SINGAPORE - It has had its ups and downs but after four years, the annual Art Stage Singapore fair has moved into pole position regionally and brought the country's visual arts scene along with it.
The four-day contemporary art fair, which opens next Thursday, will present 158 galleries from around the world at the Marina Bay Convention and Exhibition Centre. They include big names such as London's White Cube, international galleries with Singapore branches such as Sundaram Tagore and Michael Janssen, and leading home-grown galleries such as Chan Hampe.
As the centrepiece of Singapore Art Week, the busiest week in the country's packed visual arts calendar, Art Stage's impact can be seen beyond immediate sales on the fair grounds.
This year, there are more than 100 events happening around town. These include solo exhibitions, group shows, pop-up art shows, art walks, talks and workshops. The demand has grown - in the first edition of Singapore Art Week last year, there were no more than 20 such openings islandwide.
Adding to the art explosion is the ongoing Singapore Biennale, showing at museums and other venues in the Bugis/Bras Basah precinct. Around town, there is also a bumper crop of at least 16 solo exhibitions by home-grown artists.
Art galleries in the same neighbourhood are also coming together and offering more joint exhibition openings to reach out to international visitors. These joint openings can be seen in the three main gallery clusters - Gillman Barracks off Alexandra Road, the warehouse space Artspace@Helutrans in Tanjong Pagar and the galleries in Raffles Hotel Arcade.
Dr Eugene Tan, 41, who spearheaded the $10-million makeover of Gillman Barracks and is now director of The National Art Gallery, Singapore, calls Art Stage "an event not to be missed by the regional and international contemporary art community".
He gives the thumbs up, in particular, to the new country and regional platforms planned for next week's fair. With that, the Biennale and other exciting new exhibitions, he thinks "Singapore is fast gaining recognition as a site for cultural exchange and collaboration within the global arts community".
Ms Stephanie Fong of Fost Gallery has participated in three editions of Art Stage. The gallerist, who is in her late 30s, notes: "Art Stage has placed Singapore on the contemporary art market map, where previously we registered only a blip at best."
The fair, which has never disclosed its budget, is supported by the Economic Development Board, Singapore Tourism Board, National Heritage Board and the National Arts Council.
Indeed, Art Stage has managed to successfully ride out its early controversies and has grown in spite of them. After a successful start with the first edition, it got a lot of flak in 2012 for organising a collector's tour to Indonesia that got some galleries represented at the Singapore fair that year in a huff.
Fair director Lorenzo Rudolf bounced back in the next edition with stronger regional marketing and a focus on Asian art through the Indonesia Platform. The curated showcase of Indonesian art, which international collectors are increasingly bullish about, was seen as the strongest element of the fair.
Art Stage has never reported overall sales figures, but visitor numbers have grown and feedback has been positive.
In 2012, the fair attracted 32,000 visitors who bought $30 day passes. The top sale that year saw a local buyer paying $2 million for a painting by German contemporary great Gerhard Richter from his coveted Abstrakte Bilder series.
Last year, the fair drew a record 40,500 visitors and closed on all the right notes. It capped a frenzied 10 days of arts events in Singapore. Collectors, dealers, artists and art lovers flocked to multiple gallery openings, museum exhibitions, auctions and the first hotel art fair - the Art Apart Fair at Parkroyal on Pickering, which returns next week.
Several international art collectors such as Swiss Uli Sigg, a prominent collector of Chinese contemporary art, Chinese-Indonesian Budi Tek, India's Lekha Poddar and France's Dominique and Sylvain Levy, came to town last year for Art Stage.
The Levys and American art collector Dorothy Vogel - she and her late husband Herb were the subjects of two documentary films on how they amassed a substantial art collection despite their humble backgrounds - are expected to attend this year.
Mr Rudolf, 51, tells Life! this is how he visualised Art Stage from the start - "as an international art market, matchmaking and discussion platform as well as an integral part of the local art ecosystem".
