Wednesday, 3 September, 2014

Published March 14, 2014
The new art start-ups
The growing arts market in Singapore has drawn new blood into the scene: professionals who've left their careers - or diversifying from them - to create new art startups, either in the form of art galleries or new art models. CHEAH UI-HOON finds out why they went into arts-related businesses and how they're infusing new energy and vision into the art industry today
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Mr Lee: Has gathered a few potters he knew and now displays their wares at his gallery, which has about 30 to 40 pieces on exhibit at any one time. - PHOTO: YEN MENG JIIN

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Finding a niche in pottery

Mark Lee


16 Mohd Sultan Road #01-01

Tel: 6440 4886

TEN years ago, Mark Lee took pottery lessons and liked it. But his busy work life soon scuppered free time to indulge in that pastime. It wasn't until he quit his job three years ago that he took it up again seriously. And then during his sabbatical to re-examine life priorities, he had to decide whether to continue on his financial corporate career or pursue his passion. The latter won out.

"I guess you could say it was mid-life crisis," muses the 42-year-old, who was last heading the Singapore office of public relations agency Fleishman Hillard, after an illustrious career which included working in corporate and financial public relations at Singapore Exchange and Temasek Holdings.

His mid-life crisis symptoms were classic: He felt he needed to take a break from an intense work life; he didn't want to retire and say he was "just working" and not have a chance to do anything else; he wanted to pursue a passion that he first developed more than 10 years ago, and leave behind "a legacy" of sorts. He threw himself back into pottery and, in 2012, started a gallery dedicated to the ceramic arts - specifically, pottery that can be used as tableware. After he got more familiar with the arts landscape, he realised that there really wasn't any commercial gallery specialising in pottery in town. "Art galleries carried a few pieces by a few ceramicists, and it was very sporadic and spread out," he points out.

So he gathered a few potters he knew and now displays their wares at his gallery, which has about 30 to 40 pieces on exhibit at any one time. Having become friends with Vera Wijaya of Galerie Sogan & Art, he also became her 50 per cent partner, bringing his corporate and financial know-how into the business.

Last year, Pot.Potter.Pottest held exhibitions for local ceramicists - including Lim Kim Hui of Ceramic House, Mr Lee's teacher - and an event called "Plating Up" where Mr Lee got a chef to cook and present food on handmade ceramic ware. He's also forming affiliate relationships with regional galleries to expand the galleries' reach and business. "It's not an easy landscape for entrepreneurs, so we've just got to work at it," he concludes.

"If I failed, at least I could say I tried," shrugs Mr Lee matter-of-factly, referring to his new art undertaking. "But it's scary," he admits honestly. "It's daunting to leave a work environment I'm comfortable in, with a guaranteed monthly paycheck, to start one's own business! One has to get used to seeing one's bank balance dip lower every month."

This new direction in his life seems to have "cured" the mid-life crisis though. One indicator is how Mr Lee sold his sports car and now drives a vintage Mercedes instead. "I didn't lose from selling my sports car, and the vintage buy was at a good price - so I've actually saved quite a lot of money that way!" he quips.

Selling regional artists' works online

Tian Qiuyan

Art Loft

33 Mohd Sultan Road


Tel: 6521 6690

TIAN Qiuyan took a liking to a painting by a Lao artist in a friend's gallery, then found out that it's done by a policeman who'd paint by night since he couldn't afford to be a full-time artist. Through Michelle Chan of M Gallery, Ms Tian found out that many genuine artists in regional countries such as Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam often paint in dire conditions, and need help to get their works to the buying public.

She later even made some trips with Ms Chan and saw their studio conditions for herself. She also recalled how difficult it was for her to buy some paintings a few years ago, and had wished she could buy them online. "So I thought, that with my experience with investment banking and e-commerce, I could do something about selling art online," says the 30-year-old.

Online art sales have been picking up in the last couple of years, and even Amazon started selling art online last April, but none of them carry much Asian art, much less South-east Asian works, Ms Tian notes. Since M Gallery's Ms Chan had also been toying with the idea of going online, they got together with another friend, Alexandra Eu, to start Art Loft, an online art sales site. The Internet could be a platform for artists' works, but also tells their stories and their art processes, she feels. From her market research, she found that gallerists do want to move online, but most people don't know how to go about it.

