Culture / Art Republik

Art Stage 2017: Conversation With Maria Elena Rudolf

Ahead of Art Stage Singapore 2016, our friends at Art Republik sat down with Maria Elena Rudolf, Vice-President of Art Stage Singapore, for a frank discussion.

Nov 22, 2016 | By Staff Writer

Maria Elena Rudolf, together with her husband Lorenzo Rudolf, has led Art Stage Singapore to great success over the last six years. Maria specifically oversees Art Stage’s VIP relations and is currently the Vice-President of Art Stage Singapore. She has been instrumental in organizing the social events for Art Stage’s VIP guests before and during the Fair, and in raising the profile of the Fair as the annual social event of the year in Southeast Asia. She has traveled widely across the Southeast Asian region together with Lorenzo to meet with art gallerists, collectors, artists, curators and art professionals to encourage them to converge in Singapore every January at Art Stage Singapore, which has become the rendezvous point for all art connoisseurs and art-lovers of the region and the world.

Art Republik sits down with Maria Elena Rudolf, Vice-President of Art Stage Singapore, to find out more about her role and its challenges, and the Fair’s 2017 edition, which begins January 12.

At the beginning, six years ago, what triggered the creation of Art Stage Singapore?

Art Stage Singapore is a logical consequence in the career of my husband, Lorenzo. In 2007, he and two partners organized the first big art fair in Asia – Shanghai Contemporary and back then, there were already galleries and artists from Southeast Asia involved in the show. There were really spectacular presentations by galleries from Indonesia, the Philippines and even Thailand. And as a consequence of this fair, after the three partners split, my husband and I decided we wanted to stay in Asia. First of all because we fell in love with Asia, but also because we saw and felt that Asia needs its own Asian fair. This means we need fairs that are not only trying to bring in the top names from the West, but really providing opportunities for Asian artists and Asian institutions, especially galleries, to become known names on the international market. So saying that, there were only two possibilities where we could do a fair. China had a very, very high tax on contemporary art, at the time it was over 30%. So the only two places where we could really start an international event was either Singapore or Hong Kong, similar to the financial industry.

Additionally, my husband was approached in the 90s while he was the director of Art Basel, to come and do something in Singapore but he always considered it too early to do something here because the arts scene and the art market were not ready for a big international art fair. But at this point, I think it’s the right time and timing is really important. But there are definitely also other important factors which made us decide to come to Singapore.

First of all, Lorenzo has been doing international art fairs for many years and he also really wanted to do something new. He wanted not only to do a fair, a classic fair, but really something where it is integrated into an event, the entire art scene, where he can work to build up a place, akin to an arts center where Singapore is an art hub. This is something that is more important, or more interesting, than only to administrate a fair, and to sell square meters to galleries. That was also the reason why in the first year, Lorenzo created a collectors’ exhibition called Collectors’ Stage which was a huge success as a non-commercial counterpart to the first edition of the fair. Another important thing to note is, up until now, my husband had always been employed as a director by a fair company such as in Basel and Frankfurt. However, now we just want to do our own thing.

Art Stage Singapore is a private company, our own company and we can also take much more responsibility. This is also the reason why we invested from the beginning, a lot of money into Singapore and Art Stage, and into the building up of Art Stage. It’s a bit like, as my husband always says, a situation where we are creating a marketplace for a market which we have at the same time to build up for the marketplace to function.

But I think this responsibility is also one that gives us a lot of gratitude, and we are happy to be a part of the arts ecosystem in Singapore, and to be a catalyst and the flagship fair of the region.

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Maria Elena and husband Lorenzo Rudolf

The fair is undoubtedly getting bigger, and going from strength to strength each year. How has it developed so far, in your view? Would you have done anything different?

First of all, I have to say that I work very closely together with my husband. I would not do anything different because whatever we do, we always have a discussion first and I am always involved. But it’s clear, nobody is perfect, and this fair is still a baby. It’s a very, very young event, only six years old, and there’s still a lot to do. But, let’s also be objective. If we see what we achieve in these six years, what Singapore has achieved in this period, there’s really a lot which has happened.

