Singapore could gain more traction in the global art market after three international galleries, from New York, Hong Kong and Tokyo, establish a presence in the city this month.
Lehmann Maupin is expanding its presence in Asia with the appointment of Singapore-based director, Ken Tan, to oversee the gallery’s activities in Southeast Asia (SEA). Tan is a Singaporean art adviser who previously served as the executive director of global artistic programs and deputy director at New York’s Asia Society Museum. He was also director of Marc Straus Gallery in New York.
“While our interest in the region is not new, our decision to double down is the result of the growing demand we’ve observed among committed collectors in SEA,” Rachel Lehmann, cofounder of Lehmann Maupin, told ARTnews in an email interview.
Meanwhile, on January 12, Hong Kong restaurateur, entrepreneur, art collector, and DJ Kevin Poon will launch a Singapore outpost of his popular contemporary art gallery WOAW in a 1,100-square-foot shophouse space at the city’s Central Business District. Exactly a week earlier, Whitestone Gallery, a mainstay in Japan since the ’60s, will open a new 13,000-square-foot space at Tanjong Pagar Distripark, the visual arts cluster right next to Singapore’s historic port.
The galleries’ foray into Singapore is not entirely unexpected, given the growing global interest in its art market.
“You can see where the recent auction houses have been holding their major previews,” said Tan.
Auction houses, and now galleries, are keen to gain a foothold in the city because recent global economic shifts have strengthened Singapore’s position as a finance and trading capital even as recession looms. Since the pandemic, the port city is quickly becoming Asia’s family office hub, thanks to its comparatively low taxes and an ongoing exodus from mainland China and Hong Kong.
Poon stated that “the influx of people in finance, crypto, arts, and culture” is one of the reasons that now is the moment “to enter the market and really be one of the few international galleries entering Singapore.”
Key events and art fairs will further stimulate Singapore’s art market. ART SG, a long-awaited fair, will launch its first edition on January 11; it has backing from Art Basel’s parent company, MCH Group. Art Basel is also in its second year of a partnership with local boutique art fair S.E.A. Focus, which will run from January 5 to 15.
Being close to Southeast Asian growth markets is also a major draw. “Singapore’s geographic proximity to countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia, as well as its existing trade with Australia, makes it a perfect entry point to a greater ecosystem of support for contemporary art across institutions and private collections,” said Lehmann.
“As the center of trade and business in SEA that represents an epicenter of economic development, Singapore is one of the most important city-states in the world,” according to Whitestone Gallery CEO Koei Shiraishi, who also plans to open spaces in Beijing and Seoul this year. “The gallery in Singapore will serve as our base in SEA.”
Those familiar with the region often point out how the complex and vibrant cultures of Southeast Asia are frequently overlooked, especially in the art world. One of Shiraishi’s objectives in opening a gallery space in Singapore is to learn more about the diverse cultures and values of Singapore and SEA, in a bid to build a deeper understanding of the local and regional art scene.
Tan, too, hopes the art world would take a deeper look into the cultural diversity of the region: “We may all face the same global peaks and troughs, but dive into the micro-communities of languages and folk stories, and how we bond over food, and you will start to see how these colorful nuances permeate art and life.”
Nonetheless, this is not the first time international and regional galleries have set up shop in Singapore. A decade ago, outposts of renowned galleries such as Tokyo’s Ota Fine Arts, Manila’s Silverlens, and New York’s Sundaram Tagore Gallery opened as part of the launch of a contemporary art enclave, Gillman Barracks, following the success of the now-defunct fair Art Stage Singapore. Around 2015, however, Silverlens and Tomio Koyama Gallery from Japan closed their spaces in Singapore largely due to low sales and visitorship.
While Mizuma Gallery and Sundaram Tagore Gallery remain, Hong Kong’s Pearl Lam Galleries and Berlin’s Galerie Michael Janssen have left the city. The latter even had a landmark Ai Weiwei solo show in 2013.
A common challenge for galleries looking to set up physical outposts in Singapore is the high cost of renting space there. It doesn’t seem as though rents will get lower, either, given the skyrocketing local rental market and Singapore’s ranking alongside New York as the most expensive city in the world.
Industry experts also admit that the local arts scene is still relatively nascent compared to those of other countries in SEA and Asia.
“There are many attractive opportunities and prospects in this part of the world, not just in Singapore. Many new galleries and private museums have opened in countries such as the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, and South Korea,” according to Rita Targui, gallery director at Singapore Tyler Print Institute and president of the Art Galleries Association of Singapore.
“There is also the question of whether Singapore has the critical mass to sustain a viable arts ecosystem,” she said.
Tan agreed, saying, “Having lived and worked in New York for many years, I constantly remind myself that as far as the art and culture ecosystem go, Singapore is still only adolescent, and slightly hormonal!” However, dealers are of one mind that this lack could present itself as a growth opportunity. “Singapore only found independence as a country in 1965, so the potential to go deeper and wider is immense,” said Tan.