Excerpts from High Life’s conversation with the Swiss art impresario


You’ve been quoted as saying that the problem with art fairs is that there are too many of them. Do you still think that’s the case?

Let me be a bit more precise: I fully stand behind that there are too many. But if I were to say it a bit more correctly, it would be that there are too many similar or identical art fairs.

I think the market needs fairs. Absolutely. I would even say that there is a tendency among collectors—private and institutional—and even curators to go to art fairs much, much more today than to galleries. They don’t travel anymore around from gallery to gallery. They prefer places where there is a concentration—and that’s the art fair.

But what we need much more are fairs with their own identity. It’s like in any other business: if you want to be successful, you have to be unique. The same is true whether it’s an art fair, a gallery, or an artist. If you are not unique, you are not really interesting.

What makes Art Stage Singapore unique, then?

From the beginning, we said that we want to be an Asian art fair. If I come to Asia, I see a total segmentation of national scenes. Sometimes, it’s even the case that if I ask an expert of Filipino art in the Philippines ‘what do you know about Indonesia,’ he looks at me with a blank stare. Or if I ask an Indonesian about Japan, he doesn’t even know where Japan is.

We have to matchmake all these national scenes with each other. Because, normally, what happens in the market is that people interested in contemporary art look at their country and then go directly to the West. They do not see what is in the region, what is in the next closest country.

If you really want to create something here, we have to link all these national scenes and countries with each other. Imagine how big this art market would be if all Asians would buy Asia, not just local and Western. All that, in the end, is the art fair, is Art Stage Singapore. And that is the identity of the fair.

How would you describe the Philippine art scene?

I think you are today probably the country with the most dynamic art scene in Southeast Asia. You have an art scene which is really vibrant and growing up. And your art scene is not just artists—it is flanked by galleries and collectors.

Many, many galleries in Southeast Asia just do local things—they have no clue, no interest, no courage to go out. They think that it’s enough if they do something in their own country. In the Philippines, you really have galleries who are growing into an international context: Silverlens, Finale, Drawing Room, Vinyl on Vinyl. Those are galleries that have a much more professional structure than most galleries in Southeast Asia. They have a clear program. In many other countries, they take a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Here, it’s really an intellectual program. That means galleries here function the way galleries in the West function. That’s also the reason galleries here have a chance to compete and to grow into this Western context.

On the other side, you have a young artist scene which is pushing, which is growing, which is unique. Jigger Cruz is a star but he is someone who has developed his own language, who developed his own way of expression and is not just part of a trend. That’s exactly what makes the Philippines so strong. At the end, you need a combination of strong artists, a strong infrastructure—galleries and museums.

Do you collect art?

If I say yes, many people would want to see what I have. So no, I am not a collector. And I will tell you why: I’m too close to the market and to art.

Surely, I buy art from time to time, and when I do, it’s because I see something which affects me, which attracts me, which makes me fall in love with it, which makes me think about something.

But I think to build a collection means you need a concept, you need more than only the wish to buy art. Sometimes, I have to smile a bit because everybody who buys a piece of art is already called a collector. That to me is not a collector. It’s the same thing when everybody who hangs a piece of art is called a curator. A collector, for me, is someone who has a vision and for that, you also need a certain distance. If I stop one day what I do, then maybe I’ll have a bit more time and I can step back. I would like, maybe, to build up a collection. Collection, for me, is more than buying art.

The conversation on art is increasingly dominated by the market. Your thoughts?

On the one side, you have surely a democratization of art. You have more art than ever, you have more production than ever, much more people than ever have access to art. On the other side, the art becomes flatter because it has to be saleable.

In other words, you are always looking for balance.

Ten years ago, newspapers all over the world had wonderful intellectual critiques about a museum exhibition and the artist. Today, you have market reports. You have rankings. The biggest sale, the highest bid. Most of the buyers of today are no longer the educated collectors but investors. There are people who buy because it is a part of their lifestyle. Contemporary art today is, I would say, the crown of lifestyle.

When you have lots of money, you can build the biggest yacht you can, but there will always be someone who can build a bigger one. But, for example, you have a particular Kusama—nobody can have the exact same one. It becomes a status symbol.

I have nothing against a great market. Every auction, there are new records. That means the money is there, but who are these people? I think we have to go back to a situation where it is more balanced. I am not a fool to think that we can turn back the wheel, that is not possible.

But we do, for example, have to think about what an art fair is. Is an art fair only a marketplace? Coming from the market, I think we have a responsibility in a region like Southeast Asia, which is emerging, to inform. I think that’s exactly where we have to go. We have to see the art fair not just as a superstore of art, where you have all these artworks on shelves and where if you buy three of them, you get a special discount.

We have to have an art fair similar to the agora, which was a place where you had an exchange of goods but also of ideas. Art shouldn’t only be a playground for the rich, they should at least understand what they buy.

You’ve been to Art Fair Philippines. How did you find it?

I was totally fascinated by it because it reminds me of what I saw in Europe when I was younger. It’s a start to somewhere. It’s fresh and you have the entire art scene behind it with enthusiasm. I love seeing collectors like Paulino Que in a parking lot.

I think you have here something which can really grow. An art fair is not a question of whether it is in a luxury hotel or a parking lot. The question is A) what is the art about and B) is it working? You have an entire scene here which is really moving and the art fair is the typical result of this development. I think it’s wonderful.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Click here to read the cover story on Lorenzo Rudolf.