CAN art bought at the Affordable Art Fair go up in value and make you a tidy profit? Yes, a small percentage of it certainly can and does. But buying art for investment runs contrary to the spirit of the Affordable Art Fair, which wants to make art available and accessible to everyone - not just the well-heeled and financially savvy.
"Think of art less as a financial investment than an investment in who you are and how you think. Art can take you to a different place, away from the hubbub of financial speculation. It's a great release and it's good for your soul," says Will Ramsay, founder of the popular fair which takes place annually or biannually in 13 cities.
Yesterday, Affordable Art Fair Singapore (AAFS) opened its doors to the public for its first fair of the year. Starting now, Singapore will have two editions of AAFS - one in May and another in November. The fair debuted in Singapore in November 2010 and has become so popular that it's doubling its occurrence.
"If you compare the situation to the stock market, it would be pretty risky to invest in an unknown company. So it's the same with buying art by lesser-known artists: it's a risk. If you really want to try to make financial returns - which is difficult because artists don't make 5 per cent year-on- year as companies aim to - you need to go with a better-known artist," says Mr Ramsay, 45.
"Still, you could think of yourself as a benefactor of the arts and a sponsor of artists. Think of yourself as investing in your life, your culture, your personal reflections . . . Even if it's a risk buying works by new artists, art is still more interesting to look at than a share certificate."
Art pieces sold at the Affordable Art Fair Singapore (AAFS) are priced between $100 and $10,000, with 75 per cent of the works going for below $7,500. The artworks range from the very good to the mediocre to the kitschy. But there are always exceptionally strong pieces by well-known artists at the fair, including works this year by veteran artists Goh Beng Kwan and Kumari Nahappan, as well as notable emerging artists like Edwin Koo and Matthew G Johnson.
In the past four years, there have been talented young artists who made their fair debut at AAFS, and have since seen their prices grow in tandem with their reputation. They include Sarah Choo, Guo Yixiu, Trase- One, Jolene Lai and Hilmi Johandi.
In the 2011 edition, Galerie Sogan & Art debuted the works of Choo, priced at $350 to $1,800. She gained good word of mouth and the gallery returned the following year with more works by Choo, this time in the $1,500 to $2,800 price range. Most were snapped up. Choo subsequently won the Icon de Martell Cordon Bleu photography award in 2013. Her prices now range from $2,400 for a small artwork to $9,000 for a large painting.
Similarly, Guo first made her fair debut at AAFS 2011, also with Galerie Sogan & Art, with works priced from $2,000 upwards. She subsequently showed at Frieze London and was the youngest artist to participate in the Singapore Biennale 2013. Her prices have now inched upwards of $3,000.
Guo says: "The fair exposes young artists like me to the art market - an important experience for any artist who wants to be self-sustaining. It also connected me to many local collectors, including the budding ones who are just starting out. In many ways, it offers an invaluable experience for young artists."
Vera Wijaya, founder of Galerie Sogan & Art, says it is not participating in the fair this year as most of its artists are scheduled for overseas fairs and exhibitions.
Top names hop on
Meanwhile, AAFS's warm and unthreatening vibe has attracted even seasoned gallerists to participate.
Lily Phua, for instance, is the former well-loved gallery manager of Singapore Tyler Print Institute, who helped it make history as the only Singapore gallery to show at the prestigious Art Basel in Switzerland. Late last year, she became director of Q Art Management, a division of Q Framing Group, which does museum-quality framing for high-end art.
Participating in AAFS for the first time, Ms Phua is bringing some top names to her booth. They include local artist Genevieve Chua, whose museum-worthy installation Vespertine Vol 1 comprises a suite of 80 mounted slides on a Kodak slide projector, as well as hot Indonesian artist Nasirun, who has two sculptures priced attractively at $8,200 - his paintings typically fetch between $15,000 and $30,000 at auctions.
Another impressive new entrant to the fair is Nikei Fine Art, a high-end Japanese art gallery at Raffles Hotel which specialises in Japanese abstract masters like Toko Shinoda and Kukoku Tamura.
Owner Hiroshi Kato says: "Nikei Fine Art has always sought to introduce Japanese artists to Singapore and other regions. And though we do have exclusive premium artworks from renowned artists like Shinoda, I don't want to limit our artworks to a very niche, high-end market.
"We have artworks from Japan that are in the affordable range. So I thought, why not? Art is meant for everyone to appreciate and enjoy," insists Mr Kato.
Though Mr Kato speaks in halting English and requires a translator for certain words, he and Mr Ramsay clearly speak the same language.
Art for everyone
Mr Ramsay, after all, has a simple and noble creed: everyone should be able to buy and enjoy art. That creed was born after several bad experiences with English galleries in the 1990s where he was ignored by snooty gallerists. He recalls: "Every gallery I went to had no information on the wall and no prices stated. No one approached me to talk to me, and I was afraid of asking the wrong questions. I thought, this is the most backward retailing sector in the world.
"People are always embarrassed about two things - art and wine - because they seem to be for the top end. But the wine market has achieved huge expansion by educating people on wine drinking and having little labels at the back explaining things . . . I wanted to do the same for art."
In 1999, Mr Ramsay created the first Affordable Art Fair in the UK which sold £1 million (S$2.1 million) worth of art; that figure doubled the next year, and again the following year. Seeing how well the formula worked in the UK, he took the fair to New York, and found similar success. The formula of "art for everyone" is now working its magic in 13 cities including Milan, Amsterdam and Mexico City. The fair is set to expand to other Asian cities, though Mr Ramsay is tight-lipped on the details.
Last year, the Affordable Art Fair Singapore sold $4.9 million worth of art - up from $4 million in 2012 and $3 million in 2011. Because of its rapid success, Mr Ramsay and the Singapore team led by Camilla Hewitson decided to go biannual. Besides Singapore, only two other cities - New York and London - hold two Affordable Art Fairs a year. Ms Hewitson says Singapore will have biannual editions of the fair for at least three years so that the team can assess its sustainability. The buying rate in the past four years, she points out, has been very high.
She says: "We attracted 17,800 people to the Singapore fair last year, and about 30 per cent of them bought an artwork. For Hong Kong last year, we attracted 29,000 visitors - the highest among all our fairs - but only 7 per cent of them bought an artwork. So we're optimistic about the outcome of going biannual in Singapore."
Affordable Art Fair Singapore, May edition, is now on till Sunday at the F1 Pit Building. Opening hours: Today and tomorrow: 12-8pm. Sunday: 11am-6pm. Tickets for adults at $15 at the door.