One-fifth the size of Rhode Island, Singapore is an island city-state off Peninsular Malaysia in central Southeast Asia that, like its traditional northern rival Hong Kong, wields immense power in global finance and trade industries. Like Hong Kong, the Singapore government has harbored oversized ambitions since the late 1990s to position the country as a top candidate on the global art market. But after several previous missteps, it has only recently begun to become a major player in the art world as Hong Kong’s primacy begins to wane.
The tide appears to be turning in the city’s favor, in part due to a generalized migration from the region to Singapore due to the country’s eased Covid restrictions. Thousands of families and small and medium-sized businesses are reported to be leaving Hong Kong this year, with many moving south. Even big companies like L’Oréal, LVMH and VF Corporation, which owns Timberland and North Face, are moving to the city. Hong Kong finance is also moving staff to Singapore to offset the drop in activity over the past two years due to Hong Kongers’ zero-Covid policy.
Under the increasing grip of mainland China, Hong Kong is perceived by international companies as losing its competitive advantage as its current travel restrictions are far from commercial hubs like Singapore. Consisting of a majority of Chinese, ethnic minorities of Malay, Indian, Eurasian and more, Singapore has also seen a surge in its typically affluent Indonesian community since the pandemic began, as well as a large influx of affluent Chinese.
These shifts have begun to attract the attention of major international art world players, even as other cities such as Seoul, where several Western galleries have seen, are announcing forthcoming outposts and launching a new iteration of Frieze there in September. Elsewhere in Asia, Tokyo will also have new art fairs in the coming years.
The possibility of Singapore as a counterpart to Hong Kong’s rise had been brewing before the pandemic. Despite the last-minute cancellation of Singapore’s largest art fair, Art Stage, due to financial problems in January 2019, the city was due to host its newest international art fair, ART SG, in November 2019. The MCH Group, the trade fair conglomerate behind Art Basel, was looking to expand its portfolio with ART SG, but left as a shareholder just a few months after the fair was announced.
This upheaval and the pandemic forced the postponement of the inaugural edition four times before the January 2023 exhibitor list was confirmed last month. In an even bigger sign of change, the MCH Group bought back a 15 per cent 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 week, Sotheby’s announced that it would hold its first live auction in Singapore in August after a 15-year hiatus.
“Singapore is increasingly becoming the destination of choice for global companies as a base for pan-Asian operations and Singapore,” said Magnus Renfrew, co-founder of ART SG ARTnews. “This is particularly evident in the technology sector, where large Western companies have settled. It is also the preferred location outside of China for large Chinese tech companies.”
Just last year, Chinese art dealer Liu Ying Mei opened an art gallery, 39+ Art Space, in the recently revitalized art cluster in Tanjong Pagar Distripark, a warehouse at the city’s famous port. The gallerist, who exhibits Chinese artists such as Lin Ke and Zhang Yunyao, has also observed trends in the movement from China and Hong Kong to Singapore among her client base.
“I’ve seen a number of veteran collectors move to Singapore recently, and I know a few more who are considering a long-term move here and plan to take their entire art collection with them,” she said. “These are positive signs for the growth of the art scene and art market in Singapore.”
Liu added, “It goes without saying that Singapore’s sophisticated business infrastructure, family-friendly lifestyle and travel mobility all reinforce its merits for those surveying the art market here, with general momentum building towards next January’s major ART SG fair . ”
Yet there are still concerns that this influx of wealth and even art collectors will not automatically lead to increased art purchases in a country where the level of patronage is definitely not comparable to Europe, the United States and South Korea. According to Singapore’s National Arts Council’s Our SG Arts Plan (2018-2022), the local arts market is still “nascent” and accounts for just 1 percent of all global art exports and imports.
However, there is hope that the rise of family offices, which manage the wealth of very high net worth individuals, could change that status. The city-state’s position as Asia’s private wealth management capital has accelerated as interest in setting up family offices in Singapore has doubled in the past 12 months and that number is expected to continue to rise. New family offices have reportedly increased from 27 in 2018 to 453 in 2021, the latest year for which data is available.
Earlier this year, Ning Chong, an art consultant from Singapore, founded the 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 garnered interest from private banks and their clients to share more about their experiences of buying and investing in art and to use their passion to initiate new business ideas and build a legacy.
Ning Chong noted that Singapore is dubbed Asia’s “Silicon Valley” as there are many tech entrepreneurs starting new businesses and multi-generation family business owners based in the city-state. “We decided to start FOFA because we see a gap in the market for a full-service concierge that can take care of all your art collection needs and more,” she said.
Michael Tay, a longtime Singaporean arts patron and group executive of The Hour Glass, a local luxury watch retailer, agrees that family offices can play a “very important role in (the patronage) and aside from their pure philanthropy, their contributions can also come through.” public order is shaped and directed.”
With the proliferation of galleries requiring BOGO (buy one, give one) agreements from potential clients and promised legacies for contemporary art to institutions, Tay envisions Singapore’s national collection soon propelling the country in the global art market: “My hope is that the Singapore government will adjust its national collections policy to include and highlight 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 area, the rest of the global players in the contemporary art market are not necessarily very interested in it.”
Tay added that the upcoming ART SG is an opportunity for the global contemporary art world to discover that there is a vibrancy among collectors living in Southeast Asia and that “it was a region inspired by our Northeast Asian cousins was overshadowed, the time is now ripe for its cultivation.”
Nonetheless, there is a general consensus that the influx of individuals and companies from across the region to Singapore could help fill the gaps in the local art market. However, there is always a risk that both people and money will flow in and out of the country with very little impact, which can be consistent with the inherent nature of port cities and border towns.
According to Singaporean curator Khairuddin Hori, who is also Vice-President of Art Galleries Association Singapore, “For visible impactful change in arts, Singapore needs direct investment from committed, homegrown companies and visionary individuals who are genuinely passionate about long-term cultural development and are mature enough to allow for a variety of perspectives.”