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Did you say 'difficult' art? She will sell it
HELINA Chan realised 20 years ago that she couldn't rely on retail alone to sustain her gallery business.
"To wait for customers to walk in and purchase something is not a good primary strategy," she says. "So I focus instead on selling public art and integrated art. I work on projects with companies. These kinds of projects help the gallery survive. I realised the retail market is very small in Singapore and Hong Kong."
Moving into the art world from the fashion industry in 1994, she says she got lucky when famous Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming agreed to have her represent him. Although he was already doing well in Taiwan, she saw a potential demand for his works outside of his home country.
His blocky but elegant wood sculptures turned out to be an international hit, and Ms Chan was able to channel the commission from the sale of his works into supporting younger, riskier artists - including emerging local artists such as Hilmi Johandi and Filip Gudovic - as well as established Singapore artists.
She says: "If you're just showing local artists, you cannot survive. You have to have a few big names in your roster. But how do you get big names? You have to try and spot talent early and work with them on a long-term basis. That's the only way you can build an audience for an artist."
"Stamina is very important, as it takes time for people to become comfortable with art they might not like at first. But in time, they will see what you see."
She says: "I pay attention to artists whose works are difficult and challenging to sell. A good artist must have that sense of originality so that his works will stand out from the pack in the long run. A good artist must also be critical of his development and change course if he has been relying on tried-and-tested ways."
She cites the example of Milenko Prvacki, the Cultural Medallion recipient and abstract artist. His canvases are packed with abstract forms. He uses mostly muted colours, unlike other abstractionists who rely on bright attractive hues. The titles of his paintings may not match your reading of them.
But Ms Chan says: "I love his works. There's an amazing spontaneity and strength that make them special. Despite that, a lot of my collectors find them difficult. They're always asking me: What's in his paintings? What does it mean?"
These tentative reactions, however, have not stopped Ms Chan from promoting him around the world. Most recently, she took his canvases to Art Paris Art Fair, a partner event of the Singapore Festival in France, along with works by other important local artists such as Lee Wen, Tang Da Wu, Boo Sze Yang, Tay Bak Chiang and Chen Sai Hua Kuan.
She also took works by her regional artists, including Ju Ming and Hong Kong's Tse Yim On. Several drew strong interest from European collectors.
"You must introduce your artists to the whole world."
Like other gallerists, however, she thinks Singapore's art market has gotten ahead of itself in recent years. She says: "There's only so much the market can take. When there are this many art fairs, they're cutting themselves very thin. The pie is only so much. Only so many people put aside money for art. They're not going to triple that budget just because there are more fairs."
Her strategy now is to cultivate younger collectors who rarely think of buying art. Like most galleries in Singapore, iPreciation's collector base tends to comprise people in their late 30s and older. But Ms Chan wants to draw young people to own works of well-known artists such as Boo, Tay and Prvacki.
To achieve that, she has asked her top artists to create smaller works which she can price below S$5,000 for an exhibition before Christmas.
She says: "I've been thinking how to get, say, a young woman not to buy that second S$3,000 Chanel handbag and spend that money on art instead. So I thought, if I could get my top artists to create smaller works and my emerging artists to create mid-sized or even large works priced below S$5,000, I could create a new generation of collectors and fans for these artists. What's more, these people will be buying serious artworks by good artists - instead of artists they don't know anything about."
If her track record is any indication, that young woman might just ditch that Chanel handbag.
- iPreciation gallery is located at 50 Cuscaden Road, next to Hard Rock Cafe. Contact the gallery on Tel: 6339-0678