Besides the National Gallery, Singapore Art Museum, and Gillman Barracks, Singapore is teeming with smaller private art galleries. What does it take to run such a business?
BY MELANIE LEE
Published on 1 February 2016
BY MELANIE LEE
For Vera Ong, director of Art-2 Gallery, the art world in Singapore has transformed dramatically since her friend and Cultural Medallion recipient, Kuo Pao Kun, asked her to set up an art gallery at The Substation in 1991.
“We were given a tiny, tiny space and there weren’t many other art galleries around. But these days, there are more art collectors here who are well-informed and affluent, and so the scene here is very vibrant,” she observes. According to Art Galleries Association Singapore (AGAS), there are 33 gallery members in their association and this number is expected to grow.
Says Benjamin Milton Hampe, director of Chan Hampe Galleries, “There is great potential for continual growth in the Singapore art market. I feel like we’re just at the beginning of this narrative.”
For many of these galleries, their stories started with a love for art. Dr Pwee Keng Hock was a research director before deciding to set up Utterly Art with business partner Kenneth Tan in 2002. “We were building up content for an art website before that and thought that since we had invested so much energy developing contacts with many Singapore artists, we should set up an art gallery.”
The same goes for Gwen Lee, a former museum curator, who in 2008 decided to establish 2902 Gallery which specialises in photography. “We opened just as one photography gallery closed, having barely lasted two years. But I felt that if I did not take the risk, people would always view photography as a poorer cousin to paintings. I really wanted to present photographs as being as good as any other visual art form.”
Besides promoting art, one of the most fulfilling aspects of being an art gallery boss is discovering new talent. Mike Tay, founder of Flaneur Gallery, makes it a point to scout for new artists by visiting museums, attending graduate shows by art students and following up with recommendations from contacts. One young artist he works with is sculptor Justin Lin, who returned to Singapore in 2015 after studying in Carnegie Mellon in the United States. Tay included Lin in a group exhibition and was pleased to see people “responding to his metal works because they tell interesting stories”.
One of the first artists Hampe discovered in 2010, after attending a LASALLE graduate show, was Ruben Pang. Since then, Pang has gone on to have multiple sell-out solo exhibitions and has had his work shown around Asia, Europe and America. “We’re dedicated to developing the artist’s career so they can sustain themselves in the long-term,” says Hampe. “Our job is so much more than picking art and slapping them on walls, there’s a real process behind it.”
For Ong, discovering new talent and then growing along with these artists as they win awards and become established is immensely gratifying. “It’s hard to make money in this business, but it’s also hard to let go of these relationships that have been built up after all these years.”
Many of these private art gallery owners talk about things “quietening down” this year, and art collectors being “more cautious”. In the case of Utterly Art, Pwee sees that they have to get out more by being involved in big art fairs such as Art Stage Singapore and the Singapore Contemporary Art Show.
For Lee, she would like the chance for 2902 Gallery to regroup during this period. “When we first started out, we were frantically churning out exhibitions. But now, I’d like to focus on photographers who are genuinely serious about their work.”
Meanwhile, Hampe believes in getting the basics right even in uncertain times. “Focus on having a good relationship with artists and collectors and don’t cut corners — it’s important to put in the resources to maintain the gallery brand.”
Here are some interesting exhibitions in the pipeline.
Club Berlin: Photography & Electronic Music
WHAT Photographs of Berlin’s edgy club culture are juxtaposed with live performances by famous German DJs. Tickets at $5.
WHEN 3 March-5 April
WHERE DECK, 120A Prinsep Street
Featured Artist: Mona Choo
WHAT Science and spirituality intersect with Choo’s prints that reflect her explorations of the theory of the universe and dimensions of reality. Call 6338-8713 for an appointment.
WHERE 140 Hill Street, #01-03, Old Hill Street Police Station
Balancing the World
WHAT Singapore-based Australian artist Belinda Fox showcases a mix of painting and ceramic sculptures that consider the loss of tradition and exploitation with human progress.
WHEN Till 14 February
WHERE Raffles Hotel Arcade, 328 North Bridge Road, #01-21
One by One Metre Space
WHAT A mixed-media group exhibition that responds to the Sungei Road Flea Market area that will soon be disappearing from our landscape. Themes such as transitory spaces and contestation of land are explored.
WHEN Till 21 February
WHERE 129 Jalan Besar
(Paint)-ing by Pan Huiting
WHAT A solo exhibition featuring scenes from the artist’s everyday life, with a focus on plates and platters of food. Call 9487-2006 for an appointment.
WHEN 18 February-6 March
WHERE 20B Mosque Street (Level 3)