Art Assembly co-founder reflects on new fairs’ role in shaping evolving art market in Asia

Bomi Yoon

ART SG, which debuted at Singapore's Marina Bay Sands expo and convention center in January 2023, attracted 43,000 visitors to the Southeast Asian city-state. The art fair will return for its sophomore edition this month, running from Jan. 18 to 21. Courtesy of ART SG

ART SG, which debuted at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands expo and convention center in January 2023, attracted 43,000 visitors to the Southeast Asian city-state. The art fair will return for its sophomore edition this month, running from Jan. 18 to 21. Courtesy of ART SG

Art Assembly co-founder Magnus Renfrew discusses newly launched ART SG in Singapore, recent growth of Asia-Pacific art market

By Park Han-sol

In January 2023, ART SG became the latest addition to the rapidly expanding art fair calendar in Asia following its debut in Singapore.

Billed as Southeast Asia’s largest international art fair, the inaugural edition attracted some 43,000 visitors from the region beyond the city-state, including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, while also being dotted with collectors from China, Korea and Japan.

Magnus Renfrew was the founding director of Art Hong Kong, which was later rebranded as Art Basel Hong Kong. He currently serves as the co-chairman of the Art Assembly, which runs six art fairs in the Asia-Pacific region — including ART SG, Taipei Dangdai, Tokyo Gendai and India Art Fair. Courtesy of Art Assembly

Magnus Renfrew was the founding director of Art Hong Kong, which was later rebranded as Art Basel Hong Kong. He currently serves as the co-chairman of the Art Assembly, which runs six art fairs in the Asia-Pacific region — including ART SG, Taipei Dangdai, Tokyo Gendai and India Art Fair. Courtesy of Art Assembly

Its sophomore iteration is set to return to the island’s Marina Bay Sands expo and convention center from Jan. 18 to 21, hosting 116 galleries from 33 countries and territories.

Among the participating exhibitors are eight prominent Korean players, including Kukje Gallery, Gana Art and Johyun Gallery, along with blue-chip dealers that have opened outposts in Seoul over the last six years — White Cube, Lehmann Maupin, Thaddaeus Ropac, Whitestone Gallery, Tang Contemporary Art and Peres Projects.

The fair will coincide with the citywide cultural celebration known as Singapore Art Week. Its packed event lineup includes the National Gallery Singapore’s blockbuster exhibition “Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America” and artist Ho Tzu Nyen’s first mid-career survey show, co-organized by the Singapore Art Museum and Seoul-based Art Sonje Center.

Returning with a more ambitious roster, ART SG aims to establish itself as “a hub fair” that caters not just to its domestic constituency but to those in the wider Southeast Asia region — home to a population of 650 million and many of the world’s fastest-growing economies — according to the fair’s co-founder Magnus Renfrew.

Jin Meyerson's 'Last night I traded my therapist for a shaman' (2022) / Courtesy of Johyun Gallery

Jin Meyerson’s “Last night I traded my therapist for a shaman” (2022) / Courtesy of Johyun Gallery

Lee Bul's 'Perdu V' (2017) / Courtesy of Studio Lee Bul and Lehmann Maupin

Lee Bul’s “Perdu V” (2017) / Courtesy of Studio Lee Bul and Lehmann Maupin

In fact, Singapore’s growing relevance in economic and geopolitical contexts extends far beyond its own borders.

“Singapore’s status as the center of the wealth management market in Asia has been very much reinforced over the last few years,” he told The Korea Times in a recent video interview. “There has been a major influx of wealth from around the region, including mainland China and Hong Kong.”

One noteworthy indicator of this capital inflow is the surge in the number of family offices (private firms managing the assets of affluent clans) opening in the city-state — which jumped from 50 in 2018 to 1,100 by the end of 2022, according to the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

In addition to the wealth flowing into the island, Singapore holds a unique position in Asia as “neutral territory” due to its non-aligned nature and the widespread use of both English and Mandarin.

“People, not only from China but also from the international community in Europe and America, feel equally comfortable being there. It also has very strong transport links as a major trading port,” he said.

The facade of the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, where the second iteration of ART SG is set to take place. Courtesy of Marina Bay Sands

The facade of the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, where the second iteration of ART SG is set to take place. Courtesy of Marina Bay Sands

All these factors contribute to the island’s position as an important nexus for the art world of Southeast Asia and beyond, in the eyes of Renfrew, who has over a decade of experience in the Asian art market as the founding director of Art Hong Kong, later reborn as Art Basel Hong Kong.

“Logic dictates that the region deserves one international fair that can be a catalyst for the market, connecting galleries from outside with the (fast-growing) local collectors. The fair is also about providing a credible platform for artists and exhibitors from Southeast Asia to be seen in a global context and gain the broader exposure that they deserve.”

This rationale is what led to the launch of ARG SG by the Art Assembly, an initiative co-founded by Renfrew. The Assembly currently runs six art fairs in the Asia-Pacific region, including Taipei Dangdai, Tokyo Gendai and India Art Fair.

Is Asia’s art-fair calendar getting too crowded?

Events such as ART SG and Frieze Seoul represent a wave of newcomers in Asia’s recently burgeoning art fair scene, joining a handful of established players like Art Basel Hong Kong.

While some have voiced concerns about how saturated the art calendar in the region has apparently become within a short span of time, Renfrew pointed out that the emergence of new fairs is both a testament to and an opportune response to the unprecedented growth of the Asian art market over the last 15 years.

“The context has changed a lot since 2008, when we first launched Art Hong Kong. Many of the domestic markets around the region have grown since then and are now significant enough to warrant having their own international fairs,” the Art Assembly co-founder said.

In fact, one of the greatest potentials for expansion in the global market — especially in terms of new collector bases being introduced to galleries and auction houses — lies within Asia, he added.

The 2023 edition of Frieze Seoul, held at COEX in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, from Sept. 6 to 9, drew some 70,000 visitors from 36 countries. Courtesy of Lets Studio and Frieze

The 2023 edition of Frieze Seoul, held at COEX in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, from Sept. 6 to 9, drew some 70,000 visitors from 36 countries. Courtesy of Lets Studio and Frieze

Singapore, for instance, serves as the hub for a hinterland of 650 million people in Southeast Asia. Likewise, Taiwan boasts one of the densest wealth bases in the world, with over 765,000 millionaires in a population of 24 million as of 2022, according to the latest UBS-Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report. And in recent years, the spending power of Asian collectors has played a key role in achieving record sales for the three leading auction houses, namely Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips.

“I think it’s very important that we create fairs (in the region) as credible platforms that can really help people, who are perhaps taking their first steps in the collecting journey, to understand the importance of the gallery system,” he noted.

“If we pull the camera back to see the bigger picture, Asia is home to half the world’s population, but it has only a handful of fairs with international standards of selectivity. To say that Europe deserves 15, 20 fairs (a year) and Asia none would be a somewhat strange position.”

This contrast becomes more evident when we examine the statistics. According to the Art Market 2023 report released by Art Basel and UBS, 347 fairs were held worldwide in 2022. The U.S. and Europe constituted 77 percent of the total number of events, while Asia accounted for just nine.

“In the post-pandemic era, Asia is going to be emerging to be front and center of geo-economic importance. And I think we’re going to be seeing a real leap forward in terms of the number of participants (in the region) engaged in and collecting contemporary art,” he said.

Renfrew believes that this shift is occurring in tandem with Western institutions’ recent initiatives to reevaluate their Euro-American-centric values and broaden their focus to include works by artists from diverse cultural and aesthetic backgrounds.

“That is also something we will continue to witness — the increasing representation of artists from Asia in the global mainstream, if you will.”

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