Singapore’s Newest Art Fair Shrank This Year, But Its Cofounder Says It’s No Sophomore Slump

Magnus Renfrew and his team are trying hard to avoid a sophomore slump.

The entrepreneur and author is back in Singapore for the second iteration of ART SG, the fair Renfrew launched last year, making it the third big fair to begin in the region in the past few years, after Tokyo Gendai last July and Taipei Dangdai in 2019.

The exhibitors list for this ART SG is noticeably smaller this year’s, going from more than 150 galleries to 114—a drop of more than 25 percent. It’s not clear yet whether that’s a sign for alarm, but it is clear that many of the major players from last year, like Pace, Perrotin, David Zwirner, and Almine Rech, have not returned.

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Singapore’s economy remains strong, with growth of 1.2 percent in 2023, compared to 3.6 percent in 2022. Wealth continues to pour in through family offices, the private investing arms of families with assets often of $100 million or more, but the economy’s growth rate is starting to slow, and sales tax is rising. By comparison, Hong Kong continues to have no goods and services or sales tax, making it a more attractive place for large art purchases.

The fairs in Singapore, Tokyo and Taipei are organized by the Art Assembly, Renfrew’s partnership with events organizers Sandy Angus and Tim Etchells, as well as Angus Montgomery Arts, which also organizes India Art Fair in New Delhi, Sydney Contemporary, and Photofairs Shanghai. According to The Art Newspaper, ART SG has also been able to draw on the wider client list of both of these parent companies for its multi-city outreach over the past eight months. (Art Basel’s parent company MCH Group is also a silent partner on ART SG, with a 15 percent stake.)

But can the fair retain its momentum? Ahead of ART SG’s first day, ARTnews spoke by Zoom with Renfrew, a creator of fairs such as ART HK and Art Basel Hong Kong, to learn more about Singapore’s continued growth as an international market hub and the reasons ART SG shrunk in 2024. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

ARTnews: What were the biggest things that changed from year one to year two?

Magnus Renfrew: I think the way that the city has embraced it the fair. There’s been a lot of activity that’s been self-organized by different parts of the art community. The National Gallery is going to be throwing a welcome party for the opening of Singapore Art Week, to which all of the exhibitors are invited, and as part of the VIP program with the fair. They’ve got a fantastic exhibition on at the moment, “Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America.” We’ve also got the Singapore Art Museum, where there’s an exhibition of the artist Ho Tzu Nyen that has been really very well received as well. Outside these institutions, there’s been some really great private initiatives.

The wealth of activity that’s happening throughout the week is a sort of a testament to how Singapore has really embraced the fair. I think that they were impressed with what was on offer last year.

In terms of our own activities, we’ve been very, very proactive in terms of our outreach to to VIPs throughout the Indo-Pacific region. We started a series of roadshows in September in Sydney. We’ve recruited a VIP relations representative to help to route the community from from there to attend. And then we went on to do events in Jakarta, Manila, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Shanghai. And we have VIP relations representatives on the ground in all of those locations, as well as in Taipei, Seoul, and Tokyo.

Last year’s fair was more than 150 galleries across two floors. This year’s exhibitor list is much shorter. Was that a strategic move from you and your production team in response to feedback, or were there other factors behind the scenes?

There was some feedback that the fair was big, of course. It was a very large list for the first year. The fair this year is around 115 galleries, which is comparable in scale to other art fairs in the region of significance.

There’s a variety of reasons. It was really in response to the market. We are in conversation constantly with our galleries. I think they’re looking at what their strategy are for art fairs in general, and also within Asia, and picking and choosing what they’re doing. We have galleries that do some of our fairs some years and some fairs on other years. That’s really just the nature of things.

What was some of the feedback that you received from galleries? Did exhibitors decide that they were going to participate in other fairs in the region, like ones in Taipei, Seoul, or Hong Kong?

I think that galleries have different reasons for for doing things. Pace is going to be opening their space in Tokyo this year, so they’re going to be participating in Tokyo Gendai. Perrotin has chosen to do Taipei Dangdai and Tokyo Gendai this year. But I would anticipate that we’ll be working again with those galleries in Singapore and elsewhere in the future.

Since the last time we spoke, there has been a significant shift in the value of NFTs and public interest in them. After talking to collectors, what was the feedback you heard, specifically in terms of interest from collectors and galleries in NFTs, when you were planning the programming for this year’s fair?

I think it’s really about having more of a discerning conversation about the content. And I think that the shakedown is probably a good thing, in the sense that it is causing people to really think critically and engage with with the material. This year we have included digital arts within our Focus sector and in other parts of the fair. We’re kind of putting aside particular signage for galleries that are showcasing digital because there remains considerable interest in work producing digital media.

What are some of the things that you are particularly excited about that you feel deserve more attention?

This year, we’ve got some great newcomers—people like [Madrid-based dealer] Sabrina Amrani are coming for the first time, which is great. And then we have a Film sector which has been curated by Sam I-Shan, who was formerly a curator at the National Gallery of Singapore and who now divides his time between Singapore and Cambodia. That’s going to be taking place at the ArtScience Museum, which has purpose-built facilities. They’ve been very willing and committed partners.

Finally, as someone who has been to Singapore so often, what is the thing that you recommend most for quick refuel between seeing all the art?

Singapore is really famous for its chili crab—that’s the go-to thing that everybody has to experience at least once. That would be my top recommendation of Singapore cuisine, but Singapore has got a real plethora of fantastic restaurants. It’s a real foodie’s paradise. There’s whatever food you want to have from fantastic hawker market foods to really fine dining, Michelin experiences. And there’s fantastic food from right across Southeast Asia and South Asia.

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