Inaugural Taipei Dangdai and SEA Focus in Singapore shrug off the economic gloom

Predicted stockmarket slowdown and stiff competition do not deter two debut fairs, but Art Stage Singapore is cancelled at the eleventh hour

The exhibitors at Taipei Dangdai will include the city's Liang gallery which represents the local artist Hsui Chia-Wei, who created the Zhao Bandi-influenced video installation Black and White–Giant Panda (2018) Courtesy of Taipei Dangdai

The exhibitors at Taipei Dangdai will include the city's Liang gallery which represents the local artist Hsui Chia-Wei, who created the Zhao Bandi-influenced video installation Black and White–Giant Panda (2018) Courtesy of Taipei Dangdai

Asia Pacific’s already crowded fair terrain gains two major new entrants this month, with the launch of Taipei Dangdai in Taiwan (18-20 January) and SEA Focus in Singapore (23-27 January). The organisers of the contemporary art fair (Dangdai means contemporary) in the Taiwanese capital include Angus Montgomery, Tim Etchells and Magnus Renfrew (also co-founders of Art SG, another Singapore fair launching this November). Taiwanese fair stalwarts Calvin Hui and Emerson Wang are also debuting Ink Now Taipei Art Expo this month (19-21 January).

The Southeast Asian city-state of Singapore and the island of Taiwan may not have much in common, but both attract a larger share of global attention than might be expected given the size of their mature economies and flourishing contemporary art scenes. Singapore’s own population numbers just under six million, and the city “is a hub for a region-wide population of 700 million”, says Renfrew, who is directing the first Taipei Dangdai. “No single collecting constituency in the [Southeast Asian] region is big enough to sustain a major international art fair, but together [it is possible],” he says, adding that the Taipei fair is a new platform for one of “the longest established, most sophisticated and active collector bases in Asia”.

Economic slowdown

However, the broader economic landscape offers little encouragement. As global trade hubs, Singapore and Taiwan are bracing for an economic slowdown this year as a result of the China-America trade war. Singapore’s economy is projected to grow by 2.5% this year, down from about 3% in 2018, and Taiwan’s growth rate is also expected to dip to 2.4% from 2.7%. Both territories were only beginning to recover from the previous slowdown, which saw Singapore’s GDP growth drop from 3.9% in 2014 to 2.4% in 2015, and Taiwan’s from 4% to 0.8%. In Taiwan, stagnant wages, combined with the siphoning off of its manufacturing and educated workforce by mainland China, prompted an upset in local elections last November.

Then there is the competition. Taipei and Singapore already have a lot of fairs, including Asia’s oldest contemporary fair, Art Taipei (founded in 1992 by the Taiwan Art Gallery Association), which attracts galleries from Japan and South Korea, and runs sister fairs in the Taiwanese cities of Tainan and Taichung. Singapore had been host since 2010 to Art Stage Singapore but, after participating galleries dropped from 170 in 2016 to 84 last year, the 2019 edition (scheduled to run from 25-27 January) was cancelled at the eleventh hour this week. Several smaller fairs have also come and gone.

Then there is the Indonesian capital, just two hours away by plane—already home to the decade-old Art Jakarta fair (30 August-1 September), Art Stage Singapore had a Jakarta spin-off in 2016 and 2017, and Art Moments Jakarta will launch this spring (3-5 May). More events are cropping up in other Indonesian art centres such as Yogjakarta, and there are murmurs of another fair for the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur.

True to its name, SEA Focus concentrates on Southeast Asia. About half of the 26 galleries invited to a pop-up in Singapore gallery district Gillman Barracks are from Singapore, and 73% are from the wider region. Part of Singapore Art Week (19-27 January), the project was co-founded by local gallery STPI along with Singapore’s National Arts Council, Economic Development Board and Tourism Board.

Crazy Rich backdrop

STPI’s executive director Emi Eu will co-direct SEA Focus with Audrey Yeo, founder of Yeo Workshop. Eu envisions the fair as appealing mainly to regional collectors and the local public. “Singapore continues to be relevant,” she says, “from hosting important geo-political events to being the backdrop to pop-culture phenomena such as Crazy Rich Asians. I hope SEA Focus will help sustain interest in Southeast Asia’s art scene and help us ride out the current challenges.”

Taipei Dangdai aims to become a global contender, on a par with Renfrew’s previous project Art HK, which is now Art Basel in Hong Kong. Of 90 participating galleries, 20% have spaces in Taiwan and 88% in Asia. Asia stalwarts such as A Thousand Plateaus, Silverlens and Kukje galleries will join David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, Pace and other global dealers.

Renfrew thinks Taiwan’s art market is ripe for contemporary development. He says: “What we are working towards in Taipei is a similar situation in some respects to that in Hong Kong ten years ago, where collectors of other categories responded quite quickly to having a quality-controlled platform that gave them the confidence to take the first step on their contemporary collecting journey.”