Lorenzo Rudolf, chief executive of Art Stage Singapore, is one art world figure who truly deserves to be described as “international”.

Born in Switzerland, Rudolf took charge of Art Basel in 1991, transforming the modest event into a template for today’s art fairs. During his nine years as director there, he created Art Basel Miami Beach in 2002. He went on to launch SH Contemporary in Shanghai in 2007. Art Stage Singapore, which was launched in January, is his latest stop.

Despite such a career, Rudolf feels like something of a maverick in the art world. The former lawyer says being someone who “came from outside the business” seem to be his strongest advantage as he questions accepted art-world conventions.

“Many times people thought I was crazy when I chose Miami Beach over New York as Art Basel’s American base,” he says. “People asked, ‘How could you go to a place without any culture?’ But Miami Beach is the place where New Yorkers party and is close enough to the Latin American market – it has a great ambience.

“When New York galleries boycotted the fair, at first, I thought, ‘Forget the Americans, bring the Europeans.’ If you have them, you can be sure that not one American will leave the place to the Europeans.”

His decision to launch an international art fair in Singapore, a proposal he himself initially rejected in 1992, took nine years to realise. “Singapore is a small, neutral, multicultural place at the crossroads of China, India and south-east Asia. So there you have the three biggest art scenes, the three biggest art markets and the three fastest-growing economies. Singapore is a wealth management hub and destination for many affluent people from south-east Asia, the Gulf states, Australia and China.”

But can these non-art factors sustain an art scene? “Forget it, Singapore is too small,” he says.

“What is interesting for Singapore in my eyes is not building up its own art scene and becoming competitive with China. What is interesting there is to build a centre of exchange and dialogue, where the fragmented art scenes of Asia can coalesce.”

It seems that Singapore’s government is singing the same tune, working on both the hardware and the software. In addition to a pipeline of major art infrastructure coming on stream, an additional $245m has been set aside over the next five years for programming and the integration of arts into mainstream education. Not bad for a city of just 5m people.

“Besides Basel, I have not experienced a place that has supported me in a way that is comparable to Singapore,” Rudolf says. “In the future, we want to see top Asian artists presented by Asian galleries and not only by western ones. Otherwise, we will not develop Asia as a market.” The launch of Art Stage Singapore in January has gone some way towards realising this ambition.

Sylvain Levy, an avid collector of contemporary Chinese art who was in Singapore for the show, says, “Rudolf has created an event focused mainly on Asian galleries and artists. It was a success – already, an identity is created.”

Rudolf is quick to admit that the south-east Asian art market – by which he means Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam – is no bed of roses. Professionalism in the arts industry is still in its infancy there. “There were a number of south-east Asian galleries who brought works of their artists to the fair rolled up like a map.”

In his view, south-east Asian artists have the potential to excite the international art world with the right backing from dealers. “In the past year or two, artists here have been in constant contact with big foundations and collectors who have travelled through south-east Asia, mainly to Indonesia. They want to go international. But galleries are still doing their national thing. Soon, the artists will begin to think, ‘Sorry, how can my gallery here support me?’”

In the past year, contemporary Indonesian art has been shown in Milan, Berlin, Tuscany and New York. Over the next few months, exhibitions at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris and the Saatchi Gallery in London will expose it to an even wider audience. Rudolph’s aim is to support artists and galleries from the region, to bring them to a level where they are compatible with other international art scenes.

The region is like the “Wild West, in a good way”, he says.

“Singapore has proved quite interesting. There are collectors who are not only interested and professional but are incredibly involved in the international scene. But they are all somewhat hidden. It is quite strange, they don’t go in for openings. They are not involved in the local art scene. I think it is about the quality of certain institutions here – they expect much more. When we did Collectors’ Stage, a show of Asian contemporary art from private collections, they were all there, all those hidden collectors.”

Indonesia is quite another picture. “When I was still in Shanghai, I wanted to do some promotional event as I heard that Indonesia had quite an interesting scene with some passionate collectors. One day someone casually said that he had a friend who would be willing to help. I flew down with my wife, thinking, if we could meet 30, 40 people, that would be great. When we arrived at the house of this collector, Deddy Kusuma in Jakarta, he had his entire collection installed and there was a set-up for a TV debate and 700 people turned up.

“Many westerners still think Asia is only China. Those who have had the opportunity of passing through this part of Asia have come back totally surprised. They tell me, ‘China is only the tip of the iceberg.’ The thrill is in the discovery of the new and, sometimes, at greatly affordable prices.”

The second edition of Art Stage Singapore runs from January 12-15 2012, www.artstagesingapore.com

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