Singapore, the New Team Player for the Art World

by Claudia Dias on June 14, 2010

During the unprecedented emergence of Asian economies the number of entrepreneurs with high net-worth who tend to invest large portions of their wealth into fine arts and other high-value collectibles has drastically increased over the past 10 years, and so has the demand for the management and storage of these new collections. Singapore, an established world banking center and a reputable location for wealth management, also often referred to as “the Switzerland of Asia,” seems most suitable as a location, since the country is highly trusted by business community for its safety and economical and political stability within the Asian region. The structural analogue of this opened at the beginning of 2010, when for the first time Singapore FreePort, a new Fort Knox opened its vault doors to customers, located right at the trading crossroads of the Middle East, India and China.

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Singapore’s government agencies such as the EDB (Economic Development Board), the National Arts Council and the National Heritage Board have been instrumental in realizing projects of such scale, partially as shareholders, who ease the financial risks. For over 40 years the EDB has focused on still undeveloped but seminal economic branches and encourages their phased development. As a public agency it is able to create public-private partnerships with the next generation of entrepreneurs and to advance them with beneficial regulations. This is exactly what is happening with art market right now.

Thanks to the new Freeport and Singapore’s substantial subsidies, the ink is hardly dry on the promotional materials for Art Stage Singapore, the new art fair scheduled for January 2011. Lorenzo Rudolf, the former director of Art Basel, inventor of  Art Basel Miami Beach and co-creator of Shanghai Contemporary, chose Singapore as the location for his newest fair of international contemporary art. It will be staged in the soon to be completed Marina Bay Sands building, with its giant roof terraces 250 meters up in the sky; a building that is already an icon for skyscraper fans. According to Rudolf “Asia is on the way to become an important platform of the international art market” and Art Stage Singapore is supposedly the key opportunity for networking galleries, collectors and art institutions. The French Art 7 Design Pavilion for 2011 is also in talks. These two events would expand the spectrum of new art fairs to Design, Modern and Contemporary art.

The idea for the Singapore FreePort, the duty-free and tax-free depot, was a brainchild of founder Alain Vandenborre already in December 2004. Thanks to his partnership with Yves Bouvier, president of the Swiss Art shipping company Natural Le Coultre, the brainchild turned into a project. After one year of planning and 2 years of construction the first phase of the “Swiss wonder” has now opened. Insurance companies “with proper risk management favor safe keeping of assets in at least two different locations” and “the Swiss Freeports have also become quite overbooked over the years,” explains Alain Vandeborre, who holds an MA in Astrophysics and works now as serial-entrepreneur in Singapore.

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Technologically equipped with the most advanced climate control and security systems, not only museums, National collections and auction houses have reserved strong rooms, but also international banks are entrusting their treasures under off-shore regulations to the Singapore FreePort at Changi airport. What accelerated the completion of the project was Christie’s signing up as an anchor client in April 2009; at one go 40% of the approx. 22,000 m2 capacity of Phase1 was leased for 30 years. The additional 25,000 m2 storage area of Phase2 shall be completed by the beginning of 2014.

It is not just about high value storage, but the entire fortress is an ecological and technological gem, which was designed by the Geneva architecture office 3MB3 in close collaboration with Swiss engineers, starting with its plant-covered facade conceived for climate-control purposes. Also the building contour brings to mind a jewel; the shape however is a product of the airport’s height constraints. To avoid any kind of water damage the cooling in the strong rooms is achieved simply by air circulation and the entire roof is going to be covered with the newest thin-film solar voltaics.

For the central courtyard Vandeborre and design collector Yves Bouvier commissioned Ron Arad with a monumental metal installation, of which the cell structure reminds one of a distorted space grid. Johanna Grawunder designed light installations to interlace the softer outdoor architecture with the rough windowless interior. During the daytime narrow stainless-steel panels reflect the sky, while at night they remind of darkened “windows” in front of the LED projected wall, which creates a “bioluminescent” effect for the plant façade. Grawunder transmutes the long corridors in the more exclusive areas of the vault facility with criss-crossed textures of LED and acrylic light into human and ecologically friendly passages.

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Andrew Foster, COO of Christie’s Asia is confident: “The CFASS (Christie’s Fine Art Storage Facility) in London was a great success.” But with customers of the auction house frequently requesting additional storage possibilities in Asia, the Singapore FreePort project came in handy. “We are considering providing a secure storage area of an even larger share of the second Phase building.” Andrew Foster is not convinced that Singapore is going to turn into the art market hub for Asia like Hong Kong. He rather more expects the City State to play a central role for all art market supporting aspects.

Nevertheless, Singapore and the EDB are subsidizing the creation of an infrastructure for contemporary art by building innovative new museums and not a moment too soon: because 2011 the next wave of art fairs will hit Singapore.

This article was published in German in KUNSTZEITUNG May, 2010; Text and photographs by Claudia Dias, renderings are courtesy of Atelier d’Architecture 3BM3


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