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Has Gillman Barracks turned the corner?
URSULA Sullivan, one-half of the dynamic duo behind Australian gallery Sullivan + Strumpf, appears genuinely stumped: "People seem to think we're fools for setting up a new gallery in Gillman Barracks. But we are optimistic about the art market in Singapore, and we can only go on what we know."
Sullivan + Strumpf is the first Australian gallery to expand into Asia. Its new offshoot opened this month on Lock Road in Gillman, next to Sundaram Tagore Gallery. Prior to this, the space was occupied by Filipino gallery The Drawing Room.
But in 2015, The Drawing Room pulled out of Gillman along with four other galleries: Equator Art Projects, Space Cottonseed, Tomio Koyama Gallery and Silverlens. This year, two more art spaces called it a day - Galerie Michael Janssen and Platform Projects. Most of the spaces cited poor sales and visitorship as the main reasons.
Ms Sullivan and her partner Joanna Strumpf are aware of the issues. But Ms Sullivan says: "Galleries close all the time. Before we started Sullivan + Strumpf in Sydney in 2005, we made a list of 15 galleries in Sydney we thought were good, because we needed to see what they were doing. Today, only two of them are still around. The others have closed."
Gallerists who left Gillman complained that the footfall was too low to sustain a business. But Ms Strumpf counters that by pointing out: "Our gallery in Sydney is off the beaten track. We're used to no one coming through the door of our gallery in Sydney. We work via appointments. Our clients tell us when they'd like to visit the gallery, and then we'd open the gallery for them. We look for great artists, have great exhibitions, and people are interested."
Gillman Barracks was launched by the Economic Development Board (EDB) in September 2012 amid much fanfare. The high-end art gallery cluster was seen as part of developments to herald Singapore's arrival on the global contemporary art circuit.
But within less than a year of its opening, owners of the smaller galleries were complaining of bad sales, low footfall, tiny local collector base and poor amenities. There were no cafes around for gallerists to sit and chat with collectors about the art. Toilets were few and far between - and sometimes not functioning.
Notably, it is the bigger galleries such as ARNDT, Sundaram Tagore Gallery, Ota Fine Arts and Pearl Lam Galleries - all with flagships outside of Singapore - that have fared better. They sell higher-priced works by more famous artists such as Yayoi Kusama, Zhu Jinshi and Sebastiao Salgado to their network of wealthy collectors, which presumably gives them a better buffer against a possibly lacklustre performance in Gillman.
"But for the smaller galleries, we were financially over-extended and burnt out," reveals one gallerist who quit last year. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the gallerist adds: "We had many discussions with EDB about toilets, walkways and cafes. For a long time, those issues were not resolved. Even the short-cut to the Labrador Park MRT station was shown to us in the blueprint but not constructed until later.
"We had hoped the opening of the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art on Malan Road would lure more serious art-lovers to the area where the smaller galleries were located. But its opening was delayed by a year. For young galleries, a year is a long time. We couldn't survive for long. We had to pull out."
Visitor numbers up
Since last year, things appear to be improving. The opening of NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (NTU CCA) in October 2013 has slowly but steadily attracted more visitors to its high-quality shows by top artists such as Charles Lim, Simryn Gill, Joan Jonas and Yang Fudong.
Ute Meta Bauer, founding director of NTU CCA, says: "Since the Centre's inauguration in 2013, we've seen an upward trend and steady increase in visitors of around 35 per cent annually. To keep this in perspective, the NTU CCA started from scratch in 2013, so a steep increase in attendance is also to be expected. But what we're very glad about is that in addition to our exhibitions, our regular public programmes on Wednesdays and Fridays - ranging from tours of exhibitions, lectures, film screenings, workshops and open studio session - make about 45 per cent of our annual visitor numbers."
The centre's recent survey found that while many of its frequent visitors are members of the art community - artists, curators, writers - a good half of its visitors are tourists and the general public. The centre has also seen a two-fold increase in visitors from the business, legal and finance sectors.
Prof Bauer concludes: "There is clearly a hunger in Singapore for discursive formats and a general public that seems eager to learn more about art and related fields."
Meanwhile, the EDB and the National Arts Council (NAC) jointly set up the Gillman Barracks Programme Office this year. According to Low Eng Teong, director of NAC's Sector Development (Visual Arts), the mission of the four-member office is to "strengthen the place-making efforts of Gillman with its tenants, boost programming so as to offer different kinds of experiences for the visitor, and help Gillman integrate with the larger arts scene of Singapore".
