In the game of winning hearts, minds and wallets for art in Asia, Singapore may offer keen competition but few in the art world will dispute Hong Kong's current pole position.
Its edge was highlighted at the recent Art Basel in Hong Kong, which ended on May 18.
Into its second year, the prestigious five-day fair with roots in Basel, Switzerland, drew more than 65,000 visitors, including prominent art collectors from around the world, and chalked up strong sales for many of the 245 participating galleries.
The top-selling work among reported sales was the bronze sculpture Gorille, 1970/1984, by artist Francoi-Xavier Lalanne, which had a retail price of €1 million (S$1.7 million).
The show was also a catalyst for more than 150 art events, exhibition openings and gallery launches in the city, attended by curators, artists and the wider public.
Numerous journalists, including this reporter, descended on Hong Kong that week and the fair, whose history in Basel stretches back to 1970, was covered in major international publications such as The New York Times and The Financial Times.
The Art Stage Singapore fair held earlier in January was no less a success.
The relatively new fair founded by Mr Lorenzo Rudolf, the director of Art Basel from 1991 to 2000, posted its best results in four years.
It attracted 158 galleries, 45,700 visitors and significant sales over its five-day run. A big-ticket work that sold at the fair was an oil painting by the late Chinese-French painter Zao Wou Ki, which was snapped up for US$1.2 million (S$1.5 million).
But the scale of the event, as shown by the figures, pales in contrast to the Hong Kong fair.
The art scenes of both cities have long drawn comparisons, not least because of enduring competition between the two in areas of economics and finance. Similar ambitions to be the visual arts capital of the region have also invited weigh-ups between the two by the art world.
Mr Lee Weng Choy, 50, president of the Singapore section of the International Association of Art Critics, acknowledges a "mutual envy dance" between Hong Kong and Singapore. "We have an international biennale that Hong Kong doesn't have and generally, our art museums are better than theirs," he says.
He is quick, however, to point out a strength shared by both cities - the presence of non-profit arts centres devoted to the education, promotion and exhibition of art. Singapore, for example, has the newly opened Centre for Contemporary Art and independent multi- disciplinary arts space The Substation, while Hong Kong boasts the Asia Art Archive, a resource on art history and art practices in Asia, and alternative arts space Para Site.
But he concedes: "Comparing the two cities, Hong Kong may have an edge over us when it comes to being more dynamic and having more private initiative; you see this in the development of its art market."
For Ms Helina Chan, 51, owner of the iPreciation gallery which operates in both cities, the question of competition is moot.
"Hong Kong wins hands down," she says. "The presence of internationally prestigious art fairs such as Art Basel, together with some of the biggest gallery names and art auction houses, such as Christie's and Sotheby's, is vital in drawing international collectors to Hong Kong and building the perception of Hong Kong as the regional capital of art in Asia."
Big-name galleries with outposts in multiple countries and continents, such as the Gagosian Gallery and White Cube, have also set up home in Hong Kong in the last three years.
Mr Rudolf, 55, of Art Stage Singapore, however, finds comparisons between the visual arts in both cities futile. He says: "Why are we always comparing Singapore with Hong Kong? Are we not confident enough to carve our own unique identity?
"Asia is still an emerging market, especially South-east Asia. We will contribute substantially to the development of this market if, first of all, we do not try to compete but to be two individually successful, complementary, international art hubs."
Singapore's visual arts scene is not without merit, notes arts observers in both cities. Arts administrators, gallerists and artists whom Life! interviewed praise Singapore for its careful planning, strong arts infrastructure and government support for the long-term development of the arts. Yet they remain unanimous in their view that Hong Kong's art market boom has eclipsed Singapore in the race to be the arts hub of Asia.
Gallerist Pearl Lam, who owns eponymous galleries in both cities as well as Shanghai, points to a trifecta that crowns Hong Kong as "the arts centre by default" - its proximity to China and in turn accessibility to the burgeoning Chinese economy and swell of moneyed art collectors, its absence of sales tax and import and export duty, and its relaxed position on censorship. In Singapore, the sale of art is typically subject to the country's 7 per cent goods and services tax.
But Hong Kong was not always in the lead. Dial back the clock eight years to 2006 and Singapore was on the ascendency. It had launched the first Singapore Biennale with great fanfare and it caught the world's attention.
Renowned Japanese curator Fumio Nanjo - now director of Japan's Mori Art Museum - helmed the ambitious art exhibition featuring works by 95 artists from 38 countries displayed in 19 locations around the island.
The star-studded show included art world darlings such as Yayoi Kusama and drew 880,000 visitors, among them captains of industry who were in town for meetings hosted at the same time by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank group.
As large-scale international contemporary art exhibitions, biennales wield cultural clout and influence beyond that of art fairs because they make bold statements on the state of art development and progress.
Mr Cosmin Costinas, 31, executive director of Hong Kong's Para Site, remembers that high point: "Singapore was in a very optimistic moment. It was at the height of its projection as the hub of South-east Asia and an up-and-coming international capital of the art world.
"And Hong Kong was in a self-lamenting mode. The community seemed to regard itself as being in an in-between place, too difficult to find a narrative to be attractive... There was a sense at that time that it was too small to launch itself, there was no art fair and the West Kowloon Cultural District was only a hypothesis."
By 2008, however, the changing fortunes of the Hong Kong art market would mark a turn in tide for its visual arts scene. For one
thing, the surge of wealth in China and the rise of Chinese art collectors, coupled with the consolidation of top auction houses in Hong Kong - Christie's pulled out of Singapore in 2002 and Sotheby's followed suit in 2008 - helped to establish the city as the third largest auction market after New York and London.
