One fifth the size of Rhode Island, Singapore is an island city-state, off the peninsula of Malaysia, in the middle of Southeast Asia, that wields immense power in the global financial and trade industries, like its traditional rival Hong Kong in the north . Also like Hong Kong, Singapore’s government has been harboring larger-than-life ambitions to position the country as a top contender in the global art market since the late ’90s. But, after several previous missteps, it has only recently begun to be a major player in the art world, as Hong Kong’s primacy begins to wane.
The tide seems to be turning in the city’s favor, in part, due to a general migration across the region to Singapore because of the country’s relaxed Covid restrictions. Reportedly, thousands of families and small- and medium-sized business, are Hong Kong this year and a large number of them are heading south. Even major companies such as L’Oréal, LVMH, and VF Corporation, which owns Timberland and North Face, are moving to the city. Hong Kong’s financial community is also relocating staff to Singapore to make up for decreased activity due to the former’s zero Covid policy over the past two years.
Under the tightening grip of Mainland China, Hong Kong is perceived by international businesses to be losing its competitive edge, with its current travel restrictions a far cry from trading hubs such as Singapore. Comprising majority Chinese, minority ethnic communities of Malays, Indians, Eurasians, and more, Singapore has also seen an increase in its typically affluent Indonesian community as well as a major influx of wealthy Chinese since the beginning of the pandemic.
These shifts have begun to draw the attention of major international art world players, even as other cities like Seoul, which has seen several Western galleries announce forthcoming outposts and will launch a new iteration of Frieze there in September. Elsewhere in Asia, Tokyo will also get new art fairs in the coming years.
The possibility of Singapore as a counterpart on the rise to Hong Kong had been bubbling since even before the pandemic. Despite the last minute cancellation of Singapore’s biggest art fair Art Stage due to financial troubles in January 2019, the city was to get its latest international art fair, ART SG, in November 2019. MCH Group, the fair conglomerate behind Art Basel, was looking to expand its portfolio with ART SG, but dropped out as a shareholder just months after the fair was announced.
That shuffle and the pandemic forced the inaugural edition’s postponement four times, before confirming its exhibitor list for January 2023 last month. In an even bigger sign of the changing tide, MCH Group bought back a 15-percent minority stake in ART SG in January, while Art Basel partnered with local boutique art fair SEA Focus for the first time this year. And, just last, Sotheby’s week announced that after a 15-year hiatus, it would host its first live auction in Singapore in August.
“Singapore is the destination of choice for global companies to be their base of panAsia operations and Singapore,” Magnus Renfre, a cofounder of ART SG, told ARTnews. “This is particularly evident within the tech sector with major western companies basing themselves there. It is also the location of choice outside of China for major Chinese tech companies.”
Just last year, Chinese art dealer Liu Ying Mei, opened an art gallery, 39+ Art Space, at the recently revived arts cluster at Tanjong Pagar Distripark, a warehouse space by the city’s iconic port. The gallerist, who showcases Chinese artists such as Lin Ke and Zhang Yunyao, has also observed trends in movement from China and Hong Kong to Singapore among her client base.
“I’ve been seeing a number of experienced collectors moving to Singapore lately and know of a few more who are considering a move here for the long term, with plans to move their entire art collection with them too,” she said. “These are positive signs for the growth of the Singapore art scene and market.”
Liu added, “It goes without saying that Singapore’s highly developed business infrastructure, family-friendly lifestyle, and travel mobility all amplify its merits for those who are surveying the art market here, with an overall momentum building toward ART SG’s big fair next January. ”
Nonetheless, there are still concerns that this influx of wealth, and even art collectors, may not automatically translate into increased art buying in a country where the level of patronage is definitely not on par with Europe, the United States, and South Korea. According to Singapore’s National Arts Council’s Our SG Arts Plan (2018 – 2022), the local art market is still “nascent,” making up only 1 percent of all global art export and import.
But there is hope that the rise of family offices, which manages the wealth of ultra-high-net-worth individuals, could change this status. The city-state’s position as the private wealth management capital of Asia has accelerated with interest in setting up family offices in Singapore doubling in the last 12 months, with that number expected to continue to grow. Reportedly, new family offices have increased from 27 in 2018 to 453 in 2021, the last year in which data is available.
Earlier this year, Ning Chong, a Singaporean art consultant, set up a Family Office for Art (FOFA) with her father, Chong Huai Seng, a former investment banker and art collector. Since its launch in June, FOFA has received interest from private banks and their clients to share more about their experiences in buying and investing in art, as well as harnessing one’s passion to initiate new business ideas and legacy-building.
Ning Chong observed that Singapore has been dubbed Asia’s “Silicon Valley” as there are many tech entrepreneurs launching new ventures and multi-generational family business owners based in the city-state. “We decided to set up FOFA as we see a gap in the market for a full-service concierge that can look after all your art collection needs and more,” she said.
Michael Tay, a long-time Singaporean arts patron and the group managing director of The Hour Glass, a homegrown luxury watch retailer, agrees that family offices can play a “very important part in (patronage) and apart from straight out philanthropy, their contributions can also be shaped and directed through public policy.”
With proliferation of galleries requiring BOGO (buy one, give one) agreements from potential clients and promised bequests for contemporary art to institutions, Tay envisions that Singapore’s national collection will soon propel the country in the global art market: “My hope is that the Singapore government tweaks its national collections policy to include and emphasize international, non-Southeast Asian art and artists,” he said. “While we believe in the importance of Southeast Asian art, and our institutions do very important curatorial work in this domain, the rest of the global contemporary art market players doesn’t necessarily care much for it.”
Tay added that the upcoming ART SG would be an opportunity for the global contemporary art world to discover that there is a vibrancy among collectors residing in Southeast Asia and that “while it has been a region that has been overshadowed by our North East Asian cousins, the time now is ripe for its cultivation.”
Nonetheless, the general consensus is that the influx of individuals and businesses from across the region into Singapore could help fill the gaps in the local art market. However, there is always the risk that both people and money will merely transition in and out of the country with very little impact, as can be the inherent nature of port cities and frontier towns.
According to Singaporean curator Khairuddin Hori, who is also the vice president of Art Galleries Association Singapore, “For visibly impactful change in the arts, Singapore needs direct investments from committed, homegrown, corporate entities, and visionary individuals who are genuinely passionate, care for long-term cultural development, and are mature enough to facilitate a diversity of perspectives.”