Think about Gillman Barracks, I think a couple of the galleries probably would not have come without Art Stage. They realize that the market is there, that there is the support of the market from the fair. There would probably not be a Singapore Art Week, which today, happens around the fair. I remember very well when we did the first event, we had to do the fringe events ourselves. Today we have an Art Week with over a hundred events which shows how Singapore has also embraced what we have done, how Singapore has reacted to it. I think it’s wonderful to see that.

We have also to realize that in these six years, the Fair was an important factor in creating a momentum for Southeast Asian art, for Southeast Asian galleries and artists, art curators, people and institutions all over the world are beginning to buy and collect Southeast Asian art such as the Tate, the Guggenheim. Today, a Singaporean has become the director of the Asia Society in New York. So you can see something really happening. And we are very happy to be a part of it. As we have said before, it’s our responsibility and we want to take the responsibility to support what happens in Southeast Asia, and with Singapore at its center. We see ourselves as the flagship, as the catalyst, and even more in the future to work together with institutions to make it stronger. I think it should not only be a trend, it should be a normality that wherever in the world when you speak about Southeast Asia, everybody thinks of art and everybody realizes that Singapore is its center.

On the other side, it’s clear we are here in a region where we have to say that there is not one Southeast Asia but there are many Southeast Asias. When we arrived here six years ago, we started to plan the fair and realized that Southeast Asia was very segmented. Indonesia was quite a closed market, not having any clue, not having a lot of knowledge about, for example, about art from the Philippines. Similarly for the Philippines and Malaysia etc. Thanks to events like Art Stage Singapore, we have been successful to match-make artists across the region. I think this year, in January, we have for the first time a real cross market at the fair. That means people from all these Southeast Asian countries begin to be interested not only in what happens in the other art scenes in Southeast Asia, but also to buy and really begin to go into it. And I think that is surely one of the most important factors for the future.

Art Stage Singapore 2016 Launch Dinner

Art Stage Singapore 2016 Launch Dinner

We are working more closely on the matchmaking not only in the art scene, but also with people. That is really my own job and that is really my own passion. And even more in the future, we will try to bring people together and make Singapore, make Art Stage a platform for getting together, of getting to know each other, of getting to meet each other. I think we have to go even more, especially in a region like Southeast Asia, especially in a city like Singapore, where the temples are the malls, the luxury malls, we have even to go more into social events and that’s something we want to invest more in, in the future.

How do you view your role as Vice-President of Art Stage Singapore, overseeing VIP relations? What are the aspects of it that you enjoy, and how do you manage the multitude of big, diverse personalities and talent?

First of all, I really enjoy working with my husband. I’m a family person and that’s really important to me. On the other side, I like people. I’m a very social person, and for me, one of the most important things, not only in business but in life, is my social contacts, to match-make people, to bring people together, and really to build up relationships. A successful international fair today is not only a fair with square meters of galleries. The galleries are definitely important but so are the buyers, the collectors. Without them, a fair would never work. Lorenzo realised that in the early nineties and changed the entire model of an art fair, and took the collectors to a much higher level by inventing all the VIP programs etc. And I think here in Southeast Asia, where we have such a segmented situation, it’s even more important to work on that. And that’s exactly at the end, what my job is, what I’m responsible for doing. And I really love it.

Take for example, the Collectors’ Club. It started in the first or second edition of the fair, and more and more collectors become not only part of a community which is supporting Art Stage, but it is becoming more like a family. Because we have collectors from China and Japan, with collectors from Indonesia and the Philippines, who have never met amongst themselves before. They’ve heard of each other but have never made contact with each other. And they never would have gotten into contact because of cultural differences, language barriers etc., but we roped them together and today they support each other. I think that’s something important.

It’s also important to bring in new collectors, new buyers, from abroad, from outside the region. The entire Asia, but also from the West, from Europe, from America. At the last edition, we brought in a good friend of mine, Jorge Perez, one of the biggest collectors in America, and he came to see Southeast Asian art for the first time. He was totally fascinated, he spent more than USD3 million at the fair. He even bought up the entire stand of artworks from a Singapore gallery. And I think that’s the way we have to work.

