STPI executive director Emi Eu and art veteran Audrey Yeo on why they want to galvanise Singapore’s art scene

There is a new highlight on Singapore’s art calendar this year, and it may just prove to be the start of an interesting new chapter in Singapore’s visual arts scene. Named S.E.A. Focus, it is a platform that aims to foster a deeper appreciation of Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art, and will kick off its first edition as a boutique art fair, held from January 23 to 27 in a special pop-up structure at Gillman Barracks. With 26 international and local galleries taking part, S.E.A. Focus is relatively small-scale. It is also coming at a time when the viability of Singapore as an art hub is under a bit of a cloud. Art Stage Singapore 2018 had 84 participating galleries, the lowest number (at press time) since its inception in 2011. The Singapore Contemporary Art Show held its final edition in 2017 and the Affordable Art Fair has cut its two annual editions to just one.

A new entrant, ART SG, announced that its first fair would take place here from November 1 to 3, but the excitement was somewhat dampened by subsequent news that MCH Group, one of three partners behind this venture, was pulling out. Compared to the buzz of earlier years, the fizz of the art scene has gone a little flat lately. So what makes S.E.A. Focus so intriguing? Well, first, a little bit of art history, so to speak.

The major milestones of Singapore’s contemporary visual arts scene happened in rapid succession—the first Singapore Biennale happened in 2006, Art Stage Singapore debuted in 2011, Gillman Barracks launched as a visual arts cluster in 2012, the first Singapore Art Week kicked off in 2013, and the National Gallery Singapore opened in 2015.
But a few years before all these activities started, some quieter milestones had also occurred. In 1996, a group of local galleries had formed the Art Galleries Association Singapore (AGAS). In 2000, AGAS launched ArtSingapore, an art fair that ended its run in 2010 when the art market took a hit from the global recession. What could have been the beginnings of an art market had failed to take firm root.

(Related: The First Survey Of Minimalist Art In Southeast Asia Unfolds Across Two Museums)

However, the gallerists here did not give up. When the scene kicked into high gear a few years later, AGAS launched Art in Motion. Running annually from 2014 to 2016, it saw AGAS member galleries hosting various events during Singapore Art Week. “We wanted to bring collectors, museum professionals, artists and gallerists together,” says Emi Eu, executive director of STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery, which promotes artistic experimentation in the mediums of print and paper. STPI is a member of AGAS, and Emi was variously AGAS’ vice president and president from 2012 to 2018. “It’s much more effective to do these things as a group of galleries. We could pool more resources, present diverse artists and works, and attract more collectors and visitors.”

Meanwhile, certified accountant-turned-gallerist Audrey Yeo had also been very busy over at Gillman Barracks, where she launched Yeo Workshop in 2013. “I wanted to show quite experimental and cutting-edge work, and I quickly realised that without more education about contemporary art, this type of art would not be accessible for a lot of people,” she says.

In response, Audrey launched Arnoldii Arts Club, a members-only association that provided exclusive access to courses, events and specialist lectures about art history, art production, and the art market. She also spearheaded the Singapore Arts Club, a public art project in Gillman Barracks that included both arts and lifestyle events.

Eye On The Region

This year, Emi and Audrey are helming S.E.A. Focus, which is under the STPI umbrella and builds on their previous efforts to galvanise the local art scene. Emi, who is of Korean descent, joined STPI in 2001, helping to hone its unique niche in artist collaborations that make innovative use of print and paper techniques. Under her leadership, STPI became the first Singapore gallery to take part in the prestigious Art Basel in 2013, making it the only homegrown one that has been accepted for all three editions of the Art Basel fairs (the other two being Miami Beach and Hong Kong). She is also a long-standing member of Art Basel Hong Kong’s Selection Committee.

“With so many art events internationally, you need to put out something that is genuine in order to be noticed,” she believes. S.E.A. Focus may be a boutique art fair this year, but it could take on other formats in subsequent editions. The point is, this initiative is not in competition with big fairs such as Art Stage Singapore or ART SG, Emi stresses. “We just want to fill a gap.” And what’s missing at the moment is a solid platform for galleries that focus on Southeast Asian art.

“It’s about consistency. If the art fairs are not doing well, the galleries are not doing well, since they are the fairs’ clients,” Emi points out. “Art Basel has been consistently growing in a positive direction for many decades, and that’s something we aspire to, but in our own way. We want to put out something that piques some interest for everyone. We want to engage with the community, contribute to building scholarships for museum professionals, and bring in curators from abroad. It will be a learning process for everyone.”

(Related: Beyond Art Basel: 5 Must-See Museums In Miami)

Audrey, who has suspended her gallery to serve as the project director of S.E.A. Focus, ran London’s Galerie 8 before moving back home to Singapore, and is similarly passionate about helping to nurture a wider audience for local and regional art. “Galleries are the interface between the public and art. On a day-to-day basis, we are already connecting audiences to art, with our education programmes and events. On this larger scale, if we all work together, we can make a very genuine effort to extend what we already do and connect even more people to art.”
In that spirit, S.E.A. Focus will also feature components such as #SEAcommunity, where young families, school groups and children can engage first-hand with arts professionals; and #SEAspotlight, a series of talks by collectors, gallerists, curators and artists. Also, look out for fun lifestyle elements such as food and music at its art events, to help draw in those who may never have attended one before. “I think it’s really important to try and reach out to a younger generation,” says Audrey. “It helps to build a more holistic community when they are looking at and appreciating the work created by artists of their own generation.”

Keeping The Faith

For S.E.A. Focus’ participating galleries, Southeast Asia remains full of promise. “This is an important art region and there is no other fair really giving it the attention it deserves. So there was no question that we wanted to be involved,” says Ursula Sullivan, co-director of Australia-based Sullivan+Strumpf. Vera Ong, who heads Singapore’s Art-2 Gallery, shares: “I feel that this fair relates well with Art-2’s speciality, as the artists we have represented for the past 27 years have always been primarily from Singapore and Southeast Asia.”
S.E.A. Focus is also supported by the National Arts Council, Economic Development Board and the Singapore Tourism Board. “They appreciate the fact that this is a homegrown initiative and I hope it’s something we can continue to put up,” says Emi.

Having first come to Singapore in 1996, and helped STPI evolve from an unlikely experiment into an internationally respected institution, she has perhaps a more patient view of the city-state’s art ambitions. The arts infrastructure and creative offerings today are a vast change from what was available here 20 years ago, she points out. “The government has put in so much effort. I have not seen anything like this in any other country. We have everything we need to make an art ecosystem that works well. We just have to pave the road better, and connect galleries, artists, collectors and the private sector in the way that they should be. The art market is changing very quickly, and we have to be nimble, believe in what we do, and put together the best content. If this first edition is successful, that will give us a foundation from which to forge ahead.” 

This story was first published in Singapore Tatler January 2019.