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IN the past 12 months, several signs have emerged to suggest an art market in trouble: new art fairs such as the Milan Image Art & Design doing poor business; the Affordable Art Fair spring edition seeing a slump in sales; more than a dozen respected galleries closing or downsizing, most notably in Gillman Barracks and Helutrans.
Have the whirlwind art developments these past few years finally outstripped the growth in art buying ? Have art lovers gotten weary of too many exhibitions and art fairs? Has art lost its lustre?
Amid inclement headwinds, some brick-and-mortar galleries have managed to stay the course, despite the fact that rents have increased astronomically in some cases and art fairs and online galleries continue to chip at their profits. Museum of Art & Design (or MAD for short) recently moved into a Tanglin store that's six times the size of its former premises.
Redsea Gallery, ideally located in Dempsey, continues to draw walk-in clients to its well-designed space, while iPreciation gallery on Cuscaden Road constantly finds ways to expand its collector base.
BT Lifestyle speaks to the people behind these three galleries to find out how they are staying afloat amid soaring rents and stiff competition.
MAD Museum Of Art & Design
WHILE some galleries are closing, MAD Museum of Art & Design has expanded. Its new premises on Tanglin Road is not twice or three times the size of its previous Mandarin Gallery store - it is six times the latter. Yes, six.
The commercial gallery doesn't just sell art by emerging artists and big names, such as Ai Weiwei and Yoshitomo Nara. It also sells design and furniture pieces by Saran Yen, Bruno De Caumont and others. And it proudly promotes local creatives such as WhenIWasFour, Little Drom Store and Sibey Nostalgic.
The new store - a massive 19,000 square foot, two-storey space - also features a bistro with surprisingly good food, a whisky bar and a garden.
There's a "museum store" offering books and souvenirs by famous artists such as Yayoi Kusama, and there are 40 parking lots for visitors. The space was previously occupied by Da Vinci Home furniture store.
MAD owner Jasmine Tay says: "My husband thinks I'm mad for moving here. But when I saw this space, I fell in love with it. I immediately saw an opportunity to turn it into a place that can incorporate art and design, as well as good food... After all, we're at the edge of Orchard. Who's going to come if we don't have good food?"
Indeed, MAD is unlike any other gallery in Singapore in that it tries to be a lifestyle concept store - even though it has its roots in the art world.
Ms Tay made her first foray into art with Jasmine Fine Art in 1993. She was one of the earliest gallerists here to go to China and represent Chinese contemporary artists such as Luo Zhongli and Zeng Fanzhi.
It was Ms Tay who helped Zeng show his work at the Singapore Art Museum in 2007, before he became China's most expensive artist.
Those early successes partly helped to fund the expansion today. Ms Tay divested some big-ticket artworks from her personal collection to realise her dream of making MAD into a large concept store.
Ms Tay says: "I couldn't just do art and design - I had to throw in a bistro. The idea is that you can come here for a few hours to eat and look at beautiful objects."
"Art alone can sometimes be intimidating. But I have a wide variety of works here. You can purchase, say, simple Yayoi Kusama and Yoshitomo Nara souvenirs for a few hundred dollars. Or you could get an original artwork by hot street artist Kongo Cyril Phan, who's famous for his collaboration with Hermes."
Ms Tay's wide connections would make any gallerist envious. She knows numerous top artists and collectors. A recent visitor to her store was Jack Ma, billionaire founder of China's Alibaba Group. Her bistro boasts a priceless chair with a Nara design that anyone could sit on. ("I asked Nara years ago if I could make it - he said yes.")
Her al fresco area features sculptures co-created by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei and Hong Kong artist Eric So. Her whisky bar features a large canvas of Ai dressed as Mona Lisa painted by Edison Chen - yes, the actor whose sex photos caused a sensation in 2008.
"Edison has been making art for some years now. And he's very good. He has a very good eye. That's why I'm showing his works here."
Ms Tay says that she wants to make MAD fun so that she can draw young people into the store. "Young people find art intimidating. But I want MAD to be a place for everyone. Since we moved to this location in November, we've attracted a lot of young people to the bistro... And after they've eaten, they spend some time looking at the artworks. I have no doubt that some of these young people will become art collectors one day."
"Also, we are getting business from tourists who are told by their hotel concierge that this is a place to come if they want to see a wide range of unique design and art pieces."
"So we are also becoming a tourist attraction and a place for cultivating art appreciation among the young - and we're doing all this without government support."
Asked why she doesn't apply for grants from government bodies, she says: "I'm not good at filling forms. I'm a businesswoman, and I know how to run things - but I'm hopeless at filling forms, making projections and talking about KPIs."
In recent months, several galleries have closed down due to soaring rents and declining sales. She says she too is "struggling" to run a large space and she welcomes any art organisation that wants to hold ad hoc shows or pop-up exhibitions within her spacious store.
She says: "I want to help, I want to collaborate... Sometimes, I wish I had 48 hours a day to do all the things I want to do for MAD."
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