Until recently, Singapore had been accused of being a cultural wasteland. But over the last several years, the Little Red Dot has made up for lost time: now, international and regional galleries jockey for local real estate; homegrown talent compete for residencies and funding while winning accolades here and abroad; and contemporary art hubs emerge fully fledged—all thanks to an intensive government-backed arts blitz. Where once there were pleas for arts-related events, by the end of this year, Singapore will have hosted no less than seven visual and performing arts fairs and festivals.
The newest of these is the Singapore Art Fair (SAF), billed as the first modern and contemporary art fair in Asia to focus on art from the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia—thus its tagline, “ME.NA.SA.ART.” During the fair’s inaugural edition, the 59 galleries in attendance represented 22 countries and featured over 230 artists. Alongside familiar local names, such as the Cape of Good Hope Art Gallery, Mizuma Gallery and Ota Fine Arts, were the innovative Laura Arce Art Gallery from Buenos Aires, Bangkok’s Adler Subhashok Gallery, Beirut’s Galerie Janine Rubei, Mazel Galerie from Brussels, and Marrakesh’s Galerie Noir sur Blanc.
Like its well-established peer, Art Stage Singapore, the inaugural SAF featured dedicated pavilions. Under renowned curator Catherine David, the ME.NA. Pavilion displayed works by seven young and emerging artists from the Middle East; the Lebanese Pavilion, curated by Janine Maamari, revolved around the theme “Contemporary Lebanon: Art Beyond Violence,” and featured 10 artists. A third pavilion showcased the large-scale paintings of late Malaysian painter Ibrahim Hussein. The fair’s cultural programs included a public arts showcase, a video art showing and educational talks. A live graffiti performance by three artists—Singapore’s Antz, Darbotz from Indonesia and Lebanon’s Yazan Halwani—was also held.
By the second day of the fair, however, gallerists reported few visitors and even fewer sales. Those who did attend were observed to be mainly tourists or families with children; indeed, one visitor spotted a toddler clambering up a sculpture at the fair’s entrance. Some speculated that attendance may have been affected by the fair coinciding with extended school holidays, a time when many Singaporeans choose to travel. Also, in its latest consumer push, Singapore has recently co-opted “Black Friday” sales—originating from the large-scale bargain event that takes place in America a day after its annual Thanksgiving Day—which likely tempted many away from the fair’s first day and into local retail stores. The timing, all agreed, was less than ideal. In the two weeks prior to Singapore Art Fair, three other art fairs were held in the city-state: Spot Art, Bank Art Fair and this year’s second iteration of the Affordable Art Fair—a competitive schedule that has been criticized as diluting the market, and one that few of the overseas galleries seem to have been aware of when they signed on for the SAF. Ultimately, however, the fair saw a total of 10,500 visitors during its four-day run, and although final figures have not been released, some galleries reported that sales were “good.”
Cedralys—organizer of the five-year-old Beirut Art Fair led by founder-director Laure d’Hauteville—and MP Singapore—a local exhibitions and conventions organizer headed by Jason Ng—partnered to create the SAF. Their intention is to establish a unique niche in the region and, judging from the fair’s debut, their concept promises to inject a much-needed, fresh and broader perspective into the region’s established art scene. With some fine-tuning, the distinctive SAF has a good chance of surviving Singapore’s art fair frenzy: its second edition is already scheduled for November 19–22, 2015.
Singapore Art Fair took place in on November 27–30, 2014.