what the biennial tries to do. There is an entire ecosystem here in the Southeast Asian area which needs a stable platform in place and that is exactly Singapore’s role. You see that with this biennial and the fair. As long as these countries are not yet developed enough in their infrastructure, Singapore has to take this role. It is the only place that can do it.
SE Asia has a very complex history with conflicting interests and political systems, diverse cultures and languages. Thus, the concept of “SE Asia” as a totality is problematic, as the homogeneity doesn’t really exist here.
It is not a harmonisation. We must be aware that we are speaking about contemporary culture and art here, which have nothing to do with nationalism. If we speak about history, yes, all these countries have totally different histories and backgrounds, but we are not speaking here about historical rules, but the contemporary scene. Go to Europe and you have all these different countries and the historical cultures and backgrounds are totally different. In the contemporary scene, we speak about a global attitude and language, it is not a question of nationalism.
Given the discrepancies in infrastructural developments and economic power, is there a danger of being patronising about Singapore’s role that you have just described?
Singapore is not strong enough culturally to impose its position on others. I think it is even the inverse of this. All of these other countries, like Indonesia, the Philippines or Malaysia, are culturally much stronger than Singapore in the contemporary art scene. Singapore is small. If you said, “OK, let’s do it in Indonesia,” which is already the strongest country with a dominant art scene, then it could be something else, but Singapore is the ideal place for this.
Do the major collectors also come from Singapore?
No. You have very rich Singaporean collectors or ones that came here to Singapore, but most collectors are from around Singapore. The country with the biggest number of collectors is Indonesia and that has very historical roots. At the time of its independence, when Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, was starting the revolution, he considered the artists to be his allies. He was probably the biggest collector of art in Indonesia and the artists followed him. Since then there has been a feeling of responsibility for art in certain upper classes of Indonesia. Art has a social standing because of this history and so many people buy and support art. Singapore is per se the hub of the region, but it is not living by itself. If you look at the financial side of things, it lives on capital from abroad. Even the entire service infrastructure lives from all the people around it. In a certain way, Singapore can only survive and be the hub of an entire region.
Singapore might have the highest number of professional curators, compared to other countries. So with the number of public museums and the exhibitions produced here, does it have a stronger discursive power in the making of the institutional narration of contemporary art history?
I don’t know if it has the highest number of curators, but it is a country that tries much more than any other country to educate and support curators. Yes, there are more public museums, biennials and fairs, but they are not necessarily Singapore-focused.
Coming back to the concept of taking the lead and having this discursive power over other countries to lay down narration of art history…
That’s a good question. You were at Art Basel and the Venice Biennial. Does that mean Italy or Switzerland are taking over the contemporary field? No.
The difference is that there are different cities or regions in Europe that are developed in terms of art and culture infrastructure. There are counterparts to Venice and Basel in Paris, London and even Florence.
If we speak about cities like Bangkok or Jakarta or Manilla, we don’t speak about the Third World. These cities are international mega-cities that grow much quicker than Singapore and have built up a lot of infrastructure. Until now, the factor of infrastructure was maybe the main factor but now it is much more the factor of being small, multicultural and not dominant. Jakarta is now opening a new private museum [Museum MACAN] this spring that will probably be more international and stronger than Singapore Art Museum. A private museum was opened in Chiang Mai [MAIIAM] last summer by a collector, and the next one will follow this year, again by a collector, in Bangkok [O Museum]. You have a very strong art institute in Ho Chi Minh City [Factory] and another one will open in Saigon, all private… So infrastructure is not so decisive anymore. Singapore should still play this role because of its position as a multicultural, integrating country, which means you have to integrate. That’s more of a political question.
What is the significance of the expansion of Art Stage to Jakarta as a new strategy? Does it change or affect the balance of the art market in the region?
