Singapore turning into arts hub while Hong Kong still stuck in mud

Lion City’s government has made a big push to grow its arts infrastructure and market. While everything is falling into place, artists worry about censorship and galleries wonder if sales have hit a ceiling

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 February, 2016, 7:46am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 February, 2016, 7:45am

Twice a year, Mark Saunderson takes over several floors of a Hong Kong hotel to host the Asia Contemporary Art Show. Guest rooms are leased out to galleries for pop-up sales rooms and, in its fourth year, it remains a profitable model. The space is limiting, though, and Saunderson would like to move to Wan Chai’s convention centre, but the venue is notoriously hard to book.

So he turned to Singapore for growth. This year he launched the inaugural Singapore Contemporary Art Show, which opened on January 21 at the Suntec Convention and Exhibition Centre. The 6,000 square metre hall is a world-class venue with a high ceiling and few obstructive columns, allowing for large works, such as the metres-long abstract panels by Indonesian artist Dedy Sufriadi.

“This is a grown-up art fair,” Saunderson says proudly as he roams a venue roughly double the size of the one in Hong Kong. His team has locked in a three-year booking at Suntec with the option of bumping up to 11,000 square metres. “Over time, Singapore will mature into a slightly more senior position than the Hong Kong shows,” he predicts. That could be an understatement: the first Singapore fair attracted 16,000 visitors over four days, compared with the 9,000 who attended his last Hong Kong show at the Conrad hotel.

“The government here has a specific aspiration for Singapore and nurtures it. We met the National Arts Council very early on. They’re the ones who said, ‘you must come and meet the Suntec people’. That kind of cooperation made it a bit easier for us,” he adds.

This is a typical example of how Singapore’s proactive government has made the city more attractive to some businesses than Hong Kong’s laissez-faire market. The hyperactivity of January’s Singapore Art Week – which includes the Singapore Contemporary Art Show, the flagship Art Stage Singapore, regional art awards and numerous large exhibitions – is the fruit of one of the world’s most focused national cultural policies.

Singapore’s interest in cultivating culture is not just about the economy.In 1989, then prime minister Goh Chok Tong said the development of culture and the arts in the city had reached a stage where they would “add to the vitality of a nation and enhance the quality of life”. Then came the 2000 Renaissance City Plan, which had a two-fold manifesto: first, to establish Singapore as a global arts hub, bring creativity to the economy and make the city a nicer place to live and work in. Second, to provide “cultural ballast” for nation-building efforts, either through the preservation of heritage or the telling of “Singapore stories” in the arts.

The National Gallery Singapore is the perfect embodiment of this vision: its November 2015 opening was a highlight of the country’s 50th jubilee celebrations. The UOB Southeast Asia Gallery, spread over three floors of the former Supreme Court building, is a treasure trove of regional historic and contemporary artwork. Paintings such as Chua Mia Tee’s Epic Poem of Malaya (1955), capturing the sense of urgency in building up a Malaysian national identity, and Filipino artist Juan Luna’s iconic Spain and the Philippines, bought for HK$25.88 million at Sotheby’s 2013 auctions in Hong Kong, are important milestones in Southeast Asian art history and help position Singapore as “the” place to see the region’s visual art.

Local artists get their own luxury gallery space in the adjoining City Hall building, which forms the other half of the National Gallery.

While Hong Kong makes halting progress on its cultural infrastructure – the West Kowloon Arts Hub, announced under the first post-handover administration, still lacks a single piece of completed infrastructure – Singapore has been churning out centres dedicated to the arts, including the 2002 opening of the Esplanade theatres and the 2011 launch of the futuristic ArtScience Museum , shaped like a lotus flower on stilts, by the Marina Bay Sands casino complex.

Local artists and curators are spoiled for venue choices, but it’s not all rosy. With a clear agenda for the arts, the government expects participants to be in alignment with its goals.

Susie Lingham, who is stepping down as director of the Singapore Art Museum in March, says the city’s first dedicated art museum had come under increasingly tight government oversight since 2013.

“All museums used to come under the National Heritage Board. Then, in 2013, the Singapore Art Museum, the National Gallery and Singapore Tyler Print Institute became independent companies, with the idea that we would be granted more authority,” she says. “In fact, that change meant that we have had to apply for a licence from the Media Development Authority for every single exhibition we do. We didn’t used to have to do that when we were under the heritage board.”

