Organisers of Art Stage Singapore have cancelled the contemporary art fair just nine days before its planned opening, citing poor local sales and "unfair competition" from a new fair at Gillman Barracks.
The short notice has shocked several exhibitors and left them scrambling for alternative venues.
Art Stage Singapore, which started in 2011 with backing from various government agencies and is regarded as Singapore's main art fair, was to run this year from Jan 25 to 27. It had 45 exhibitors, including 15 from Singapore. The fair was to happen during Singapore Art Week, an annual public arts festival organised by the National Arts Council (NAC), the Economic Development Board (EDB) and the Singapore Tourism Board (STB).
Gallery representatives said they received an e-mail yesterday from Art Stage's founder and president Lorenzo Rudolf asking them to "cease all preparations for Art Stage Singapore 2019" or to reverse them.
Later, Mr Rudolf sent out a press statement and an almost-identical open letter to collectors. Both cited "the very difficult market situation in Singapore as well as... an unequal competition situation on site" as reasons for the cancellation at short notice.
He went on to say that of the 500 galleries invited to Art Stage Singapore over the past eight years, over 450 had refused to return because of poor local sales.
In the open letter, he referred to "a new obstacle, a new art fair to be held concurrently at Gillman Barracks". This is likely to be the upcoming S.E.A. Focus, a boutique art fair which is an initiative of STPI - Creative Workshop & Gallery. It was announced last July and will run from Jan 24 to 27.
A joint statement from NAC, EDB and STB said: "We are disappointed that Art Stage Singapore has cancelled the 2019 edition of its fair. It is unfortunate that exhibitors, partners and collectors who had planned to take part in the fair will be impacted by this development. We understand that the cancellation is a commercial decision."
The agencies added that they learnt of the confirmed decision earlier yesterday, and that at a press conference on Nov 30 last year, fair organisers "did not allude to any issues or potential of cancellation".
A spokesman for Marina Bay Sands (MBS) confirmed that Art Stage Singapore had cancelled its show at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre. The spokesman added that tickets bought through Marina Bay Sands' system would be refunded to affected customers.
Gallerists like Ms Lydie Blandeau were fuming. The chairman of Paris-and Singapore-based gallery Visionairs said it was the first time in her 10 years participating in art fairs that a cancellation notice had been sent the week before, and without an explanation. "How can we justify this to our artists? We spent money upfront to create the artworks, we invested a lot of money shipping from Europe and New York," she said.
One of the works she planned to show was a watch that cost $100,000 to make. "This hurts the image of Singapore," she added.
Art Stage Singapore started here as a flagship art fair for South-east Asia, helmed by Swiss national Rudolf, who used to be director of Art Basel in the mid-1990s. It had the backing of the EDB, STB, National Heritage Board and NAC.
The first fair featured works by master artists such as China's Ai Weiwei and notched million-dollar sales. However, footfall and sales fell in recent years. Last year, there were only 84 exhibitors, compared with 131 in 2017 and 170 in 2016.
The fair has other regional competition from new Taiwan-based art fair Taipei Dangdai from Jan 18 to 20 and Art Basel Hong Kong in March.
Marc Straus Gallery's director, Singaporean Ken Tan, who spoke to The Straits Times from New York, said his gallery invested a "five-figure" sum in the fair this year, including paying for the booth at MBS (prices range from $11,750 to $67,500 on the fair's application form), shipping out artworks and paying for artists to be in Singapore.
Art Porters Gallery co-founder Guillaume Levy-Lambert said it had planned a solo showcase of seven paintings by Indonesian artist Naufal Abshar, which were specially created for Art Stage Singapore and arrived here on Tuesday. The works will be presented at his Spottiswoode Park Road gallery instead.
"We are more concerned that it is embarrassing for Singapore. I have friends in overseas galleries who have already shipped over their works, and booked flights and hotels," he said. "It is also the reputation of Singapore as an arts hub that is at stake."