At the moment, it is not yet changing the balance. The fair in Jakarta still tries to support the growth of infrastructure in Indonesia. There is no country that has so many artists, and good artists in Southeast Asia or so many collectors. Indonesia is a very strong closed market, and the problem is very simple: all of these collectors support their artists, they are their friends and patrons. This emulation between artists and collectors is so strong that there is no more space in-between for something else. That means there was always a weak infrastructure. It is a country that needs to gain infrastructure to be successful outside of the mainland, and that’s also why we did this fair. It will help to build it up. At the moment, it is still the bridge between Indonesia and the international route. The first thing an Indonesian artist or gallery does when they go outside Indonesia is come to Singapore. If Jakarta is becoming much more international and accessible with all of its infrastructure, and Singapore does not react and grow in the same way, then the situation could become more balanced, but that’s out of my influence. My job can only be to analyse the situation and take the right strategic steps in this development. Theoretically, the danger is that maybe Singapore and Jakarta will no longer be the centre because other countries will develop much more faster.
Singapore still has this big advantage as it is ahead of everybody and is small. Jakarta doesn’t have that but it is much cheaper. Singapore is a very expensive island and all of these countries around have much lower prices. If I can go to Jakarta and pay 50% less, then it is much easier. Singapore also has to think about how we can develop here logically.
In what ways do art fairs in Asia differ from those in the West, which have a much longer history in terms of structure, direction, market niches etc.?
First of all, don’t forget that when you hold an art fair in in the West, you are in an area with many years of history and an established system; whether it is commercial or non-commercial, you can play with that. If I do an art fair in Basel, New York or in Paris, I know that all the galleries are more or less perfect and function in a professional way. Now, if I come to Asia, we are the emerging fields. Often we don’t have a public sector. It is increasingly the private sector which is beginning to take the role of owning museums, but let’s also be clear that there is usually a collector behind private museums, who has his own interests.
The market situation is often not the same. There are a few galleries, even if you have more and more good ones, and they are still not established and developed like in the West. The big Western galleries are also trying to take over in Asia, and that is only possible because Asian infrastructure is too weak. Certain countries in Southeast Asia sometimes don’t even have galleries. Sometimes that means I cannot go around saying, “I want this gallery,” when I’m doing an art fair here, like I can in Basel. I have to search for what I want. Then, I see that there are no galleries and ask, “How can I make a structure that is functional and where we can show the artists’ works?” We also need a certain structure. It is an approach that becomes much more creative. You sometimes have to reinvent certain aspects of a fair.
Four years ago, I was approached by leading artists from Indonesia who said, “We are very successful in Indonesia and have our Harley Davidsons etc., but we want international recognition. This means we have to go out of the country, and we don’t have galleries to support us, who can do it. Can you help us?” It is important to protect and support the galleries, but the artists also need support. We had to make a decision and I decided that supporting the artists was even more important than the protecting galleries.
Here I have made a big platform where I work directly with the artists, which has been very successful for many artists as it was the first time they could get out. These are things that would never happen in the West. Here, you’re in a situation where you are part of an entire development of this ecosystem. But that is also attractive for me. You go right to the roots and grab the origins sometimes. I have done these big events for many years and it is strategically and conceptually interesting, but it is also like directing a big tanker, and here you direct a small boat. It is more pleasant because you can do much more. You can contribute to something that you think is important because you believe in it.
The second thing for me is logic. As a Westerner, if we were in the West, they’d think like me, but if I go to China or Southeast Asia, I have to try to understand the culture and their values. I cannot come and say, “I know how it is, we’ll do it this way and you follow.” It is also a question of respect. I have to adapt. That is also a big gain in life because you learn so much and I wouldn’t like to miss that.
“The Future is Asia”, as people say when analysing the rising economies in Asia, particularly the new markets in SE Asia. How do you project the art development and art market in this region in the coming years? What is your advice to the galleries/dealers?
