Lorenzo Rudolf | Art as a culture and also a market

Art Stage Singapore’s founder, who is driving the city-state’s vision as the cultural hub in the region, on his idea of art


Rudolf says cross cultural, historical binds are revived through art between South-East Asian countries.
Rudolf says cross cultural, historical binds are revived through art between South-East Asian countries.

Singapore: One of history’s finest definitions of art is by Oscar Wilde. He once famously noted: “The temperament to which Art appeals…is the temperament of receptivity. That is all.”

Judging by this paradigm, Singapore’s temperament is becoming increasingly receptive to art.

Last week, at Art Stage Singapore 2016, the flagship fair of South-East Asia and anchor event of the Singapore Art Week, 40,500 keen visitors and buyers passed through its doors over five days. As it closed its sixth edition at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre, growing interest in art was evident in favourable sales that reflect a still positive art market in the region despite the uncertain economic climate.

Visitors included respected international collectors and art professionals. Among them were Simon de Pury, celebrity auctioneer; architect Rem Koolhaas; American artist Joan Jonas who represented the USA Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2015; as well as collectors Alain Servais from Belgium, Daisuke Miyatsu from Japan, Deddy Kusuma from Indonesia, Lu Xun from China and Robbie Antonio from the Philippines, among others.

Sales transactions began early and included artwork that fetched over US$1 million. Participating Sakurado Fine Arts gallery reported total sales of US$1.2 million for works by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.

Sundaram Tagore Gallery saw the sale of a work by South Korean artist Chun Kwang Young for US$175,000, two Steve McCurry prints for US$42,000 each and a work by Singaporean Jane Lee for US$33,000, among others. Singapore-based STPI Gallery reported that all works by the late Singaporean artist Chua Ek Kay were snapped up by collectors.

There is one man who made this happen—Lorenzo Rudolf.

A leading force in the international art world, Rudolf is the founder and president of Art Stage Singapore. Since its inception in 2011, he has tried to create a platform that would become a catalyst for contemporary art in South-East Asia.

“Singapore Art Stage has been proactively creating art markets, matchmaking segmented South-East Asian art scenes with each other, and making connections for the region with the world,” he says.

Few people can perhaps master the strategy of packaging, branding and selling art globally like Rudolf.

Born in Bern, Switzerland, the fast-talking 56-year-old entrepreneur and curator began his career very differently, studying law at the University of Bern before launching a career in international public relations.

Inspired by the evolving contemporary art scene in his hometown, he became increasingly engaged with art and, in particular, the groundbreaking curatorial work of Harald Szeemann, “the godfather of curation”, and the inventor of the modern-day format for museum exhibitions. Szeemann, who was the director of the Kunsthalle Bern at the time, gave Christo and Jeanne-Claude their first opportunity to fully wrap a building, the Kunsthalle Bern, in 1968. This was a pivotal moment for Rudolf, which led him on a path into the art world.

Rudolf says a light bulb went off in his head on seeing the building as a parcel. “I said to myself: ‘wow, so this is contemporary art. I want to be a part of this’.”

Szeemann became a close friend and mentor of Rudolf and went on to curate one of the most path-breaking exhibitions in the history of contemporary art, which was titled, When attitudes become form.

“Art is indeed not just a form, but an attitude. It is not just something you hang on the wall or put on the pedestal. At the end, it is the position of the artist that makes it art,” says Rudolf.

This seminal exhibition of Szeemann was a game changer in the contemporary art world and introduced post-Minimalism, Arte Povera, Land art and Conceptual art.

“It signalled a significant shift of interest away from the mere result towards the artistic process; and valued the high degree of personal and emotional engagement; the pronouncement that certain objects are art, although they have not previously been defined as such; the use of mundane objects; the interaction of work and material, among other things,” says Rudolf.

“Szeemann invented the profession of contemporary art exhibitions. We owe a lot to him and his vision,” he adds.

Rudolf says the market has changed and has a problem with curators today. He thinks that the title of curator is loosely used and abused in the art market today.

“A curator is essentially an authentic storyteller. But today, many curators use artists and pressure them to make art that sells and not what is inspired from within.”

“Everybody today who can hang a painting on the wall and sell it calls himself a curator.”

Rudolf takes the role more seriously and has indeed shaped the art world by being a pioneer, risk taker and entrepreneur fighting for his vision that has often been ahead of its time.

As the director of Art Basel from 1991 to 2000, he escalated the loss-making fair into the world’s leading art, social and lifestyle event for collectors, celebrities and influencers. When Rudolf joined Art Basel, it was “a classical trade show with that sold space to galleries”. It lacked creativity in showcasing art and getting the market excited and engaged with it.