The space left behind by the galleries that pulled out of Malan Road is now occupied by Playeum, a children's centre for creativity, and Art Outreach, an art education organisation. Starting this week, they will be joined by Supermama, a lifestyle store selling unique items.
The opening of new cafes and eateries such as Red Baron and Creamier have also provided more spaces for casual interaction.
Mr Low notes: "We're working closely with Singapore Tourism Board to make Gillman a key attraction for tourists - much in the way we promote the museums. And from the gallerists' own observations, Gillman has seen an increase in footfall."
Small galleries struggle
But business sentiments remain uncertain. For smaller galleries, turning a profit continues to be a challenge. One gallerist says that the number of serious Singaporean collectors who acquire art because they genuinely care about it can be counted on one hand. Art appreciation is still nascent.
Many people buy art hoping to sell it off in a few years time at a higher price - a risky proposition because art is illiquid and the market is unpredictable. Not many people buy young artists' works despite their lower prices, fearing they have no resale value.
Audrey Yeo, owner and director of the young gallery Yeo Workshop, has worked very hard at helping potential art collectors understand contemporary art and the market. She conducts talks, courses and tours for bankers, their clients and other high net worth individuals. She also publishes The Singapore Arts Club Workbook, a magazine that blends art, design and lifestyle news.
Having opened Yeo Workshop in 2013, she says: "We're slowly gaining traction. We were in the red in the first year. We broke even in the second year. And in the third year, we saw our revenue more than double from the previous year. But that's not to say our profits are high. The money we earn is poured back into our programming, so it's still an uphill battle. For a small gallery like ours, the rent is high."
Stephanie Fong, the only other Singapore gallerist at Gillman, says her gallery FOST is doing better in its current location compared to its former site in Kim Yam Road. But she remains "cautiously optimistic about the market because of larger issues beyond Gillman, such as the high cost of operations in Singapore and the global economy".
Ms Fong adds that footfall has gotten better because of efforts by organisations such as Art Outreach and Friends Of The Museum to bring visitors to the galleries, but admits "these measures may not necessarily translate to a great leap in sales".
In contrast, Sundaram Tagore, owner of the eponymous gallery, is optimistic about business in the coming years.
As one of the bigger galleries in Gillman, Mr Tagore has mounted major solo exhibitions of international artists such as Sebastiao Salgado and Annie Leibovitz, as well as Singapore master abstractionist Anthony Poon whose show is on now.
Mr Tagore says: "If we were not optimistic, then we wouldn't be there. We've seen people come and go, but we are as committed now as when we first became part of Gillman Barracks. I think that's indicative of exactly how optimistic and bullish we feel about the future."
He adds: "I think the new amenities have fixed all of the earlier Gillman Barracks concerns. Looking to the future, I think we'd benefit from expanded promotion and outreach, so all of us at Gillman Barracks can connect with an even-larger audience."
On the final count, selling art is ultimately a "very tricky business", says Ms Sullivan of Sullivan + Strumpf. "We cannot predict how we will do here in Gillman or what collectors will buy. In the past, when we tried to predict what people would buy, we always got it wrong. All we know is that collectors respond to great art. And if we bring high-quality works, we think success will come."
- On Saturday (June 25), Gillman Barracks is holding an open house event called "Art Day Out! at Gillman Barracks - The School Holidays Edition" from 2pm to 7pm. The family-friendly event has fun activities for children and special programming for adults
Five shows to catch
Sullivan + Strumpf opening show
The new gallery's inaugural exhibition features works by its best artists including Sam Jinks, Alex Seton and Ex De Medici.
Anthony Poon at Sundaram Tagore
Several works by the late Singapore abstractionist Anthony Poon is now on glorious display.
Jimmy Ong at FOST
Jimmy Ong's elegant and subversive charcoal drawings depict Stamford Raffles' time in Java.
Ken + Julia Yonetani at Mizuma
The centrepiece of the married couple's exhibition is The Last Supper, a nine-metre table made of over one tonne of groundwater salt. Charles Lim at NTU Centre of Contemporary
Charles Lim's extraordinary show explores Singapore's relationship with the sea. It was last seen at the Venice Biennale.