Why you need to pay attention to Singapore’s developing Art scene


SINGAPORE – For a long time Singapore hasn’t been considered to be particularly ‘creative’ or artistic, but that has changed. Not only is Singapore home to a wide range of talented artists, it now has its own representative at one of the world’s most respected art organisations.

Ryan Su of the Ryan Foundation is the first Singaporean and youngest member appointed to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s Asian Art Circle. The exclusive Circle is mix of international art collectors and patrons working with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum to collect, preserve and interpret modern art from all over the world. The Trustee-Liaison for the Asian Art Circle is fellow Singaporean Cindy Chua-Tay.

“I was always curious about art,” explains Mr Su. “I stumbled into art as a young law student, where I was curious to learn about the law surrounding art, art law, rather than art itself.


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“In London, I worked for one of the very few art lawyers in the world, and gained experience advising art collectors, investors, galleries, estates and artists in complex cases that involved multiple parties and jurisdictions.

“At that time, Gillman Barracks had not even opened in Singapore and the art that I learnt about and the disputes that I dealt with related largely to Euro-American, what we call ‘Western’, contemporary art.

“Coming back to Singapore and Southeast Asia, I quickly realised that the art market and art business system was significantly less established than that of the West, which was surprising as art from the region was particularly interesting and thought-provoking.

“I see supporting the Arts in Singapore and Southeast Asia as a two-way street, as much as we want audiences from other parts of the world to learn about art and artists from Singapore and Southeast Asia – as with my involvement with the Guggenheim – we should also bring good art from the rest of the world to Singapore to engage and inspire Singaporeans. This is something we have been doing since I returned.”

On behalf of The Ryan Foundation, Ryan presented Lucy Liu with flowers. (PHOTO: The Ryan Foundation)

What is The Ryan Foundation?

Launched in 2012 by Mr Su, The Ryan Foundation is a non-profit organisation that promotes “arts awareness and developing art projects to build communities in Singapore and internationally”. The focus is mainly on contemporary Singapore and Southeast Asian art. The group organises interesting art exhibitions, like Andy Warhol: Social Circus that featured Andy Warhol’s celebrity polaroids; and Re|Collecting Asia: Selections from Singapore Private Collections which featured works from the private collections of Singaporean art collectors.

The Ryan Foundation also produces a lecture series, has presented a satellite exhibition during the 57th Venice Biennale in Venice, Italy; and organised the exclusive Lucy Liu & Shubigi Rao: Unhomed Belongings exhibition.

Why Singapore and Southeast Asia needs a non-profit organisation to support the Arts

According to Mr Su, the main reason is because there is a lack of awareness of the art from Singapore and Southeast Asia, particularly by Western institutions. He also believes that art is considered to be boring in Singapore and the region – due mainly to “exhibitions that are inaccessible, uninspiring and even patronising” explains Mr Su.

“As such, we always focus on good programming and content and are lucky to have great artists, audiences and stakeholders from Singapore and around the world believe in our work,” he says.

Although The Ryan Foundation is a small organisation, Mr Su says that this can actually be of benefit for Singapore, and its arts community.

Installation view of Lucy Liu & Shubigi Rao: Unhomed Belongings at the National Museum Singapore. (PHOTO: National Museum Singapore)

“We are directed in our approach and are able to cater to specific target groups as opposed to a mass audience. For our 2019 exhibition, Unhomed Belongings, supported by the Singapore Tourism Board and the US Embassy Singapore, featuring Hollywood actress-artist Lucy Liu and Singapore artist Shubigi Rao, we wanted to inspire young people to make their own art after seeing Lucy and Shubigi’s artworks which featured craftwork and appeared deceptively simple to make – I believe we attracted the right crowd.

“Another group that we are targeting are people who watch movies or television but had not had any contact with contemporary art, which an art fair, festival or larger programme may not be able to appeal to. We managed to drag heaps of people out to come for the exhibition at the National Museum Singapore, not just Singaporeans but international visitors who will now see Singapore as a place for the arts,” explains Mr Su.

Lucy Liu (middle) together with Ryan. (PHOTO: National Museum Singapore)

Does Singapore Art need more support?

Mr Su says that are “tremendous issues” regarding Arts’ support in Singapore. “There is the perception that support can only be monetary support which I disagree with,” he says, explaining that Singapore is actually lucky that most arts institutions are well supported by the government, and also that they are able to work on strong collaborations.

“Something that we are particularly strong with are collaborations from around the world, and it is my hope that Singapore institutions work with exciting and relevant artists and curators to create art and exhibitions that we MUST see, as after all, ‘[t]he whole point of collaboration is that you give and take from each other, and that’s how you create things that are totally new’ (Virgil Abloh, 2014).

Mr Su also points out that you don’t just have to give money to the Arts as support.