Sometimes people think it’s a simple to do an art fair, you only sell some square meters in a hall to some galleries and it’s done. But it’s much, much more dedicated. Especially the entire acquisition, the entire marketing, the collectors, the VIPs, it’s a hard, hard job. All this happens not only during the fair, but also before and after the fair, where we do a lot of events to build up all these relationships, and in the end, to bring people to the fair. And that’s what I do, and I love what I do, and it’s a wonderful complement to what my husband does.

MER, Maisy Koh, Beh Swan Gin resized

Maria Elena with Maisy Koh and Beh Swan Gin

Working with a wide-range of art practitioners from a myriad of regions and backgrounds, do all the different influences and exposures affect and inspire the way you approach your work?

I love it. I think it supports my work because it opens my mind. Don’t forget, I’m South American; I’ve lived in Basel, Germany, Miami, Paris, Lugano, Singapore, and all these places have made me a more open person. I think it’s not only important if you work in the cultural industry, in the cultural field, I think it’s important in all matters of human life. I would say that it’s necessary that even you, in Singapore, have to go study abroad for a year to learn about a lot of other cultures, to learn and be inspired, and also it opens a lot of new doors. Because if you speak with someone who is not of your culture, and you know his culture, you know his language, you already have a big advantage.

How do you work in tandem with your husband and founder of Art Stage Singapore, Lorenzo Rudolf? Do you two have different characters and skillsets that complement each other?

Oh yes, it’s like yin and yang. Don’t forget, I’m South American, I’m Latina, and he comes from the German culture, even if he’s half Swiss Italian, but his culture is German and that is really like, two parts that complement each other really, in an ideal way. I think it would be boring if there were to be no friction between us. I think that is what really makes the big discussions happen. But I also have to admit that I have learned a lot from him; he has been in the field of art for much longer and it’s so wonderful to be at his side.

How does the Southeast Asian art world compare on a global scale?

I think we have to be very clear that here in Southeast Asia we have an emerging art world. All these art scenes are very young, and they are beginning to grow; and Southeast Asia is quite segmented. In other words, we don’t just have to build a fair, we have to build up all these markets. We have to inform on all these markets, we have to show what the artists think, what the artists are, what the galleries are, what the collectors are, and we have to match-make. We have to bring them together.

On the other side, we also have to realize that we have with Singapore a wonderful place, which is really the centre of that gathering. But if we look at the markets, it is clear to say that the markets around Singapore – Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia – are really rapidly growing, while Singapore itself is quite stagnant. So we have to look at Singapore as an even more vibrant place, as a fair, as a hub in Southeast Asia, not only during the fair, but also during the entire year.

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Maria Elena, Lorenzo and Sabrina Ault

In the end, we want places like Gillman Barracks and galleries all over Singapore to become really successful. And for a lot of locals to really frequent them and go to the openings, to visit these galleries. That means a lot of work, a lot of information, a lot of educational work, and that’s what we also do. What’s important for us, one of our practices, is that we invest a lot of money, which is not the classical investment in an art fair because there are no financial returns. But we have taken the responsibility and we want to see Singapore grow.

In a crowded art fair landscape, how do you see Art Stage Singapore holding its own against the regions’ other offerings?

We have in Southeast Asia, and all over Asia, the same situation as we had in Europe in the 90s. Almost every week we hear about a new fair that is founded, and it’s really a growth of fairs everywhere… That certainly shows that these art scenes, the art market here is really developing. But to exist in such an accumulation of events, you can only survive if you have a very clear and unique identity, a very unique and clear strategy. In other words, you have to become a brand. That is the case in every industry today, and unfortunately also in the art world.

From the beginning we said we want to be a fair for Asia, in Asia, and we even have to adjust it a little, and say first of all, we have to support Southeast Asia, we have to bring Southeast Asia to an international level of art, and that means we have to do a lot of things which are not typical of an art fair. That’s why, for example, we have all these education programs, why we created the Southeast Asian platform and the Singapore platforms, which are at the end, nothing else than investment where we really support the art world locally and regionally.