Ms Tian felt that she was in a prime position: Trained in actuarial science, her 31/2 years at Goldman Sachs in investment and wealth management had taught her about raising funds and management. After that, she started an e-commerce venture featuring lifestyle products and gadgets with a couple of friends, and worked it for three years before transitioning to Art Loft. With Art Loft, the idea is to sell art works online and also partner with the right businesses to showcase the works. That way, explains Ms Tian, the company doesn't need to run a gallery space. They've started by showcasing works by a Singapore-based Korean artist, Young-shin Park, at furniture store Foundry on Purvis Street; and are also featuring Marisa Darasavth from Laos and Montree Moungkun from Thailand at the newly opened Design Hub in Tuas.

"We also have a rental feature for Singapore-based clients," she says. But the thing about online art is that Art Loft will carry works that are priced below S$10,000, because that seems to be the "hurdle price" for buyers, she notes. "Price points do matter for online businesses."

About 60 per cent of the works on Art Loft are from Singapore artists, and the rest are from the region. "I feel that I've learnt so much about art in these last six months," she declares, as part of her job scope is to travel to meet artists. As for the bigger picture, she's keen to tell these artists' stories to the world - which she thinks is as important as the art works themselves.

Lawyers blazing Spanish art trail

Abigail Wong and Benjamin Ng

Barnadas Huang

22 Dempsey Road

Tel: 6635 4707

WHAT would two lawyers know about the art business? Maybe not so much about the art at present, but they certainly have the know-how to set up a business, negotiate rental leases, and draw up international contracts - all of which are important components of partnering a gallery from another country. Oh, and a love for art, of course.

Barnadas Huang is in fact an amalgam of three partners' names - two Singapore-based Malaysian lawyers who happen to share the same surname in Chinese, and the third is a well-regarded gallerist from Barcelona, Jordi Barnadas. In a whirlwind set-up just within a matter of months last year, Barnadas Huang has already been in a Hong Kong art fair, brought in an established Spanish artist to paint Singapore landscapes, and plans to continue to bring in other Spain-based artists' works besides developing their own stable of Singapore and regional artists to show here and possibly in Spain or in Europe.

It all happened when Abigail Wong and Benjamin Ng, both 29, and who studied law in Cambridge, went on a holiday to Barcelona last year. "We had been working for more than two years and felt that we had saved enough for a good holiday . . . and wanted to revisit Barcelona because it was one of our favourite cities in Europe," says Ms Wong.

This was about two plus years after they had qualified as lawyers in Singapore. Ms Wong works with one of the big four firms here, in real estate law, while Mr Ng is in litigation. While there, they walked into an art gallery near the famous Casa Battlo, and soon, the entrepreneur-minded friends - both have families who run their own businesses - got to talking to the owner about setting up a branch in Singapore.

"At that time, the art market was in the doldrums in Europe, and Spain especially. So branching out to Asia was an attractive proposition," says Ms Wong. Mr Ng points out that they had always been interested in setting up a business, so opening the Singapore gallery with Mr Barnadas was an "organic progression" - given their love for art and getting a mentor who's one of the most important gallerists in Spain.

"Mr Barnadas started his gallery when he was 26 years old, so I think he saw something in us that reminded him of his early start, maybe," adds Ms Wong.

Since then, Barnadas Huang has had a very positive and encouraging debut at the Asia Contemporary Art Fair in Hong Kong. Says Mr Ng: "I think our gallery put collectors at ease, since we want to cultivate a relaxed and approachable atmosphere for both new and seasoned art collectors." Ms Wong adds: "We are new art collectors ourselves, so we want to help other collectors feel that buying art - especially from Europe - is not unattainable."

They intend to bring in works priced between S$2,000 and S$13,000, and Ms Wong notes that the sweet spot is from S$5,000 to S$8,000. Mr Ng is between jobs now, and Ms Wong just took a six months' sabbatical from her work to help get the gallery going. With the knowledge that art fairs are now the trend, they plan to participate in a few this year - including Affordable Art Fair in Singapore, the Asia Contemporary Show in Hong Kong and the Malaysian Art Expo, and also collaborate with other galleries to hold exhibitions.

Ms Wong says: "I think it's interesting to be in the art business now, and we're going to fairs to build up our name, besides organising events to bring people to the gallery and build up relationships with clients that way."

Are they concerned that they might be perceived as young upstarts in the art industry since they have no formal art background? Ms Wong says: "I think being so young and new, we're bringing a fresh energy and spirit to the scene. Besides, we're not shy in asking for feedback - and we really want to help buyers make the right buys in art."