“Of course one can also give time. Time is even more valuable than money as one cannot get it back. I frequently help collectors, artists, curators and even arts writers with contracts, protected their interests and advised them on legal issues pro bono, and I gave them my time.

“Perhaps these types of contributions can also be valued and recognised? Support should not just be about money,” says Mr Su.

Working with the Guggenheim

With his recent appointment to the Asian Art Circle of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Mr Su says he would be “excited if contemporary artists from Singapore and the region join the Guggenheim’s prestigious collection”.

Mr Su explains that the Guggenheim first started acquiring Southeast Asian art around 2013 when it organised the exhibition No Country: Contemporary Art from South East Asia. “This was around the time I had returned to Singapore and attended the opening of the travelling exhibition during its short sojourn in Singapore. I [also] realised that the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in addition to being a mainstay of the New York Art World, was actually interested in art and artists from the region where I am from.”

NEW YORK, NY – JULY 08: People pass the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on July 8, 2019 in New York City. Designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, UNESCO has named the building a world heritage site and is one of eight Wright properties to receive the honor. (Photo by Kevin Hagen/Getty Images)

Helping Singapore’s emerging Arts talents

So, how can Singaporean and regional emerging artists reach out to wider Arts world? Mr Su believes that being included in major art institutions’ collections would be “a huge boost to most artists in the region”.

“But with that said, I think, opportunities for exchange and residencies are especially important for artists; our artists should go overseas to explore and to learn, and we should also welcome and provide opportunities for overseas artists to come to Singapore,” explains Mr Su.

“This is something I am currently working on as there could be more such opportunities in Singapore – but this is not happening as fast as it should be as I am still holding down my job as a lawyer!”

Want to support Arts in Singapore and the region? Here are some interesting exhibitions worth visiting …

Karen Knorr at Sundaram Tagore Gallery

The first solo exhibition of American/British photographer Karen Knorr in Singapore, this show features various pieces from the artist’s body of work including her famous India Song pieces. Knorr creates work that mixes reality with fantasy by placing wild animals in interior spaces from some of India’s most spectacular buildings like the palaces of Rajasthan. The concept behind her work investigates how people interact with animals, cultural traditions and visual culture.

Karen Knorr ‘Migrations’ from September 21 to November 16, 2019, at Sundaram Tagore Gallery, 5 Lock Road 01-05, Gillman Barracks, Singapore 108933, Tel +65 6694 3378. For more information, go to www.sundaramtagore.com/exhibitions/karen-knorr.

Shaping Geographies: Art | Woman | Southeast Asia

This is a group exhibition featuring 11 contemporary female artists from Singapore and the region. Each artist has worked through the three concepts of ‘art’, ‘woman’ and ‘Southeast Asia’ in their own ways, offering a variety of different perspectives. The artists involved are Suzann Victor (Singapore); Anida Yoeu Ali (Cambodia); Fika Ria Santika (Indonesia); Geraldine Javier (Philippines); I Gak Murniasih (Indonesia); Kayleigh Goh (Malaysia); Muslimah Collective (Thailand); Nguyen Trinh Thi (Vietnam); Savanhdary Vongpoothorn (Laos); Tintin Wulia (Indonesia); and Yee I-Lann (Malaysia).

Shaping Geographies: Art | Woman | Southeast Asia runs from November 24 to December 31, 2019, at Gajah Gallery, 39 Keppel Road, Tanjong Pagar Distripark #03-04, Singapore 089065. Entry is free. For more information, go to gajahgallery.com.

Isolation by Lau Chun Tao. (PHOTO: Asia Contemporary Art Show)

If you are willing to brave a flight to Hong Kong, check out these exhibitions:

15th Asia Contemporary Art Show

Held at the Conrad Hong Kong, the 15th Asia Contemporary Art Show will feature work from artists based in the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Lebanon, Australia, Malaysia, South Korea and China among others. One of the region’s longest running art shows, all the works will be available to buy.

15th Asia Contemporary Art Show will run from October 5 – 7, 2019, at the Conrad Hong Kong, on the 41st to 43rd floors, Pacific Place, 88 Queensway, Central, Hong Kong. For tickets, go to www.asiacontemporaryart.com/tickets.

Also in the region …

RIFTS: Thai contemporary artistic practices in transition, 1980s – 2000s

A fantastic way to learn about Thai contemporary art, this exhibition covers the changes of ‘rifts’ that occured in the Thai art world over the last few decades, from traditionalists to the more avant-garde artists, this is a very comprehensive exhibition.

RIFTS: Thai contemporary artistic practices in transition, 1980s – 2000s runs until November 24, 2019, at Bangkok Art & Culture Centre, 939 Rama 1 Road, Wangmai, Pathumwan, Bangkok 10330, Tel: +66 (0)2 214 6630. For more information, go to en.bacc.or.th.


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