And on the other side, we have to work on the collectors, the buyers, the people, we have to bring them together, we have to bring them to Singapore, we have to match-make them, we have to show them our contemporary artists, general but also contemporary artists from all these art regions, local Singaporean, Malaysian, Filipino, etc. I think what we do here has even more impact on the region, and is probably a much bigger investment than even what Art Basel Hong Kong is doing. So in other words, that is our position.

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Lorenzo and Elena Maria Rudolf with Kim and Lito Camacho

But we also have to be clear, Singapore has many advantages: higher life quality, center for private wealth management, it’s the most ecological place, it’s a luxury place, and it’s a place where you are secure and stable. It is a place, where in time, will become the center for contemporary art; it’s the only multicultural place, not only in the region but in the entire Asia. In other words, it’s ideal, but we have to also be clear that there is one big disadvantage in Singapore and that are the costs, especially in a region that is not very expensive; that means it’s a very high investment for many galleries that come from all over the region to Singapore. And these are the consequences we have to bear.

That is why we have to find solutions every time – how can we bring galleries, artists, who cannot afford the price in Singapore? How can we bring these galleries to Singapore and create a fair, which offers a unique overview and platform for Southeast Asia? Many fairs have come, but we are the only one, besides the Affordable Art Fair, that remains.

What advice would you give to collectors buying first time at Art Stage Singapore?

We always try at the Fair to offer quality. I think it’s important that people can have the confidence in us that we’re not only selling them whatever it is to put on the wall, but really art which has a base, which has a quality, and the quality really means the perspective. Art has nothing to do with decoration, art is something more. That’s our responsibility to our clients, to our visitors. Come to the fair, look, ask galleries, ask experts; if you’re curious about something you see, look again, ask again, and at the end, take only what you like. I think it’s important that an art piece you choose, an art piece you want to buy, you don’t look only at the financial aspect.

The investment aspect is not unimportant, but I think you’ll have to know a lot, that you take the right piece, that you really make a good investment. From here, if you buy art from young emerging artists that will become the stars of tomorrow, you will make a good investment without any big risk. But at the end, buying an art piece is not only a financial investment, it is also a personal investment. Because you invest in your mind, you develop your mind, and also you invest in yourself. Looking at that, you’ll surely buy the right one.

Chrystal Wagar, wife of US Ambassador, MER resized

Chrystal Wagar, wife of US Ambassador, with Maria Elena

It must be quite hectic now as we inch closer towards the 2016 fair dates, how do you manage? Is there still a lot of regional shuttling left to do for your VIP relations?

VIP relations is an all-year-round job, it never stops. But without any doubt, there is a stronger concentration closer to the event, and we do special receptions everywhere; we go to all the markets, to all the buyers that we want to bring to the fair, and we try to build up a community with them. Upcoming, we will be doing an event in Tokyo and in Seoul. We just did an event in Shanghai. We will also be doing a dinner in Hong Kong, Taipei, Manila, KL, and Jakarta; all to build up relations with collectors, with people who have an affirmation with contemporary art who can become the buyers of tomorrow and to bring them to Singapore. It’s not only done to create an event with vibrant and wonderful offshore experience, you have to take the people by the hand and bring them to the point where they want to be a part of it all.

How do you recover after the Fair season ends?

After each edition of the Fair, it is important to relax, to breathe, to escape, to charge your batteries. For me, after the Fair, I usually go back to Lugano, I have the opportunity to see my kids there, to be together with our daughters and my husband’s family, and then we go also to Ecuador where I have my own family. That for me, is the best way to have a balance with my demanding job.

We also have to use this time to think about the future. There is never a time where you are not involved in the Fair; directly the day after the Fair is already the first day on the job of the next Fair. You have to think about strategy, new challenges, etc.

In terms of art, what is the next Southeast Asian country to look out for?

At the moment, the Philippines are hot. There is no art scene in Asia that’s developing as strongly as the Philippines, but that’s not news. On the other side, I agree with my husband, I think that the time of national trends is also in Southeast Asia. But it is time to look beyond the national boundaries. Art has nothing to do with nationalism; art is not national, art is a global language. And an artist is an individualist who has found his own language, his own expression.


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