“I’d like to think that we changed the entire game. We redefined an art fair from a mere trade show to a place where people came to read the pulse of the zeitgeist. It became a mirror of the society.”

He also realized that art was on the cusp of becoming something truly global, and would become a significant lifestyle embodiment.

He began to cultivate and pamper collectors globally and give them a standing. He gave them VIP treatment, back-stage access to artists, previews and fed them regular news on the movements in the art market.

“Art is culture, but it is also a market. All the rules of market that apply to any other industry also apply to the art market,” he says.

“The market recognized that if you are not in Basel, you are not the best. So, I guess my business strategy, that had really nothing much to do with art but with marketing and branding, really worked,” he adds.

He was also the first curator who brought the concept of sponsorship in global art exhibitions. “I was criticized and lynched by my peers. They said, ‘How can you bring art together with money?’ But it was absolutely essential to sustain art and artists.”

He felt that the next logical step after Art Basel was to look outside of Europe. The US economy in the mid-90s was becoming stronger and he decided to take Art Basel to America.

“Again, everyone thought ‘I was crazy’. But, I knew that if I did not go, someone else would.”

He picked the city where Art Basel would be based in America with great care.

“I felt it had to be a place where everybody wants to go in America; a right spot on the culture map. I was convinced that it should also not be a copy of Basel, but something new,” he says.

So, he decided to look at Miami and, in particular, Miami Beach.

“It had an art deco environment and an image of an emerging arts scene at the time. Versace came there, state developers came to restore rotting beautiful hotels. MTV was also opening. Florida is a place where the rich from America spend their wintertime. Also, Latin Americans visited it regularly. So, I decided to bet on it. Now, everybody says it was clearly the right place; but at the time it was a risky proposition and a virgin market where art was not fully understood yet.”

Rudolf then moved on to building the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany, one of the largest book and media fair in the world, the International Fine Arts Expositions in Palm Beach USA and ShContemporary in Shanghai.

Recognizing that Singapore was actively promoting arts in the last decade, and the public infrastructure and government was fully behind it, he decided to move his base here.

He conceptualized and founded Art Stage Singapore in 2010, helping to drive Singapore’s vision as the cultural hub of South-East Asia.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

What is the primary goal of Art Stage Singapore?

Establishing Singapore as a hub in the international fair circle and a gateway to South-East Asian art. Asian art scene can be very diverse, fragmented and a closed market with no relation or interaction with each other. We have tried to build up each market slowly, and introduce and position them to collectors globally. We have also been successful at Art Stage in starting to move art and connect artists within South-East Asia so there is more interaction between these markets. I am keen to see that cross cultural, historical binds are revived through art between South-East Asian countries. Traditionally, collectors like to buy from art from their own countries. But now we try to show an Indonesian collector what is happening in Malaysia, Singapore the Philippines, Vietnam and we are seeing a shift. This is encouraging and a lot more of this trend needs to take root.

What is unique about Singapore as an emerging art hub in Asia?

The growing South-East Asian art is anchored firmly in Singapore.

There are prestigious international galleries opening their branches here with some speed. Singapore also has a strong infrastructure with not just galleries but also world-class public museums, art foundations and government support. In addition, there is a dynamic emerging talent from Singapore that is gaining recognition among discerning collectors. Art has set roots in Singapore and it can grow from here.

What is your view of the Indian art market today? How can it serve the global art market better in the next decade?

India is still an emerging contemporary art market globally. In order for the art market to function well, three critical pieces have to come together seamlessly. One is producing quality output of art; two, credible intermediaries or galleries, and three significant numbers of collectors who buy the art.

The problem with India today is that while it has a very large pool of talented artists, it still has a very weak gallery scene limited to only a handful of very established, very well-managed credible galleries, who know how to present Indian art and artists well to global buyers. This is the weakest link. The same applies to Indonesia and the Philippines and some other South-East Asian markets.

How can Indian galleries become globally competitive so that they are better able to promote Indian artists to international collectors, galleries and museums?

Time and patience is needed to nourish and develop gallery-artist relations. Indian galleries have to take a sustained, long-term approach to co-opt artists and showcase them with creativity and market savvy locally, regionally and globally. Indian artists deserve to be discovered and appreciated by the global art community. And while this is happening to some extent, much more can be done to establish Indian artists globally.

In what ways is the China art market different from India?

It is a far more developed market with a very large, well run reputable quality galleries who sell quality and cutting edge art and play internationally. There are, for example, several dozen galleries from Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong that travel abroad regularly and can be seen at all major art events globally. Indian galleries need to do the same.

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