by Daniel Szehin Ho 何思衍
translated by Geoffrey Wang
A while before Art Stage Singapore opened, Randian had the chance to catch up with Lorenzo Rudolf, the founder, co-owner, and director of the fair. A veteran of art fairs, Rudolf had previously served as the director of Art Basel from 1991 to 2000 and helped initiate Art Basel’s expansion to Miami (which started in 2002). And now, Art Stage Singapore has established itself as the foremost art fair in Southeast Asia.
Lorenzo Rudolf talked to Randian about the need for a stronger non-commercial scene (including museums) in Southeast Asia, better bridges and connections throughout the region, and how he will continue to keep his eyes on China.
Daniel Szehin Ho: So, Art Stage on the sixtieth anniversary of Singapore…
Lorenzo Rudolf: Still a baby.
DH: Starting to walk, going to school… [Laughs] So how are things in Singapore?
LR: The fair is growing; the region is growing; the market is growing. When Art Stage started six years ago, it was evident everywhere that there was this segmentation. Even in this region “Southeast Asia”, you would think, “Oh, everyone must know each other!” Forget it! Now things are really starting to work right across the region. Filipinos buy Indonesian [art], Indonesians buy Chinese [art]. That’s one thing.
And the second thing is that the scenes are developing. I would say the big weakness we still have in the region is that we don’t have a very strong infrastructure, especially not strong, competitive galleries. In many countries, you don’t even really have museums. That’s the real advantage with Singapore.
Now, with Art Stage on the commercial side, and then the National Gallery—the academic flagship of the region—I think the situation is wonderful. If things go well and we don’t make too many mistakes—by “we” I mean all of us—Singapore can really become an important place.
If I see all the discussions about museums…well, we don’t really have to talk about Hong Kong [smiles] but there we see that it’s not so easy [with M+]. All of us here in Asia need leading museums—leading in both an international and a local context. In Asia, the art world is so market-driven…
DH: You’re a fair director and you’re saying this…
LR: I tell you that as somebody coming from the market, yes, but in the end if we want to educate and bring people to art, we need something more than numbers—otherwise you can go to the casino. We need debate about the content. I believe the art world cannot just be based on rankings, or sales. Surely I’m not naive; we cannot turn back the wheel, but even if we have the same tendency in America and Europe, there is a big academic sector. Even in Shanghai, with all the museums, you see that they have become a catalyst for the market as well.
Of course, I’m not denying the investment aspect…but it cannot be the only one. Even if I invest, I try to inform myself before I invest. I think we are at a point where the contribution of culture to the development of society is crucial. We even have to try to position contemporary art as an attitude; it’s not decoration on the wall.
DH: I’d like to get into something else. Is the gallery model the way forward for Southeast Asia? And what does this mean for Art Stage?
LR: Is the gallery model the way forward for today, for tomorrow?
Sometimes I look at art fairs around the world and smile. They copy the [Art Basel] rules word for word. For instance, galleries have to have public spaces; they must have a certain number of public exhibitions, and so on. We put that together in 1992. The world has changed.
Sometimes we have to ask ourselves: “What is the position of the art fair?” Is it really our main role to sell ten or whatever square meters to galleries? I think we have to support galleries because the gallery structure can support artists so that they grow. But if there are no galleries, how can we bridge this gap? Does it mean we don’t show art of the region? Or do we become a broker or a gallery? But what does that mean in an international context? All these are questions we have to ask ourselves.
This is why we decided earlier to do these sales exhibitions—where and whenever we can, we bring the galleries into the game—or at least give a gallery the chance to participate in an art fair without renting the booth. But we still have cases [i.e. in some countries or regions] where there isn’t even a gallery around! Or not even a gallery willing to take the risk of bringing an artist, because the risk is too great. Should we then drop the artist? Or should we invest? We are exactly at this point where over the years we have made a lot of investments.
Going back to what I said before, if museums are supporting emerging artists, immediately the market realizes there is market potential, and things become much easier.