An application has to be made 50 days before a show begins, diverting valuable manpower, and decisions can be communicated just days before a scheduled opening. Plus, a daily fee has to be paid to the Media Development Authority for the exhibition’s duration.

In 2013 when Lingham was named director of Singapore Art Museum, a major public institute, it was seen as further evidence of a change in Singapore’s notoriously authoritarian attitude towards the arts. Lingham was a co-founder of 5th Passage, an independent art space shut down after it hosted the 1994 performance Brother Cane by artist Josef Ng – a comment on Singapore’s draconian laws on punishing homosexuality. Ng was charged with performing an obscene act in public, even though there was no frontal nudity in the performance, and performance art was effectively banned for the next 10 years.

Lingham, who will remain creative director of this year’s Singapore Biennale, says government censors have generally been “reasonable” about SAM shows. However, the license requirement indicates the government remains concerned that what artists say and do may undermine its authority.

Recent examples of state censorship include the 2014 ban on director Tan Pin Pin’s documentary on Singaporean dissidents, To Singapore, With Love .

Nevertheless, artists have become adapt at finding room to manoeuvre within such a controlled environment, says video artist Chun Kai Qun, seated in the trendy café in Lasalle College of the Arts. It’s one of a number of art colleges in the city of 5.5 million people.

He says he organised a busker’s performance of Sam Hui songs in a community centre, with lyrics changed so they became protest songs. Despite his rebellious tendencies, the government last year gave him and his artist twin brother Kai Fung the national young artist award.

“Censorship is not very clear-cut in Singapore. You only find out you’re in trouble when you’re in trouble,” he says.

If local artists have yet to trust the government’s enthusiasm for the arts, the commercial players still need to be convinced of the city’s position as an art market.

There was a sizeable crowd entering this year’s Art Stage Singapore,but attendance dropped by around 20 per cent to 40,500 this year from a record 51,000 in 2015.

Aenon Loo, associate director of White Cube Hong Kong, headed the gallery’s booth at Art Stage. He says he has yet to see sustained growth in the fair that propelled ArtHK into today’s Art Basel Hong Kong. The gallery hasn’t decided whether to take part in next year’s Art Stage after a five-year presence, he adds.

Vincent Chan, co-owned of Leo Gallery in Hong Kong and Shanghai, says he was “disappointed” in the transaction volume. “The application fee in Singapore isn’t much cheaper than Art Basel in Hong Kong, but there’s a lot less traffic. It was much quieter than in 2014, when I last had a booth here,” he says. The timing of this year’s show may have been unfortunate, coinciding with plunges in global stock markets.

Chan thinks Art Basel Hong Kong in March will be more resilient. “It’s simply that major southeast Asian collectors attend so many other art fairs elsewhere. Singapore just isn’t a must,” he adds.

That appears to be why a number of international galleries have recently closed branches in Gillman Barracks, a 1930s military compound turned art district outside the city centre.

Lorenzo Rudolf, the former Art Basel director who founded Art Stage six years ago, insists Singapore’s future role in the international market is secure, partly thanks to the opening of the National Gallery.

“What makes Singapore so attractive is the entire package around Singapore. Our strength is not a tax situation, but it’s the only place in the whole of Asia where you have a strong market and a flagship museum. You have places which are totally focused on the market, like Hong Kong, or places much more dominated by the academies, like Tokyo. Here we have both,” he says.

Singapore’s geography is also attractive to galleries from neighbouring countries. Lim Wei-Ling, owner of Malaysia’s Wei-Ling Gallery, brought a badminton court with a barbed-wire net, by artist Chong Kim Chiew, to Art Stage. She says it was much cheaper for her to ship works to Singapore then to Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, artist Chun eyes his future with trepidation. His worst fear is being silenced by the iron fist beneath the velvet glove of a national award.

“I’ve complained about the establishment often enough. Now I’ve been given a big award by the government and that will change things because I’m not a well-established artist and I’m vulnerable. My family was invited to the big dinner ceremony and treated very well, so you kind of think, ‘should I operate in a different way?’”