The dollars and sense of Art Stage Singapore

Art Stage Singapore drew a record 51,000 visitors and featured 152 galleries this year. -- PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
Art Stage Singapore drew a record 51,000 visitors and featured 152 galleries this year. -- PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Five years on, Singapore's premier art fair has boosted its reputation as an arts hub and brought economic benefits

Five years on, Singapore's flagship art fair Art Stage Singapore has grown from strength to strength and made an impact beyond the event.

The increase in gallery participation and attendance at the annual fair has helped boost business for both the art and non-art industries, as well as burnished Singapore's status as an arts hub. Still, some question if the spillover effect on the visual arts scene here is always healthy.

When the fair began in 2011 with the backing of government agencies such as the Economic Development Board (EDB) and the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), it attracted 121 galleries and 32,000 visitors.

On Sunday, its fifth edition, which featured 152 galleries, closed with a record-high attendance of 51,000 visitors.

While the agencies did not share data on the direct economic impact of the fair, including tourist numbers and spending, some art-related, hospitality, travel and food businesses Life! interviewed say they have benefited from the gain in momentum of the fair over the years.

Among them is specialist art framing and conservation company Q Framing. Its managing director Steven Yip says galleries participating in Art Stage account for about 5 per cent of its total business, a substantial figure compared with the "very small volume" of business it received from an earlier annual art fair here, ArtSingapore, which ran from 2000 to 2010 and is now on hiatus.

The boutique hotel group Unlisted Collection was also fully booked for the week of Art Stage at all three of its properties in Singapore - Hotel 1929, New Majestic Hotel and Wanderlust Hotel.

The hotels' general manager Charmaine Wee says: "Typically, in the hotel industry, room occupancy is low in January and averages around 80 per cent. But in the last two years, we have seen bookings for the period of the fair pick up and for this year, bookings started filling up months in advance."

While the fair organiser did not provide information on how many of its total visitors are tourists, its latest data shows that about 52 per cent of the VIPs at last year's fair were from overseas.

Mr Nicholas Christopher, president of Turon Travel, a travel agency in the United States that partners art fairs such as Art Stage, says bookings for the Singapore fair have grown "at a very steady rate" of between 10 and 15 per cent every year.

He adds that its client profile for the fair has also expanded from customers in the Asia Pacific region at the start to include travellers from Europe and the US in recent times.

The integrated resort Marina Bay Sands which hosts Art Stage at its Expo & Convention Centre has also seen a "bump in demand in restaurant bookings and a spike in retail footfall" during the period of the fair in previous years, says its spokesman.

She adds that to cater to the demand, celebrity chef-restaurant Osteria Mozza, which usually opens only for dinner, launched a lunch menu this year to coincide with the last three days of the fair.

Beyond dollars and cents, one of the most significant consequence of the fair is Art Week, say art industry insiders such as gallerists, curators and museum directors. The blockbuster week of art is anchored by Art Stage and has grown to feature more than 100 art-related events this year, including exhibitions and talks. The Straits Times is the official media partner of Art Week.

The attendance figure for key Art Week events this year was almost 46,000 at press time and it includes visitor numbers to the Aliwal Urban Art Festival at the Aliwal Arts Centre, outdoor party Art After Dark at the art gallery enclave Gillman Barracks and curated art gallery tour Art-In-Motion.

Art Week is driven by the National Arts Council in partnership with STB and EDB. They initiated the event in 2013 to ride on the momentum of the growing visual arts scene, including the growth of Art Stage and the launch of the art gallery cluster and NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, Singapore in Gillman Barracks.

Ms Kow Ree Na, director of EDB's lifestyle programme office, says that Art Stage, as the anchor event of Art Week, "draws a critical mass of international visitors that is crucial to the success of the week".

This knock-on effect of Art Stage on Art Week is similarly cited by Dr Eugene Tan, director of the National Gallery Singapore. He says: "It has been encouraging to see how Art Stage and Art Week have made Singapore a place to watch on the international art calendar... The diversity and scale of events and exhibitions during this period demonstrate the vibrancy of our art scene and, in particular, how Singapore is a place for cultural exchange and collaboration for the global arts community."

His sentiment is shared by Singapore artist Tang Ling Nah, who put on a performance art piece at the Aliwal Arts Centre during Art Week last year. She says: "Because of Art Stage, people do get to know about what's happening elsewhere in the arts scene here."

For Singapore artists who showed at the fair, the exposure is valuable. Artist Boo Sze Yang, who exhibited for the first time at Art Stage this year as part of the artist group Artists Alliance SG, comprising four other artists, says he met many new international visitors and art collectors whom he had not seen in the past when he was a visitor to the fair.

Yet some question if the art extravaganza centred on Art Stage could be counter productive.

Among them is Singapore artist Chun Kai Feng, who heads the curatorial group Latent Spaces with his twin brother Kai Qun. It had a booth at Art Stage. He says some local artists were "frantically producing art" just so they could be a part of Art Week.

"I am not sure if it is a good thing, that we artists are conditioning our bodies and personal creative rhythms to match the pace of this economic art machine."

He adds: "There is only that much attention an average human being has and it may be counterproductive to jam-pack exhibitions in such a short space of time."

Art Stage founder and fair director Lorenzo Rudolf sees the success of the fair as having spurred other art fairs to launch in Singapore. The number of art fairs here has grown from two in 2011, the year Art Stage premiered, to nine last year.

But Mr Rudolf cautions against such development. "The market is still young and relatively fragile. The profusion of art fairs today can be confusing for some as the market is not ready to understand the different levels of offerings."

Others see Art Stage, which spotlights art from the region, as playing a critical role in promoting South-east Asian art. Upcoming Asian artists whose works now command five-figure sums include Singapore artist Jane Lee, whose work has been a fixture at Art Stage in recent times.

Dr Nora Taylor, a professor of South and South-east Asian art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a visiting professor at the Nanyang Technological University, says: "Contemporary South-east Asian art is growing bigger and its artists are more well-known around the world. And if you think of it as a two-way street, as Art Stage grows, so does outside interest in South-east Asian art."

Ms Joselina Cruz, director and curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design at the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde in the Philippines, notes that art fairs provide a platform for galleries to show contemporary artists overseas quicker than museums can. In turn, Art Stage allows Singapore to be part of the international exchange on art that takes place on the global art fair circuit.

The five-year-old fair, however, may still have room to grow, rooting itself deeper in the arts landscape here.

Gallerist Benjamin Hampe, a spokesman for the Art Galleries Association Singapore, cites as an example the support Art Basel lends to the arts scene in Hong Kong beyond the annual fair it holds in the city. Art Basel also holds fairs in Basel and Miami Beach.

When he attended the Hong Kong Art Gallery Week, an event offering gallery tours, talks and activities in Hong Kong's art districts, he says that he was "pleasantly surprised by, and slightly envious of, the number of corporate sponsors, which included Art Basel. I hope to see the establishment of more long-term relationships between the arts sector and the community at large."

lijie@sph.com.sg