We are going even further in this direction this year because we don’t only have the problem of galleries; we also have the problem of explaining contemporary art. How do we encourage people to understand the role of art in society? Art is not an expensive decoration to go into rich homes and be hung above a sofa. Art, and especially contemporary art, is an attitude. Artists are part of society and are not only artists but also seismographs of our societies—maybe we should look at art as a bit more than just beautiful aesthetic production.
DH: What can you say about Art Stage and China?
LR: A big field to develop. [Pauses] Look, in many emerging contemporary markets, first, you are interested in what is around you—this happened in China, Indonesia, and elsewhere.
In the next five years, the country that will get most of my attention is China, not only because it is a big market, but because like no other country it has diasporas all over Asia, and especially Southeast Asia—as a result, there is a cultural basis [for exchange].
DH: It seems that Mainland Chinese art galleries feel that they haven’t exactly caught the tastes of collectors here.
LR: That is exactly where we are. We have to build bridges because then tastes can also change. But it’s clear that most Chinese galleries going to Southeast Asia have difficulties selling. Most Southeast Asian galleries going to China have the same problem. It has to start with an understanding—and not with the commerce itself.
In Singapore we have this wonderful institution called the Gillman Barracks—with exactly the same kinds of problems. First, you have to build knowledge and understanding. If you put together some galleries and say it’s wonderful and think it will work—no! If you bring it first to a point where there is dialogue, step by step, then it works.
DH: I think this year in China with the Hugo Boss Asia Art Award at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai, there is surely more attention on Southeast Asia [due to the shortlist of artists from China and Southeast Asia].
LR: Sure. In the last three or four years, we have had more momentum for Southeast Asia. Yes, this happens, but we are still far away. It’s not like in Europe where there are multicultural societies; the understanding of contemporary art isn’t really about nations. In the end, we can’t just keep marketing “Chinese artists” or “Indonesian artists”; in the short run, that is a way, but it can’t last in the long-term.
DH: What about India?
LR: India is similar; there is a boom. But the one mistake was that it was concentrated on the West [in terms of the market]. The problem was that once the interest dried up, those following the fad went onto the next [region]. If you don’t have a sustainable basis, then that’s it.
DH: Singapore has connections to India, no?
LR: Yes, Singapore has an Indian community. But really, these Indian communities can go to buy in India—here in Singapore, I need more than that. It’s the same as the Chinese galleries: if all they are doing is selling to Chinese collectors, then what is the point?
DH: You’ve traveled to a lot of art fairs. So which venue do you like the most?
LR: In Asia, Art021—the Sino Soviet [Friendship] Center; around the world, FIAC—the Grand Palais in Paris. I like every fair and every venue that has character. Of course, it’s easier to do a fair in a modern structure, but then it’s too much of the same thing. And I’m also not such a fan of tents. I did camping in my youth; I think it has a certain charm, yes. but it’s a bit limiting.
In the end, it’s not the venue—it’s the fair itself. In Asia, I see the same trends happening as in the West. You see a few international fairs happening, and more and more [of the other] fairs becoming national—like the fairs in Seoul and Taiwan. I remember visiting Taiwan before and it being more international. That means that in this hemisphere, Art Basel Hong Kong is absorbing everything.
In the end, the challenge we have as the young fair—the young kid—in the region is that we always have to be a step ahead. It goes back to what I said before: you need to have a position rather than just sell square meters.
DH: So what do you think of Art Basel Hong Kong?
LR: Art Basel coming to Hong Kong was the best thing for the region. But the problem is that Art Basel is the same as it was in the ’90s—“We want to be the best and we take the best.” Period. It works for the best, but for the rest it’s not working. This means you need to find the complementary niche. If you find that, even the success of Basel (HK) helps you; if you don’t find it, it hurts you.
DH: Well, it’s clear Southeast Asia will look at Art Stage—but China will look at Art Basel HK.
LR: Clearly. And we’ll see about Art Basel and Shanghai. [Smiles] In the long run, eyes will be looking at Shanghai. When the issues of taxes and regulations are gone, I think that will be more of a problem for Art Basel than for me. [Smiles]