The economy in Southeast Asian cities will surely depend on Southeast Asia. We are in a globally economic world. What we see in America with this election, and Europe, the entire world seems to be playing into the hands of China. China will be the big leader and that will affect the whole of Asia and have a big impact on Southeast Asia. Take Singapore. It has always tried to be friends with everybody, but I fear that we are heading towards a trade war between the US and China. That means we have to decide. We can no longer be friends with both. The future of Southeast Asia economically will have a lot to do with China. The next big free trade zone of the world, the biggest one of all, will be the Asian area. At the moment, you have the impression that everybody in the West is doing stupid things to make the area even weaker. Trump is stupid. In Europe, every country is against each other.
What about the art market?
The art market is in a strange, interesting situation. The art world and art scene are becoming increasingly globalised and so increasingly decentralised. New York is no longer the only centre of art. Like here, you have more and more scenes that grow and become interesting and important. The market is completely dominated by Western structures. All the major auction houses and galleries in the world are Western, are much more professional and try more to control the scene. The question will be how this new big market reacts. If they play the same game and push their own artists and their structures, then it will change.
The market itself will grow, especially in Asia, and the big market of the future will be China. You will have more middle class and upper middle class growth in China and Indonesia etc., but will be China by far the biggest.
What’s your advice to Southeast Asian galleries in this time of change?
Firstly, you have to know what you want. Do you want to be a small local gallery trying to survive, maybe as a hobby with half your time at a job and half at the gallery, or do you want to become a professional gallery? If you do, then you have to think about being international, as part of your business development. That means you have to understand how a gallery functions. It is the partner of an artist. You have to invest and build up an artist. Then, study how an international market is and build up a network etc. Southeast Asia is still at the beginning of the globalisation of the art market. What we want in the end is for Asian and Southeast Asian artists to be successful globally, represented by Asian and Southeast Asian galleries. We don’t want the Western system picking up the cherries on the cakes, bringing them to the west and making profits out of them. Who is supporting the young scene then? So, it is not even a question of change, it has to become professional and really competitive first. It’s the same with artists.
Indonesia has a very strong mainland market and because it is so strong, the prices are very high. Somebody who is interested in art can buy an Indonesian artist who may be a superstar in his country and pay the same amount of money as they would pay for a top painting by a superstar of the global market. Which one do I take? They have to understand that we are in a global context, which isn’t the same game as a national game. So, a platform like Art Stage, where you bring them into a certain context and show them and guide them, is important.
How do you think of the new initiatives launched by the Swiss-based MCH Group, which owns the Art Basel franchise, to buy up major stakes at regional fairs, such as the Indian Art Fair? How would such a business model affect Art Stage?
It is very clever, as long as you are Basel. If you have a top fair in Asia, America or Europe, you see how this world becomes increasingly globalised and decentralised, and you are afraid that new art centres, market places and events will come up, which can become competition. I’d try to control it and this idea is exactly that. If it works and you can control all of these upcoming regions and bring all of the collectors or artists to the main events you have, I am not so sure whether that will work or not.
If you do it in a very clever way, accompanied with a lot of content, then it has a really interesting aspect. In the end though, with all of the positive aspects you can bring in, it is a strategic game of how to control the global market, and how can I control my prime situation for the future? I would probably do the same if I was Art Basel. I don’t want to condemn it because it is logical.
Do you think they will draw more resistance from regional fairs?
Absolutely. You can do it in a stupid or clever way. The less intelligent way is easier, but it will not work. That is what they have tried to do. I have my Art Basel brand, which is the top brand and I have three fairs. Then, there is a second, lower quality brand that goes everywhere. This will not function. For example, I want to go to Tokyo, so I come with my lower Basel brand, which is more or less the same as it is everywhere. If I said, “I want to go to Tokyo, so I’ll look out at the existing structure in Tokyo and collaborate with them”, that would be more intelligent, but that’s too much effort. For me, the question is, what is the real goal behind it? You can sell something as it is or put a beautiful package around it and think that people will believe it. Generally, we want to go, but we have to go in a way where people don’t think we are in a competition with Art Basel. We need certain global events, but if we play it honestly and openly, everybody will have a role of their own. If you play it with animosity, we will have fights. That’s the history of human beings, you should know that in Asia. Mostly, the result was independence.