For hundreds of years, traditional Southeast Asian artwork, such as Indonesian batik, Vietnamese porcelain, and Thai stoneware, has garnered the attention of traders and collectors from around the world. In contrast, Southeast Asian contemporary art has only emerged on the international scene in the past few decades. Still, despite the relative novelty, awareness of the region’s artists has been growing among important buyers around the world.
Like all cultural exports, Southeast Asian contemporary art provides Association of Southeast Asian Nation members with a soft power mechanism for expanding international influence. Yet neither ASEAN nor the majority of ASEAN countries demonstrate a serious commitment to advancing their national interests through contemporary art. Singapore represents the clear exception.
Ruoh-Ling Keong, Head of Christie's Southeast Asian Modern & Contemporary Art Department, believes that Singapore has now emerged as the regional pavilion for Southeast Asian contemporary art: 'In ASEAN countries, a lot of governments aren't looking at contemporary art. Singapore is promoting the art and giving scholarships to support artists. Singapore also is using (these efforts) very effectively to spread its influence in the region and internationally.' She points out that the national gallery is growing in stature and Singapore even sponsored a successful art festival in London two years ago.
In the eyes of many experts, ASEAN countries face serious internal challenges that inhibit their ability to properly leverage contemporary art for soft power. Ruoh-Lipoi illustrates one of the reasons: 'Other countries have nice collections but they are dealing with fundamental issues such as storage and conservation.' This makes it difficult to invest in emerging artist programs, art shows, and targeted acquisitions (including domestic commissions) to bolster their national collections.
While sceptical about the prospects, some experts remain hopeful that more ASEAN countries will someday recognize the economic and diplomatic value of contemporary art. Some even believe this could lead to new investments, such as the promotion of national contemporary artists abroad through formally organized ASEAN travelling exhibitions or coordinated embassy programmes (perhaps modelled after the US State Department’s Art in Embassies Programme).
There are reasons to be optimistic that such developments are possible. Observers point out that some ASEAN members already make significant investments in the promotion of traditional arts through cultural public diplomacy, such as Indonesia’s ongoing American Batik Competition. However, there isn’t equivalent awareness of the potential for contemporary art within the ASEAN diplomatic community.
Fiona Argyle Miller, Directrice of Aratong Galleries, believes that will change but it will take time. ‘There’s a shift going on in culture in Asia. Children are not usually exposed to the art scene,’ she says. ‘It hasn’t been part of the value system. Now there is more investment in introducing them to art.’
While educational programmes may change the mindset of future generations, Miller shares the consensus view that hard cash continues to widen the immediate gap between Singapore and other ASEAN members. ‘The Singaporean government views art as essential to its survival. They are trying to develop and market a culture,’ she says. As a consequence, ‘Singapore is investing. There are a lot of patrons coming up and there will be more. Philanthropy also is a growing trend. The main focus though is on acquisition.’
Unfortunately, it appears that few ASEAN countries recognize the important role contemporary art can play in ongoing nation-building efforts. The best hope in these states may be private collections and museums, which are prevalent in many ASEAN countries. ‘As institutions in the region are less developed than in the West, the private collectors and museums have been particularly important,’ according to Nicholas Olney, manager of the Paul Kasmin gallery. ‘The best collectors are truly passionate about the art and the artists their patronage supports and would love to see (the artists they support) have international exposure and success.’
While Singapore's prominence may be unrivalled within ASEAN for at least the next decade, Singapore is facing serious competition from China as the centre for Southeast Asian contemporary art.
According to Olney, Art Hong Kong (Art HK), the leading art show in Asia, is helping to drive China's increased prominence in Southeast Asian contemporary art. ‘Hong Kong is positioning itself to play a similar role (to Singapore) for Asia as a whole. Art HK progressed in leaps and bounds in just four years and the purchase of the fair by Art Basel was eye-opening for many in the West,‘ Olney says. ‘The ascendance of Asia is no secret, but for Art Basel to make this investment in Hong Kong is a big event in our industry. The art fair as a pavilion for cultural cross-pollination is fascinating, with Western collectors and arts professionals seeing new art from Asia while at the same time Asian collectors and gallerists become further exposed to Western art and ways of doing business.’
For many, though, the rising cultural affluence of Singapore and Chinese isn’t a zero sum competition over wealth, power, and influence. Having two major regional powers promoting Southeast Asian contemporary art promises to increase international interest and demand. This will benefit not only Singapore and China, but also ASEAN as a whole, regardless of the level of investment of other members. Some even suggest that such healthy competition between an ASEAN member and non-member could lead other ASEAN members to more quickly invest in their domestic contemporary art scene in order to extract a bigger slice of the regional market.
The proposed joint bid for the 2030 World Cup may provide yet another catalyst. Experts suggest that the World Expo, Olympic Games, and other international events exponentially helped increase awareness for Chinese contemporary art and architecture around the world. Olney believes that ASEAN could reap similar benefits from a hosting a major international event.
But he adds: ‘Good systems must be in place and then continue to improve in order to keep the momentum going.’