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Art feast: Skullhead sculptures of China-born artist Jacky Tsai at Eyestorm gallery. The Affordable Art Fair, which opened yesterday, hopes to draw 17,000 visitors this year. - PHOTOS: JOHN HENG

More buyers, more galleries

With local art lovers snapping up pieces in greater numbers, even high-end dealers are jumping onboard AAF. HELMI YUSOF reports
Nov 22, 2013 6:00 AM

IF AFFORDABLE Art Fair statistics are right, Singaporeans are the hungriest art buyers in the world - at least for lower- end art.

The fair, which takes place in 15 cities, found that 1 out of 2.5 visitors to the Singapore fair buys a piece of art. That ratio is the highest in the world - the second highest being its London fair figure, where 1 out of 4 visitors buys an artwork.

AAF Singapore, which sells art priced from $100 to $10,000, has grown substantially since its humble beginnings in 2010. Then, there were 50 galleries; this year, there are 95. The fair also expects to hit $4.5 million in sales this year - up from 2010's $1.75 million, 2011's $3 million and 2012's $4 million.

AAF director of development and global partnerships Paul Matthews says: "In some countries, the concept of the Affordable Art Fair had been a little slow to take off. In Singapore, it took off almost instantly. People here just got it, and wanted to buy art."

Next year, AAF Singapore is expanding to hold two fairs - one in May and the other in November. According to fair director Camilla Hewitson, AAF has compared its data across the board, taking into account local differentiators, and found the expansion viable.

Indeed, there are only two other cities where Affordable Art Fairs holds two fairs annually at the same venue: London and New York, the art epicentres of the world.

And though most art observers would agree that Singapore's art scene cannot compare with that of London or New York, its low-end art consumption certainly rivals theirs.

"There's definitely a great hunger for art here, and people do have some money," says Mr Matthews. "But the other thing to note is that Singapore is tremendously multicultural; our gallerists are constantly telling us how they've sold works by the same artist to buyers as diverse as French, Malaysian, South American and, of course, Singaporean. It's very heterogeneous - unlike in some places."

Typical of AAF Singapore, though, most of the artworks tend to be brightly coloured and decorative - perhaps even more so in this year's edition than the last. One has to walk through a lot of pleasant-looking figurative works before finding the strong statement pieces that challenge perspectives. Bold, conceptual works and good abstract pieces are rare.

Ms Hewitson says: "We do advise our gallerists on what might work better in this market. Paintings and photography do well here. Large-scale works that measure, say, 2m by 2m are not likely to be bought because of the apartment sizes here. There's not a lot of sculptures - but there are some galleries bringing that in this year to test the market. And there are very few conceptual works."

Forging new relationships

Two surprising additions to this year's gallery list are Mizuma Gallery and Space Cottonseed - two galleries from the high-end gallery cluster Gillman Barracks. Opened last September, Gillman Barracks has unfortunately seen low footfall and weak sales, prompting the two galleries to participate in AAF Singapore.

Space Cottonseed owner Janice Kim says: "I came here because I want to meet more art buyers and forge new relationships... I was here last year, and the place was very much active and alive, compared to Gillman Barracks which is sort of quiet. . . . Of course, I had to select artworks that are priced below the $10,000 cap, so I've included some of my good artists, but choosing their works that are lower- priced."

Mr Matthews says there were initially eight galleries from Gillman Barracks that wanted to take part in AAF. But at the last minute, six got "cold feet" - presumably because they brand themselves higher on the art- buying spectrum than AAF.

"Still, we're proud we have another part of the market we haven't had at the fair before," says Mr Matthews. This year, the fair expects to attract 17,000 visitors - up from last year's 16,000.

Other galleries making their debut this year include London-based Manifold Editions and online store Eyestorm. They sell limited-edition prints by top and emerging artists respectively.

Manifold Editions has brought prints by art giants like Marc Quinn, Chris Ofili, Damien Hirst and Anish Kapoor, all under $10,000. Among the good buys may be its Quinn prints of his sculpture of Kate Moss in a yoga pose, retailing at $2,750, as well as Hirst's dot paintings going for $4,200 to $9,500. Meanwhile, Eyestorm has brought works by its bestselling emerging artists, including Jacky Tsai, Noma Barr and Lucie Bennett.

Investing in the future

AAF's sterling numbers have not just attracted the higher-end galleries. DBS Bank, which brands itself as "the people's bank", has also jumped onboard to be the lead sponsor of the event for the first time.

Koh Kar Siong, regional head of DBS Treasures and Treasures Private Client, says: "In recent years, we have seen an increasing interest in the arts and culture among our clients. As part of DBS's commitment to be a leading wealth manager in Asia, we are always looking for unique sponsorship platforms that aim to engage, enrich and educate."

And while, arguably, very little art found in AAF would count as "investment art" (that is, art that is likely to appreciate in value), AAF has been generous in investing in its collectors and the future stars of art. It continues to feature various talks on collecting, as well as a booth for the Young Talent Programmes, featuring promising young Singaporean artists including Hilmi Johandi and Lennard Ong.

Says Mr Matthews: "Some 30 per cent of the buyers at all our fairs are first-time buyers - in that they've never bought a single art piece in their lives. We're not competing with the higher-end Art Stage; we just want to create a friendly environment where people don't feel intimidated by art."

The Affordable Art Fair is now on till Sunday, at the F1 Pit Building.