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To commemorate SG50, 50 artworks are being offered at S$500 each, such as this 2014 painting by Allan Tan titled Carnival

Singapore shutterbug Ernest Goh's series of photos on cocks is on sale at the Picture This gallery at AAF

Mr Koh is the first Singaporean to be made fair director of AAF - and, for that matter, the only Singaporean to head an existing art fair in Singapore

AAF ups its game with new director

With new head Alan Koh, Affordable Art Fair is set to bring art collecting to an even wider audience - even if some seasoned collectors sniff at the term "affordable".
Apr 17, 2015 5:50 AM

SO what do you fancy - painting, photography or sculpture? Don't know? Why don't we start with a simpler question - what's your budget? Can't decide? Alright, tell us just one thing - what's your favourite colour?

At Affordable Art Fair (AAF), shopping for art has never been easier. With a new initiative involving a personal art shopper, you will be asked a variety of questions before you're whisked from one artwork to another based on your preferences, from colour and size to budget range.

"The conversation you have with us helps you refine your own tastes. Ultimately, we hope that after your one-on-one session with us, we can instil the confidence in you to walk around the fair on your own, find works you like and speak with the gallerists ... Art collecting is still a fairly new activity for many Singaporeans, and we see ourselves as playing an active role in building the market," says Alan Koh, 32.

Mr Koh is the new fair director of AAF's spring edition which opens on Friday and runs through the weekend. He is the first Singaporean to be made fair director of AAF - and, for that matter, the only Singaporean to head an existing art fair in Singapore. He had been the fair's marketing director since it started here in 2010 and was recently promoted.

Besides the new personal shopper programme which selects participants through a lucky draw, the fair also includes an SG50 Feature Wall which displays 50 artworks by 50 artists such as Allan Tan and Angie Lim, with all works priced at S$500 each. There are also printmaking demonstrations by Marisa Keller and live artmaking by Zxerokool.

AAF has been lauded for making art collecting easy for the average Singaporean - but it has also drawn criticism for making art, well, less critical and exclusive. The art shown at AAF, which range from the good to the kitschy, cannot exceed its price ceiling of S$10,000 - hence its claim of being "affordable - but these are also reasons why many serious collectors and A-list galleries avoid it.

Still, any dispassionate observer of Singapore's art scene would likely agree that AAF's presence is a welcome one. It has been a springboard for young collectors learning to acquire art as well as young artists selling their works for the first time. In fact, 60 per cent of buyers at AAF are first-time collectors.

A few artists who have shown at AAF, such as Sarah Choo, Jolene Lai and Hilmi Johandi, have also gone on to show at the bigger platforms such as Art Stage, Singapore's premier art fair. But that number is very small.

Because of this and other reasons, AAF has always been careful about telling new collectors that the artworks they buy would appreciate in value. Mr Koh says: "We advocate buying only artworks you love. Don't bank on it as an investment."

While that strategy may work less well for collectors with aggressive investment goals, it has certainly worked well for entry-level buyers. In its first year, the fair attracted 9,500 visitors and S$1.75 million in sales. Last year, it expanded to host two annual fairs - one in April, one in November. In total, it attracted 31,500 visitors and S$8.66 million in sales.

Mr Koh thinks the runaway success of AAF here has largely to do with the fact that a lot of Singaporeans wish to buy art, but find the gallery experience intimidating. "Before AAF, a lot of people here associated art as something high-end. There was a desire to buy art for their homes, but there was no entry point. We've provided that... If some feel after a few years that they are ready to buy art at other art fairs, then we take pride in the fact that we've helped them make the first step," he explains.

Mr Koh takes over the reins from former fair director Camilla Hewitson who is now the regional managing director, Asia. Using Singapore as its headquarters, the AAF team successfully branched out into Hong Kong in 2013 and is launching a new fair in Seoul in September.

Indeed, AAF's branding efforts to sell art to everyman has been so successful that DBS Bank came on board in 2013 as regional sponsor for both the Singapore and Hong Kong fairs. Last year, the second edition of AAF Hong Kong drew 29,000 visitors and HK$36 million (S$6.3 million) of sales - exceeding the figures of a single edition in Singapore. The success of AAF and Art Stage have also inspired others to launch new art fairs here last year, though none came close to matching the early figures of the two.

Meanwhile, the explosion of art fairs around the world has been blamed for the general decline of art galleries. Critics says that the wide variety of art available at fairs make the visiting of galleries, with their much-smaller selections, redundant.

Earlier this month, five out of 17 galleries in Gillman Barracks announced that they will not be renewing their leases.

But Will Ramsay, AAF's English founder who now runs 17 AAF fairs in 13 countries, disagrees with the notion that art fairs are killing galleries. He says: "Art fairs create a focus for the galleries during the week that the fair is on, it keeps people energised. I own a gallery myself and I know it's very hard to get people to still come back to a gallery after a few visits because they get bored. We need something else to invigorate people - art fairs achieve that.

"For Gillman Barracks, of course not everything works straight away. Some galleries have been very successful, and for some it's not quite right for them. But it should be seen as positive - not negative - that it exists at all, that the government has created it, and that the other galleries are succeeding."

Affordable Art Fair opens on Friday and runs till Sunday at the F1 Pit Building. Opening hours: Fri (noon - 6pm), Sat and Sun (11am to 8pm). Tickets at the door.