Hubert Burda Media

Painting by Numbers

Art Stage Singapore’s LORENZO RUDOLF has set out to create not just any art fair but an instant museum. By Lauren Tan

Whether you are in Singapore or Timbaktu, Lorenzo Rudolf wants you to join him at the digital frontier. The founder of three-year-old Art Stage Singapore — the annual contemporary art fair that kicks off the international arts calendar this month — is rolling out Art Stage +, a virtual platform that takes the fair global, giving audiences the ability to view and review the art works wherever, whenever (or rather, almost). Art Stage + will go “live” three days prior to the physical fair that runs January 24 to 27 at Marina Bay Sands and close a day after.
While online fairs aren’t exactly new, Art Stage’s tandem approach (in combining physical and virtual space) is a first for the Asia Pacific region and the latest in a string of introductions Swiss-born Rudolf has launched over a stellar two-decade career to invigorate the art market.
“Managing a fair, you have to have a clear strategy. You cannot swing from left to right in your approach. But on the other hand, you have to improve and innovate, again and again,” he tells Prestige when we meet at Art Plural Gallery, the modern and contemporary art space along Armenian Street, where we are surrounded by Bernar Venet canvases. It is one of approximately 130 galleries exhibiting at this year’s fair. “As the digital world develops, it is increasingly important that the art world keeps pace,” Rudolf says.
Described by Thierry Ehrmann, founder of Artprice (a leader in art-price and art-index databanks) as “undoubtedly one of the top five global market makers”, 53-year-old Rudolf has long had the reputation of being somewhat of a maverick.
An artist of expressionistic figurative paintings in his youth, he retired his brushes early on (“because at the end you realise there are always better artists than you”) to follow in the footsteps of his father, studying law at the University of Bern. But instead of going into practice, Rudolf launched a career in public relations, before being roped in as director of Art Basel, the contemporary art fair located by the Swiss, French and German borders which is regarded as the Olympics of the art world. He was then 32.
At Art Basel, Rudolf set about transforming what was once a regular tradeshow into a glitzy cultural and social event acknowledged to be the template for all art fairs today. It was the first to vet exhibitors for quality, the first to introduce corporate sponsorships and the first to roll out VIP programmes for collectors. By the time he left Art Basel in 2000, after a 10-year stint, there were more than 700 galleries on the fair’s waiting list.
“Can you imagine a young guy with totally new ideas coming in to work with an established fair company on one side and established galleries on the other? I had to prove myself,” he says. “But looking back, all these ideas were absolutely logical. They are classical marketing strategies; but maybe a little creative.”
Take the time he chose Miami Beach over New York as Art Basel’s American base. “Everybody in the art market declared me as crazy. ‘Why would you go to a white spot on the art map?’ they asked. But to me it was logical. New York was already an art fair 365 days a year. They don’t need another fair. Florida was not only where wealthy Americans head to during winter, Miami was the capital of Latin America. There, we could catch two opportunities in one and could open the door to a new market,” he says. (Coincidentally, his wife Maria Elena is Swiss-Ecuadorian.)
After leaving Art Basel for the Frankfurt Book Fair, and thereafter the International Fine Arts Expositions in Palm Beach, Florida and ShContemporary in Shanghai, Rudolf set up base in Singapore in 2010. But the idea to launch an international art fair in the tiny Southeast Asian nation was one that had been planted years before. “A Singapore agency came to see me in Basel around 1996. But at the time I had to say no. One, because you don’t need a copy of Art Basel, what you need is an Asian fair; and two, because Asia as a market was, at the time, not ready to have such an event,” he says.
“But after [co-founding ShContemporay] Shanghai, it was clear to me that on the one hand Asia was really moving, but on the other, there was no such thing as Asia in the art market,” he says of the region projected to account for 65 to 75 percent of the global art market by 2015. “China is China, India is India and Indonesia is Indonesia. The Chinese aren’t going to India to buy art, they buy Chinese art. And after that they look to the West. To bring all these art scenes together, what you need is a place that is neutral, multicultural and stable — and that’s Singapore.”
Now into its third edition, Art Stage Singapore maintains a four-to-one ratio of pan-Asian to Western galleries. Despite the economic climate, a total of 133 galleries participated last year, attracting 35,000 visitors, a number of whom were undoubtedly drawn to works such as Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild and Nyoman Masriadi’s Oknum Vs Residivis, which sold for $2 million and $453,000 respectively. This year, aside from harnessing cyberspace, the fair will also see Australia join Singapore as the only country platforms, while Indonesia gets its own 1,000sq m pavilion billed as the “most comprehensive representation of Indonesia’s contemporary art scene” yet.
Already, the fair is generating buzz, spurred by a much anticipated showcase of new works by 30 top Indonesian artists. (They are without representation and have been commissioned directly by Art Stage, blurring long-held distinctions between fair, gallery and artist, and highlighting Rudolf’s willingness to step out of art-world conventions for arts’ sake.) “There’ll be pieces that you have never seen before. That is one of the things that make me proud,” he says.
“The responsibility of a fair is to show people not only what is easy to sell, but what good art is. An art fair is not only a market, it is an instant museum and a unique opportunity for everybody to have an overview of what’s going on in the art scene,” he adds. Throw in Art Stage + into this equation and Rudolf practically has given that access to “everybody”.