Art Stage Singapore's Lorenzo Rudolf on What Westerners Don't Understand About Asian Art

Art Stage Singapore's Lorenzo Rudolf on What Westerners Don't Understand About Asian Art
Lorenzo Rudolf, Director of Art Stage Singapore
(Courtesy Art Stage Singapore)

The veteran art-fair organizer Lorenzo Rudolf is credited with creating the festive, see-and-be-seen model we know today, first with Art Basel in the 1990s and later with Art Basel Miami Beach and Shanghai's ShContemporary, both of which he founded in the past decade. Most recently he was recruited to head up Art Stage Singapore, the second edition of which opened to the public yesterday and runs through January 15. Rudolf spoke with Art + Auction about why he left China, and what most Westerners don’t understand about the Asian market.

How will this year’s Art Stage Singapore differ from the last?

A couple more Western galleries are coming in, like White Cube. It will stay an Asian fair, however. We will extend a program we started last year called “Collectors Club,” which brings together major collectors throughout Asia. The scene here is still very fragmented: I don’t see many Indians going to China or Japanese going to Indonesia. So from now on, each year after the fair a select group of top collectors, Asian and Western, will take a trip to a specific Asian art center. This year it’s Indonesia. We want to give collectors a chance to know one another and at the same time to promote various Asian art scenes.

When the Singaporean government first approached you about launching an art fair, in the 1990s, you said the art market wasn’t ready. What made you change your mind?

In 2007, when we started ShContemporary, Asia was becoming the center of global hype. But I realized I had to look for a place that was not focused on just one Asian market. Singapore is too small to have its own art scene, but it’s at the crossroads of China, India, and Southeast Asia. Those are the three strongest and fastest-growing economies and art markets in Asia.

How would you compare Singapore and Hong Kong?

It’s no coincidence that these two cities are the financial centers of Asia. More Western galleries are opening in Hong Kong, and that forces Chinese galleries to open branches there, because they don’t want to give up their share of the market. Singapore, like Switzerland, is a hub for private wealth management, a place where people can bring their money and art in security. In both places, the state is also investing a lot in culture. Singapore understands that Asia needs a place for exchange, for dialogue. It has developed an artist-in-residence program flanked by a Kunsthalle to bring together emerging artists from all over Asia. The bigger market will be in Hong Kong. But in terms of dialogue, exchanges, and new formats, Singapore will be the center. The best thing that can happen to Asia is to have these two flagships both playing on an international level but not too similar in what they do.

Do you think galleries should be looking to expand to Singapore rather than Hong Kong?

China is the biggest potential market for the future. But we have to be clear: It is not as far along as some people think it is. So many Western galleries run to Asia like they’re heading to El Dorado. I think we are not yet there. You have more collectors in Taiwan and Indonesia than in mainland China. The supply of Western art that will be coming to Hong Kong in the next few months will be much greater than the demand at the moment. You saw it very well at the last Art HK — I was impressed by the quality of the galleries, but there was not yet the market for all this Western art. Galleries like Gagosian and White Cube are big enough and clever enough to succeed, but I think many galleries that are expanding to Asia are going to come back with bloody noses.

Will the acquisition of Art HK by Art Basel have any effect on Art Stage Singapore?

I think the two events could be good for each other. The Asian galleries want to do more than one fair in Asia. Some of the Western galleries will start with just one; others will quickly do two Asian fairs. If the two fairs have clear concepts, I think there is space for both. 

This article originally appeared in the January issue of Art + Auction magazine.