He explains: "Therefore, Art Stage decided not to go the easy way - to organise a pure trade show selling as many square metres as possible to every gallery and art dealer who wants to participate.
"Instead, we decided to invest our personal engagement, network and money into a responsible and supportive contribution to the city's artistic development and growth, in a time of globalisation also in the contemporary art world."
He agrees that when it comes to matters of art and culture, it is impossible to "please everybody", but the fair has taken feedback into consideration to improve year on year.
In the past three editions, it has featured well- known artists and galleries predominantly from Asia. It has presented works by leading artists such as American celebrity photographer David LaChapelle, Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami, avant-garde Indian artist Anish Kapoor as well as top Chinese contemporary artists Ai Weiwei and Cai Guoqiang.
At the same time, the fair has successfully created platforms for Asian and local talent, showcasing works by emerging Singapore artists such as Robert Zhao, Michael Lee and art collective Vertical Submarine.
Zhao, 30, whose quirky zoologically themed photo works have been well received at the fair and will be shown again by local gallery 2902, says: "Art Stage definitely helped in generating interest in the work, but there are other things in place that helped to sustain the interest in the work after the fair."
His solo titled The Last Thing You See ended recently at 2902 Gallery in Queen Street. His art was also shown at the inaugural edition of Art Basel Hong Kong in May last year as well as in the ongoing Singapore Biennale.
Lee, 41, whose architectural-themed graphic art has been a recurring presence at Art Stage, says the fair has "improved with each edition".
However, he would like to see more online and video documentation of the fair, particularly of some of the art talks that were first held on the fair grounds and are now organised in art schools such as Lasalle College of the Arts and School of the Arts. He says: "The documentation of such talks will extend the life of each edition beyond its four to five days."
Agreeing, artist and academic Milenko Prvacki, 61, says the art scene should keep up the momentum injected by the fair each January.
He is particularly heartened by the engagement the fair has had with art schools such as Lasalle College of the Arts. Each year, a special booth at the fair is given to showcase works by students, staff and graduates. The partnership continues this year.
"Art Stage has been able to animate all - even sleepy organisations - to act, compete and engage in the visual arts scene here. Inclusively, it is growing, learning and applying the art experience," he says. Indeed, some gallerists who were not part of the earlier editions have now opted to take part in the fair. One of them is Galerie Sogan & Art's Ms Vera Wijaya, who has been consistently supporting the work of young home-grown artists such as Sarah Choo.
Ms Wijaya, 37, who is participating in Art Stage for the first time this year, says she regards it as the first international-level art fair in South-east Asia, which has raised the game for the promotion of contemporary art.
She has been most impressed with the additional opportunities this has opened up for younger artists. Citing Art Stage's Project Stage, a feature of the fair since its first edition, which presents young home-grown artists, she says: "These thematic booths have encouraged young artists to create cutting-edge conceptual works. What I would like to see more of are such tightly curated shows within the fair."
Ms Emi Eu, 44, director of the Singapore Tyler Print Insitute, agrees that the "visual arts scene has evolved very quickly in the last four years".
She says: "I see more coordinated efforts by Art Stage and the Singapore Tourism Board and am especially happy with the Art Galleries Association of Singapore's Art In Motion programme that will take visitors to galleries in different arts clusters." The programme is free and run by an association of 28 galleries here. All these components, Ms Eu adds, "make a good foundation for a dynamic arts scene".
Such factors are already drawing some prominent visitors such as Mr Sylvain Levy, 59, back. Last year, he and his wife, Dominique, stayed till the last hours of the four-day fair and said he was "impressed" by all the art events.
In an e-mail response, the Paris-based collector said: "Art Stage is a fair focused on Asian art, particularly South-east Asian art, which sets it apart from other art fairs and makes it very special.
"What also helps when we travel the distance is to catch other arts events. These have definitely grown since the first year and we are looking forward to seeing the Singapore Biennale and visiting Gillman Barracks this year."
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