When photographers Rachel Rillo and Isa Lorenzo opened their Silverlens gallery in Manila in 2004 — the first dedicated photography gallery in the Philippines — they had few ways to reach buyers outside the country. But as the Asian art market has boomed over the past decade, so too have art fairs that allow galleries like Silverlens to hook up with nouveau riche collectors from China, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and beyond. Rillo says they were early to jump on the circuit, spending a good chunk of their budget to exhibit at fairs in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore. “People just don’t think of contemporary art and say, ‘Oh, sure I’ll go to the Philippines,’” she says. “The influx of all these art fairs came at a great time.”
Twenty years ago, East Asia had one art fair of note — Art Taipei, founded in 1992. Today, it seems every major city in the region has a fair, and some cities are host to several of varying size. Hong Kong, for instance, held six fairs last year, including Art HK, the premier art event on the continent, and has plans to add yet another in 2013, a miniversion of France’s oldest art fair, Biennale des Antiquaires. Not only are these events becoming big business in Asia, the region’s major cities see them as critical vehicles for cultivating creative identities and developing world-class art scenes. But while many cities would like to lay claim to being Asia’s global arts leader, only two cities realistically have a shot at snagging the title — Hong Kong and Singapore.
This year could be pivotal in deciding who takes a decisive lead. Art HK will be reborn as part of the Art Basel global brand in May — introducing a new level of sophistication and stardom to Asia’s art-fair circuit — while the upstart Art Stage Singapore will be going all out with its third edition, running from Jan. 24 to 27, to prove it’s a legitimate contender and not just a well-funded pet project of the ambitious Singaporean government.
Although these two fairs have established themselves as the leaders in Asia, they are relative newcomers to the scene. Art Stage began just three years ago, while Art HK held its first fair in 2008. Beijing, with its flourishing art scene, was first out of the gate in China with the China International Gallery Exposition in 2004, but a falling-out among the founders led to a competing event, Art Beijing, in 2006. Neither has done particularly well since.
Shanghai followed in 2007 with a much anticipated new fair, SH Contemporary, led by Lorenzo Rudolf, a former director of Art Basel and founder of Art Basel Miami Beach, but after a strong first edition, the fair is now on its third director and has seen a steady decline in prestige and quality. Art Taipei is still going strong — recording its highest-ever sales last year — but it’s considered more of a regional player, not a global one. Tokyo and Seoul also have long-running fairs, but they are more domestic in scope.
What Hong Kong and Singapore have that other Asian cities don’t is an extremely favorable tax structure: neither country places an import tax on art, whereas mainland China taxes art at 34%. The two are also established global business centers with reliable shipping systems and strategic geographic locations as the gateways to China and Southeast Asia, respectively. Hong Kong has one other feather in its cap — it’s now the world’s third largest art-auction market after New York City and London. For these reasons, it’s no surprise, really, that MCH Group — owners of Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach — decided to purchase a controlling stake in Art HK two years ago, adding an Asian element to its global portfolio.
Because Art HK had such a successful formula, growing from 100 galleries and 20,000 visitors during its first edition in 2008 to 266 galleries and 67,000 visitors last year, director Magnus Renfrew says few changes are planned for the premier Art Basel HK fair this year, and the art will continue to have a 50-50 Western-Asian split. “It would be quite strange to change radically a form already proven to be going in the right direction,” he tells TIME. He hopes, however, the Art Basel name will attract a higher quality of work and more big-time buyers from around the world. “I have to pinch myself sometimes when I think that just three years ago we had one VIP manager sitting in the office in Hong Kong and we now have 25 VIP managers around the world hoping to direct VIP traffic to the art fair,” he says.
The only concern, some gallerists say, is that down the road the fair will be less reflective of the region. “What people are saying [in Shanghai] is you have all these Western galleries coming in, they’re afraid it will change the quality of the fair and what is on offer. It will be a less Asian fair, more a Western blue-chip kind of fair,” says Rebecca Catching, director of Shanghai’s OV Gallery.
In Singapore’s favor, meanwhile, is a more exciting local arts scene, as well as massive backing from the government, which has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into new museums, galleries and performing-arts spaces; built a 30,000-sq-m FreePort at Changi International Airport for collectors to store artworks; and lured Rudolf from Shanghai to Singapore to launch the new Art Stage fair in 2011. The event opened strongly with 121 galleries and 32,000 visitors in its first year, but sales dipped during the second installment, making this year vital to the fair’s long-term success. Rudolf believes Art Stage could carve out a niche by focusing on Southeast Asian art, particularly works from Indonesia, which the fair will highlight this year in a special section, selling works by Indonesian artists not represented by galleries. “I think we go in the right direction because what I see [is that] the big interest all over the world in this fair this year is exactly because of Southeast Asia,” he said. “Southeast Asia is on the step to become an international trend.”
For now, there seems to be room for both Art Basel HK and Art Stage to flourish, but this could change if galleries and collectors are forced to choose between the two. Art Basel had planned to move its fair to February this year, which would have put it in direct competition with Art Stage. The organizers changed their mind because of the timing of Lunar New Year but left open the possibility of a move in the future.
Rudolf, for one, is hoping the two sides can coexist peacefully. “It is, of course, important that these two fairs aren’t held too close to each other and that each remains distinct and that each has its own clear identity,” he says. “As long as these two fairs complement each other and not compete with each other, they both act as catalysts to develop the arts scenes in Asia.”