Falling attendances signal need for recent art fairs to have better differentiation

With several art fairs jostling for space in Singapore, each of these could try to diversify and find a different niche

The sixth edition of art fair Art Stage Singapore (above) saw its visitor numbers fall for the first time. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

The proverb "two is company, three's a crowd" seemed to ring true when three art fairs, including a newcomer, went head-to-head during the recent Singapore Art Week.

The lower-than-expected turnout at some fairs has raised the question of whether having three art fairs during the same period is too much of a good thing for the art market here.

Yet, judging from examples of major art fairs overseas, which typically see satellite fairs pop up at the same time, more can be merrier if the fairs grow the market by showing different types of art and targeting different audiences.

In Singapore, the leading contemporary art fair, Art Stage Singapore, saw its visitor numbers fall for the first time, and by 20 per cent, this year. The sixth edition of the fair, held at Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre, drew 40,500 fairgoers in five days.

The new art fair, Singapore Contemporary, held over four days at Suntec Singapore Convention & Exhibition Centre, pulled in about 16,000 visitors, 20 per cent short of its target.

The sixth edition of art fair Art Stage Singapore (above) saw its visitor numbers fall for the first time. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

The Art Apart Fair, which is into its seventh year and held at Parkroyal on Pickering hotel, drew 3,500 visitors over three days, a number consistent with previous years.

It is tempting to attribute the overall shortfall in attendance to there being one too many art fairs competing for visitors and spreading the number of attendees thin across the fairs. Yet there is no data to suggest that people who attended Art Stage in previous years skipped it this time for the inaugural Singapore Contemporary.

In fact, fairgoers at Singapore Contemporary whom The Straits Times interviewed said they attended Art Stage in the past and did so too this year.

More important than the number of fairgoers, though, is the amount of art buying that took place and all three fairs reported encouraging sales, with works priced at five- to six-figure sums sold at both Art Stage and Singapore Contemporary.

Perhaps a better gauge of whether the art market here can accommodate a third art fair is to be seen in the art galleries that will participate in next year's fairs.

A high number of galleries applying to return to the respective fairs signals that they are viable platforms for galleries to meet buyers and expand their client base.

But if galleries end up playing a game of musical chairs, swopping one fair for another, or bowing out entirely, this may point to the art market reaching a point of saturation when three art fairs are held here simultaneously.

The ubiquity of parallel art fairs springing up alongside major art fairs overseas, however, suggests that multiple art fairs can be held at the same time without them undermining one another.

Singapore's closest art market rival, Hong Kong, had three art fairs at the same time last March, including the prominent Art Basel Hong Kong and the hotel art fair Asia Contemporary Art Show, whose operators are also behind Singapore Contemporary.

The newcomer, Art Central, was started by the co-founders of Art HK, the fair launched in 2008 that later emerged as Art Basel Hong Kong in 2013, after a buy-over from the international art fair that is also held in Basel and Miami Beach.

Attendance at the Hong Kong fairs was strong - Art Basel Hong Kong had 60,000 visitors and Art Central about 30,000 people - and none saw the others as competition.

Indeed, while their dates overlapped, each fair had its own focus and target audience.

Art Basel Hong Kong for example, had both big-name and rising art galleries from Asia and the West, and its target client was collectors and museums. Art Central, on the other hand, concentrated on galleries from Asia and had its eye on both the art-loving public as well as collectors.

By offering different types of art that cater to diverse and distinct tastes, the fairs grow the pie instead of carving it up into smaller slices, ensuring that the market is not overcrowded.

The distinction between the Singapore fairs, especially the two held at convention centres, could be more obvious.

While they were clearly different in scale and programme - Art Stage had 170 galleries and a forum on the side while Singapore Contemporary featured 65 galleries - there were artists whose works were featured at both fairs, including renowned Chinese artist Su Xiaobai, popular South Korean artist Kwon Kisoo and Singapore artist Terence Teo.

A number of fairgoers also remarked that Art Stage had more "commercial" art for sale this year, work that is easy on the eye, which could be used to describe some of the art sold at Singapore Contemporary too.

The organisers of Singapore Contemporary have sought to distinguish themselves by price, emphasising that they offer works for sale between $10,000 and $100,000. But with Art Stage offering art that can be had for a few hundred dollars and many in the five-figure sum range, price becomes a weak way of setting apart one fair from another.

Time will certainly tell if the market here can support three simultaneous art fairs and it likely will, if the players can find their own niche and be clear about the unique art fair experience they offer.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 04, 2016, with the headline Falling attendances signal need for recent art fairs to have better differentiation. Subscribe