Singapore’s Emergence as the World’s Next Art Capital

Inside the iconic triple towers of the Marina Bay Sands hotel, collectors and creative fanatics alike mingle amidst brightly lit white cubes to admire painting, sculpture, photography, installation, and digital exhibitions. 

This past January, Southeast Asia hosted its largest ever art fair in Singapore: ART SG. The highly anticipated four-day event attracted over 42,000 visitors and showcased 164 established and emerging galleries from 35 countries across the world. Most attendees consisted of wealthy art buyers, museum owners, real estate developers, and critics. Galleries were selected based on curatorial strength and creative reputation, with independently-featured sectors for thematic exhibitions, young and upcoming artists, and technological emphases. Organized by The Art Assembly, ART SG was initially announced in 2018 but faced postponement for years due to financial constraints and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The successful launch of ART SG in 2023 represented an opportunity to test larger power shifts in the international art scene. While Singapore is only a tiny island approximately the size of Central Park, its contemporary collections rival those of London and New York and it holds immense potential to become a major player in the future.

For years, Asia’s art market was dominated by Hong Kong, a city with considerable influence in cultural, commercial, and financial industries. Hong Kong is strategically situated as the gateway to mainland China, with flights and ferries connecting to most markets in the Asia-Pacific region, which has helped it attract foreign investment. According to a study conducted by The Economist, Hong Kong has a long history serving as a center for trading fine arts and Chinese antiques, and it was the first Asian host country of a Sotheby’s auction back in 1971 (Sotheby’s is one of the world’s most renowned auction houses, founded in England). The success of this event, described by the New York Times as “the most successful auction of Chinese art objects ever held anywhere”, helped Hong Kong grow to become the flourishing center we know today. As detailed in the 2020 Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market report, Chinese auctions made approximately $64.1 billion in 2019 and brought in regional shares valued at over 18% of the global art market.

Yet, recent years of China’s harsh Zero-COVID policies have increased restrictions on artistic expression and limited funding for creative projects everywhere. Art fair visitors have been required to take PCR tests 24 hours prior, and foreign visitors must additionally produce negative test results for three days in a row. Attendance for ART021—a fair in Shanghai that closed just one day after opening—dropped by 75% compared to pre-pandemic numbers. As a result of both economic crises and cultural censorship, temporary and indefinite shutdowns have been announced for Hong Kong’s Museum of Art, the HK Visual Arts Centre, and the University Museum and Art Gallery at the University of Hong Kong.

Additionally, in light of citizens protesting for democratic reform in 2019-2020, Beijing passed the National Security Law on Hong Kong, which criminalizes all activities relating to secession, subversion, and collusion with foreign bodies. This law led to the arrests of multiple politicians and journalists, increased censorship in film and media, and ordered disbanding of local organizations. ABC reported that approximately 90,000 people (1.2% of the population)—many of which are artists—have emigrated from Hong Kong, given the intense restrictions on personal freedoms and governmental crackdowns on political protest art. One gallery noted that at least half of their artists have left or are planning to leave.  Emigration has been made easier by the fact that many countries around the world, including the United States, Canada, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom, have decreased travel restrictions for those coming from Hong Kong. 

While many galleries in Hong Kong have struggled to stay in business, the international art community has begun its shift towards countries with friendlier policies—primarily, Singapore. In January, ART SG’s list of galleries more than doubled from their previous number of 80 exhibitions in 2018. At the same time, Hong Kong’s own WAOW gallery—which focuses on bridging contemporary experiences between Asia and America—opened a new location in Singapore. In August of 2022, Sotheby’s held its first exhibition in Singapore after a 15-year hiatus, bringing in a record auction sale of over USD 18 million. Leo Xu, a director at the David Zwirner gallery in Hong Kong, told ARTnews that “It was surprising to meet a number of collectors from mainland China. From my interactions and observations at the event, I found that some collectors had recently relocated to Singapore and were starting their collections there.”

Notably, Singapore has taken a new approach to expanding its creative scene by diversifying the range of art fairs to appeal to different visitors—breaking down barriers between incredible wealth and private ownership of art. Art Basel, which holds annual exhibitions in Miami Beach, Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Paris, announced a novel partnership with S.E.A. Focus in July of 2021, emphasizing the works of local Southeast Asian artists to offer a fresh perspective to ART SG’s broad international reach. The Affordable Art Fair also seeks to open its customer base to younger buyers, capping sale prices at S$15,000 ($11,200 USD) rather than usual prices of artwork, which range from $200,000 USD to upwards of $1 million USD.

