Itis somewhat of a truism in Asia’s art circles that Art Stage Singapore and Art Basel — Hong Kong have reached a maturity that is the envy of its regional counterparts. With marquee dealers displaying high-end art, both fairs attract celebrity collectors and their hangers-on. Yet at Taiwan’s oldest and preeminent contemporary art fair, Art Taipei, which opens to the public on Friday and is celebrating its 20th anniversary, there are riches to be found.
“Art Taipei is the hidden jewel of Asian art fairs,” Pascal de Sarthe, director of de Sarthe gallery in Hong Kong, tells the Taipei Times in an e-mail.
“Although it is considered to be a regional fair, you still meet major collectors,” adds the dealer who will participate for the third consecutive year.
But the fair’s organizer, the Taiwan Art Gallery Association (TAGA), has spent the past two years giving Art Taipei an image makeover, seeking to make it more international in scope. And if TAGAs’ statistics are anything to go by, recent results have been impressive.
According to association figures, Art Taipei’s first year saw 56 booths, a number that climbed to 150 last year. Transactions have jumped a whopping 733 percent, from NT$150 million (US$5 million) in 2007 to NT$1.1 billion last year. Over the same period, international gallery numbers grew from 17 in 2007, to 80 last year, while Taiwanese galleries went from 50 in 2007 to 70 last year.
For Richard Chang (張學孔), this year’s convener, a previous director of the fair and one of the organizers spearheading changes to the fair, it’s all about transforming de Sarthe’s notion of Art Taipei being a regional fair to one that is global in scope.
“We want to internationalize the fair,” Chang says. The eventual goal is to reduce the number of local galleries to 40.
The reality, of course is more prosaic, as fully 80 percent of these international galleries hail from Asia, particularly China, Japan and South Korea. Still, the fact that there has been so much rapid growth in such a short time suggests that TAGA is taking Art Taipei in the right direction.
Yet as international galleries gain a greater presence, there are growing concerns that Taiwan’s artists will be left behind.
There is little doubt that Taiwanese collectors are the reason why international dealers are setting up booths at Art Taipei.
“Collectors determine the market,” says David Lin (林岱蔚), director of Taipei’s Lin & Lin Gallery (大未來林舍畫廊 ), a 21 year-old venue that focuses on modern and contemporary Taiwanese and Chinese art.
In addition to Yageo Corp founder and chairman Pierre Chen (陳泰銘), who ARTnews ranks as one of the world’s top 10 collectors, there are several local “collector groups” throughout Taiwan who have earned a reputation for their collecting largesse.
“Taiwan’s art market is small in comparison to, say, Hong Kong,” Chang says. “But the world pay’s attention to its collectors.”
Chang says the strategy to boost the number of international dealers serves two purposes.
“International galleries will encourage their collectors to come to Art Taipei. These collectors will then encourage other collectors to come,” Chang says.
He adds that overseas galleries will help to professionalize local galleries to an international standard.
Reducing the number of local galleries — at a time when member numbers have gone up by almost half — has caused tension within TAGA’s 110 member galleries. But Chang is sanguine about these growing pains, saying it is necessary if Art Taipei wants to remain competitive.
It also offers local galleries a view of the professionalism of their international peers.
Indeed Chang has worked hard to increase the professionalism of galleries locally so as to improve their reputation internationally.
Since reforms were made in 2011, the number of international galleries has increased by 48 percent, and last year they outnumbered local ones for the first time in Art Taipei’s history. But as Taiwanese collectors and fair organizers turn their gaze outward, will local artists be marginalized in the process?
It’s common knowledge in Taiwan’s commercial art circles that few non-Taiwanese — Chinese-Indonesian businessman Bedi Tek being a rare exception — buy Taiwanese art. Sure, there are the impulse buys, where a collector likes a work and it’s cheap.
Chang argues that bringing international galleries — and their collectors — to Taiwan will increase sales of local art.
Yet gallerists tend to agree that with the exception of a few artists (video artist Chen Chieh-jen 陳界仁, for example, or sculptor Li Chen 李真), foreign buyers “don’t collect contemporary Taiwanese art,” Lin says.
Foreign galleries and museums aren’t interested in exhibiting the stuff either.
Tina Keng (耿桂英), whose eponymous gallery deals in marquee artists such as Zao Wou-ki (趙無極) and contemporary Taiwanese new media art, says she’s been trying to collaborate with European and North American venues for years.
“[European and American galleries] are more than willing to show their contemporary artists in my gallery. But they don’t want my artists,” Keng says, adding that most Western galleries perceive the financial risk as too great — a dilemma that extends to Taiwan’s public art institutions.
“The sales just aren’t there,” Keng says.
David Lin agrees. He says it isn’t difficult to sell contemporary Taiwanese art if it’s priced under NT$500,000.
“NT$1 million is the ceiling,” he says. “And if the artists can’t sell for more, then galleries don’t have the money to promote them [at art fairs and biennials] overseas,” Lin says.
Though he represents several Chinese artists, Lin says “most of the art I show at Art Taipei is by Taiwanese artists because it’s the only chance they have to exhibit in a big show.”
Concerned about the marginalization of Taiwanese artists, TAGA has lobbied the government to step in and help. Citing as examples South Korea, whose government offers generous subsidies to its galleries, and Singapore, whose government underwrites much of Art Stage Singapore, Chang says that the government should increase funding for visual art.
At a public hearing last year, independent curator Hu Yung-fen (胡永芬) questioned the gap between the government’s funding for visual arts, which he says amounts to NT$200 million, and the culture and creative industries, which received NT$10 billion from the National Development Fund alone.
A third way
There may be other alternatives, however. The Asia Art Center has been very successful at collaborating with corporations at home and art foundations abroad. For its recent Li Chen exhibition in Paris, they received support from Evergreen Group (長榮集團) and collaborated with the European-based Global Art Center Foundation, which they also teamed up with for a collateral exhibition at the Venice Biennial.
However, this kind of collaboration remains an outlier.
For now, Taiwanese galleries will have to continue to rely on collectors at home and at other regional art fairs to promote their artists. Lin says Taiwanese artists do sell to collectors from China and Singapore because “we’ve promoted these artists to them before and they will come to see their new work.”
Art Taipei begins on Friday and runs until Nov. 11. Complete details in English and Chinese can be found at: art-taipei.com.