From Singapore to Seoul, Asia’s rising art capitals vie for Hong Kong’s crown
The five-day event anchors Hong Kong Art Week, a wider schedule of satellite shows and exhibitions openings, glitzy parties and talks. The city is once again abuzz with cultural events just a month after the territory lifted its nearly 1,000-day mask mandate.
Visitors attend the Art Basel Hong Kong VIP preview on Wednesday. Credit: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images
In the last year alone, major new art fairs have launched in Seoul and Singapore. Taiwan’s capital continues to generate excitement as it prepares to host the fourth edition of its Taipei Dangdai fair, and the inaugural Tokyo Gendai launches in Japan this July. Western galleries and auction houses have meanwhile expanded their presence in Asian cities beyond Hong Kong. So, can any of these burgeoning markets establish themselves as the region’s leading collector hub?
Last August, Sotheby’s held its first auction in Singapore for 15 years. The volume of interest was so high that prospective bidders spilled out into the aisles of a packed conference room. Flitting between English and Mandarin, the auctioneer brought the hammer down on artworks by Asian heavyweights like Yayoi Kusama in a flurry of sales that collectively exceeded estimates by almost 40%.
A packed auction room as Sotheby’s held its first sale in Singapore for 15 years. Credit: Courtesy Sotheby’s
The fair was held alongside the ongoing Singapore Biennale and a smaller curated fair, S.E.A. Focus, dedicated to emerging Southeast Asian art. The city was “really buzzing,” the fair’s project director Emi Eu said in January. “I saw a lot of important collectors and VIPs coming from the region… The big Western galleries would not have come if they didn’t feel like this whole week was important for their program.”
Art SG launched in January, taking over two floors of the Marina Bay Sands exhibition center and reporting over 42,000 visitors across its four-day schedule. Credit: Courtesy ART SG
A growing number of private galleries have also set up shop in recent years. In the days ahead of ArtSG alone, Tokyo’s Whitestone Gallery and Hong Kong-based Woaw Gallery opened new outposts in the city.
“Art Basel Hong Kong is really important for (the city) to really show what is reality on the ground.”
Singapore has advantages for galleries and collectors alike. The country’s low taxes may not be as favorable as those in Hong Kong, which enjoys tariff-free imports on art, but it is still relatively economical for both buyers and sellers. A recent influx of affluent Chinese residents during the pandemic has expanded the local customer base, while the widespread use of Mandarin helps collectors from mainland China — now the world’s second-largest art market — feel at home while shopping for art.
Hong Kong-based Woaw Gallery opened a new outpost in Singapore last year. Credit: Courtesy WOAW Gallery
Ultimately, it may simply be too soon for Singapore’s nascent art market to compete with Hong Kong’s. Eu described the city as Asia’s “newest baby” compared to more established markets like Seoul and Tokyo.
“It takes time,” she said, adding: “But if we really work together with the same aim, I do think that we can go somewhere.”
Frieze Seoul attendees view an artwork by Javier Callerja at the fair’s VIP preview last year. Credit: Justin Shin/GA/ARTNews/Getty Images
Among them was New York’s Lehmann Maupin, which opened its first Seoul gallery in 2017 before relocating to a larger space last year. Co-founder David Maupin said South Korea’s appeal is not just about wealth or size (the population of Seoul alone is almost double that of Singapore) but of its collecting culture.
“Collectors here have an openness to engage with artists — and to buy and talk about art that doesn’t necessarily have auction records,” he said ahead of Frieze Seoul’s opening. “Their collecting habits come out of connoisseurship, interest and passion.”
The art world’s growing interest in the country makes “perfect sense,” he added, pointing to its education infrastructure, well-established local galleries and globally-renowned artists like sculptor Lee Bul, who he has long represented.
Last year, Lehmann Maupin gallery relocated to a new two-story space in Seoul’s chic Hannam-dong neighborhood. Credit: Courtesy Lehmann Maupin/Sonongji
Speculation about the Hong Kong art world’s decline may, in any case, have been greatly exaggerated. Within the last two years, auction houses Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips have all announced plans to open new physical headquarters in the city. Former Sotheby’s chair Patti Wong said that while Covid put “a big dampener” on the market, Hong Kong’s auction sales “held up pretty well” throughout.
Wong welcomed the emergence of new “mini hubs” in recent years, saying “the more players there are, the more vibrant the market is.” But, she added, none of these cities can match Hong Kong’s tax setup or overcome other competitive advantages amassed in recent decades.
A Covid-inspired artwork at 2021’s scaled-back edition Art Basel Hong Kong. Credit: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images
No emerging player ticks every box. Like Hong Kong, Singapore has been accused of censoring sensitive art, albeit often motivated by supposed public decency rather than politics; Seoul and Tokyo are harder to navigate for all-important Chinese collectors due to language barriers. All of them currently lack the logistical capacity to handle the volume of art trading seen in Hong Kong.
“Yes, in Singapore everything is in Mandarin or bilingual, which is very convenient for Chinese buyers,” said Wong. “But the infrastructure must be there: the art handlers, the warehouses, the restorers.”
Indeed, global fairs and auction sales are not the only litmus test of an art market. Shipping company Crozier’s 2022 announcement that it was significantly expanding its presence in Hong Kong may have generated fewer headlines than ArtSG or Frieze Seoul, but it was arguably a more important long-term indicator.
“We still see Hong Kong’s role as being a primary gateway — into China and out of China,” the firm’s general manager Simon Hornby told The Art Newspaper at the time. “The Hong Kong dollar is still linked to the US dollar; the system of law is still based on English law. We have no reason to believe that’s going to change in the next 20 to 30 years.”
Top image caption: An installation by American artist KAWS in Singapore, with the city’s famous Marina Bay Sands and ArtScience Museum seen behind.