It is not a pure coincidence that Singapore’s emergence as a creative capital simultaneously reflects increased trends in multiculturalism as well as a growing interconnectedness with the rest of the world. While most of its population still remains ethnically Chinese, recent years have seen a more diverse range of immigrants from India, Malaysia, Japan, and Europe. Though small in geography, Singapore is also a powerful country that holds lucrative investments, potential for business expansion, and a great deal of technological development as it has been dubbed by InCorp the “Silicon Valley of Asia”. According to the National Arts Council (NAC), the city-state’s new “Arts Plan”, which will take place from 2023-2027, advances the arts as a primary method to connect communities with culture, increase national wealth, and establish collaborations between varying academic disciplines. Rosa Daniel, chief executive of the NAC, further discusses with South China Morning Post that “to see art in Singapore is to see Singapore’s identity”.

As our post-pandemic society moves towards international cooperation, the line between art and politics begins to blur. For Singapore, this means that its newfound artistic soft power may bolster the country to take a larger place in global affairs—whether alongside Hong Kong, or beyond.


References

[1]  ARTSG.com, “Southeast Asia’s Largest Art Fair.”  https://artsg.com/

[2]  Reena Devi, “ART SG, Explained: Why Asia’s Most-Anticipated Fair Took Years to Launch, and How It Will Compare to Its Regional Rivals,” ARTnews, January 9, 2023. https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/art-sg-fair-explained-1234653019/

[3]  The Economist, “The Art of Making Money,” BrandConnect. December 1, 2020. https://asiahubhk.economist.com/wp-content/uploads/The_art_of_making_money.pdf

[4]  Joseph Lelyveld, “Sotheby’s Hong Kong Sale Sets Record,” The New York Times, November 19, 1973.  https://www.nytimes.com/1973/11/19/archives/sothedys-hong-kong-sale-sets-record-japanese-bidders.html

[5]  Art Basel, “The Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report,” Art Basel, March 5, 2020.  https://d2u3kfwd92fzu7.cloudfront.net/The%20Art%20Market%202020_Press%20Release-1.pdf

[6]  Vivienne Chow, “Will China’s Zero Covid Policy Tank Its Art Market? The Abrupt Closure of Two Major Fairs in the Country Divides Opinion,” Artnet News, November 14, 2022.  https://news.artnet.com/market/shanghai-china-2022-2209553

[7]  ABC, “Hong Kong sees largest population decline since record keeping began amid crackdown by Beijing,” August 12, 2021.  https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-08-13/hong-kong-population-decline-beijing-national-security-law/100369974

[8]  Vivienne Chow, “Hong Kong’s Local Art Market Is Flourishing. But Under Its National Security Law, Many Fear an Artist Exodus,” Artnet News, September 28, 2021.  https://news.artnet.com/market/hong-kongs-local-art-market-flourishing-national-security-law-many-fear-artist-exodus-2014185#:~:text=Market%20Is%20Flourishing.-,But%20Under%20Its%20National%20Security%20Law%2C%20Many%20Fear%20an%20Artist,operating%20in%20a%20parallel%20universe.&text=Hong%20Kong’s%20fall%20art%20season%20started%20with%20a%20bang

[9]  Maximiliano Duron, “Singapore’s Long-Delayed ART SG Fair Names Over 150 Exhibitors for Inaugural Edition,” ARTNews, June 14, 2022.  https://www.artnews.com/art-news/market/art-sg-fair-2022-exhibitor-list-1234631895/

[10]  Sotheby’s, “Sotheby’s First Auction of Modern & Contemporary Art in Singapore Totals SG$24.5m / US$18m.” https://www.sothebys.com/en/press/sothebys-first-auction-of-modern-contemporary-art-in-singapore-totals-sg-24-5m-us-18m

[11]  Reena Devi, “Sotheby’s First Singapore Auction in 15 Years Is a Success, Signaling Southeast Asian Art Market’s Strength,” ARTnews, August 29, 2022.  https://www.artnews.com/art-news/market/sothebys-singapore-auction-southeastern-asian-market-1234637625/

[12]  Payal Uttam, “The Best Booths and Standout Sales at Art SG in Singapore,” Artsy, January 13, 2023. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-best-booths-sales-art-sg-singapore

[13]  Enid Tsui, “How Singapore’s art scene is making a big comeback in 2023, and why artists question whether any meaningful change is occurring,” South China Morning Post, January 20, 2023. https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/arts-culture/article/3207379/how-singapores-art-scene-making-big-comeback-2023-and-why-artists-question-whether-any-meaningful

Author

clarissa.tan@yale.edu