The Art HK fair, the predecessor of Art Basel in Hong Kong, was also launched in 2008. More than 100 galleries took part and nearly 20,000 people visited the fair. Similarly, plans for Hong Kong's new museum for visual culture, M+, located within the ambitious West Kowloon Cultural District, also began to take shape.
The district, which stretches across 40ha of reclaimed land, is backed by the territory's government with a HK$21.6 billion (S$3.49 billion) endowment. The complex, which will include open park space and exhibition and performance venues, will open in stages from next year.
Hong Kong's visual arts scene has since gone from strength to strength, despite moments of uncertainty during the last global financial crisis, which equally buffeted art galleries, fairs and auctions in Singapore.
In 2011, Art HK was acquired by the Swiss organiser of Art Basel, upping the prominence of the city's top contemporary art fair. Renowned museum director Lars Nittve, formerly of London's Tate Modern and Sweden's Moderna Museet, was also appointed to the M+ museum that year, ramping up efforts to assemble its collection, patrons and curatorial team.
The year was no less momentous for Singapore. The country launched its third biennale and the inaugural Art Stage Singapore took off. But run-ins with censorship marred both events.
Indian artist T. Venkanna, who did a performance work in the nude at the fair, albeit behind a curtained area with an advisory about content and age restriction, was forced to cancel his show after an outcry by some media outlets.
An art installation by British-Japanese artist Simon Fujiwara at the biennale, on the other hand, was closed for much of the event because it contained some graphic sexual material. The Singapore Art Museum, which hosted Fujiwara's work, also removed some gay pornographic magazines from the installation without informing him first, an act he later described as "unprofessional and unethical".
Artist and senior fellow at Lasalle College of the Arts Milenko Prvacki, 63, says censorship of visual arts in Singapore has become "more relaxed" in recent times but he notes that "a history of censorship often produces self-censorship, which is worse" in terms of how it stifles creativity.
With the race still on, however, there is no telling how long Hong Kong's moment in the spotlight will last.
Mr Daniel Komala, 51, chief executive of Singapore-based regional auction house Larasati, believes that if Singapore is willing to relax its sales tax and import and export duty on art, its market will "pick up at lightning speed".
Ms Emi Eu, 45, director of the STPI arts centre in Singapore, is confident that Singapore remains in the running for Asia's top arts capital. She is hopeful the opening of the National Gallery Singapore next year will jumpstart things.
"M+ is still in the making and it's not going to open until 2017 but the National Gallery is opening next year and it has a really good collection," she says. Singapore has the world's largest collection of South-east Asian art with more than 10,000 works.
Additionally, the Hong Kong Museum of Art, the city's anchor visual arts museum, will close for renovations in September and reopen only in 2017.
The absence of a permanent physical home though, has not hindered the M+ museum from holding exhibitions. Since 2012, it has held exhibitions and talks at various Hong Kong locations, which have been well-received.
The Mobile M+: Inflation! exhibition, held at an open park in the West Kowloon Cultural District last year, for example, drew 150,000 visitors to view six monumental inflatable sculptures on show by international artists such as Cao Fei and Paul McCarthy.
Gallery owner Ms Lam remains optimistic about Singapore's potential to better Hong Kong. She is convinced Indonesia's rise as an art consumer can do for Singapore what China's art collectors did for Hong Kong.
"Singapore has every opportunity. People are now focusing on the Indonesian economy and Indonesian collectors are becoming more important," she says.
Some arts administrators, though, view the comparisons as a distraction from the task of building up the visual arts in each city.
Mr Nittve, 60, of M+ says: "I never see art or culture as doing things up against each other. You do in each city things that work in your city and, hopefully, what is needed in that place, what is the most relevant thing to do."
He adds that with M+, the museum and collection will aim to "tell the global story of the last 60 years from the Hong Kong perspective", and although its point of view is Asian, it will "not only be about Asian art".
Mr Eugene Tan, 42, echoes Mr Nittve's sentiment. He says Singapore has been nurturing its arts and culture scene over the past two decades and "doing what has been necessary to grow and develop our art scene". These include initiatives that encourage research, develop audiences and showcase local artists' works at international platforms.
He adds: "We can see the results of the efforts in the vibrant and still-growing art scene that we now have, which complements the development of other art scenes in Asia and has resulted in the growing international interest in the region."
Perhaps, instead of rushing to catch up, Singapore should instead adopt an introspective gaze into the mirror.
Singapore artist Genevieve Chua, 29, who regularly shows work in Hong Kong through Gallery Exit, says she does not find herself "making comparisons or identifying Goliaths".
"Hong Kong is really in the neighbourhood for most of us artists in Singapore," she says.
But she values the presence of arts spaces such as Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong, "where students, researchers and even artists can gather in a kind of library for investigative dialogues and where visiting curators can instantly review the climate or level of activity in the art scene".
She adds: "This, for me, is a level of sophistication that should happen in Singapore.
"While artists and galleries may at times struggle to survive, a legacy of shared knowledge, more importantly, should prevail."
1. Its proximity to China increases its accessibility to the burgeoning Chinese economy and rising number of art collectors. Hong Kong is now the third largest auction market behind New York and London.
2. It does not have sales tax or import and export duties, which makes it more attractive as a marketplace for art. International art galleries, auction houses and art fairs have flocked to do business in the city.
3. It is mostly relaxed about censorship in art.
1. It has a strong arts infrastructure, including art museums such as the Singapore Art Museum and the upcoming National Gallery Singapore, as well as non-profit arts spaces dedicated to arts research, education and exhibition, including the newly opened Centre for Contemporary Art.
2. There is careful planning and government support for the long-term development of the arts, including initiatives to support arts research, audience development and opportunities to showcase artists overseas. The art gallery scene is being developed through the likes of the Gillman Barracks gallery enclave.
This article was first published on May 27, 2014.
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