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Art galleries brace for the worst
IN 2014, Singapore artist Stefanie Hauger - fresh from winning the UOB Painting Of The Year in the local and regional category - held a solo exhibition at the UOB Art Gallery in UOB Plaza. With thousands of people passing through the building daily, her paintings attracted a lot of eyeballs and enquiries. Within a few weeks, 90 per cent of the works were sold. As a relatively new artist then, she was over the moon and credited UOB for its "unstinting support of local artists".
Fast forward to the present, where Hauger is holding another solo exhibition in the same location. She had hoped that she would again sell most of her new works. After all, she had scooped the bronze award not too long ago for another strong canvas in the 2019 UOB Painting of the Year competition.
"But though we are getting some enquiries, they are not really translating into sales," she says. "I think the mood is such that people are not sure whether they should be buying art right now. They're wondering where the economy is going, how their portfolio doing, if they're able to hold on to their jobs. They're asking themselves: Do I really need a painting right now?"
Hauger, who was born in Germany but moved to Singapore in 1994, is perspicacious about her situation: "The recent survey in The Straits Times, which had respondents listing artists as non-essential workers, obviously caused a stir in the art world and among individual artists, who were saddened and frustrated by it. You have to take something like that at face value, of course. But it was and is a reflection of people's mood, no matter how you look at it."
UOB has just opened submissions for its 2020 Painting of the Year competition, this time with the theme of resilience and solidarity in battling the pandemic.
"Not in the mood"
"Mood" is a word that crops up a lot when gallerists discuss the market. Helina Chan, founder of the 21-year-old blue-chip art gallery iPreciation, says: "The mood just isn't there. And, as a gallerist, I have to be sensitive to my clients, some of who are facing 10 times the challenges I face because their businesses are on a much larger scale than mine.
"So I may still introduce them to works I think they might enjoy - but I wouldn't push them to purchase anything. In this climate, we just have to be a lot more patient in closing a deal."
Ms Chan says the number of walk-in clients for her gallery on Cuscaden Road has plummeted by "more than 90 per cent". She thinks the dearth of buyers will continue for "another 12 months or more" because of economic uncertainties and travel restrictions.
Richard Koh, founder of Richard Koh Fine Art, runs galleries in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, and has weathered many storms - including having to close his Singapore branch in Helutrans in 2015 and reopen it in Gillman Barracks in January 2019.
He says: "To be sure, we had been doing well in Gillman Barracks. We were on track to hit all of our targets. Our solo shows with artists such as Hermann Nitsch, Natee Utarit and a number of Cambodian artists were well-received by our clients. The young Singapore artists we've championed, such as Faris Nakamura and Melissa Tan, were also a hit - we sold all their works."
But the pandemic has put paid to that winning streak. He says: "Collectors being collectors will still collect. But they're more careful now, asking themselves whether the work is something they really want or can live without, whether it fits into their overall collection. They're not just buying it because they like it."
His market forecast is grim: "Now that there's been a shutdown followed by a slowdown, it's going to be some time before the buying momentum returns. People are just not 100 per cent in the mood, so buying will be thin until the end of the year, at least."
Like most Gillman Barracks tenants, his gallery received rental waivers from its landlord, the Singapore Land Authority, for four months, from April to July. Other galleries across the island have also received rental waivers - but August will see their overheads rise. The government has offered assistance through other schemes, such as the Job Support Scheme, the Capability Development Scheme For The Arts and the Digital Presentation Grant (DPG).
But gallerists know these are stopgap measures - they still need art collectors to return in significant numbers for their businesses to survive.
Does digital work?
Although many galleries have pivoted to virtual showcases, the results seem mixed. When the pandemic hit, some gallerists were quick to extol the virtues of going digital. But others aren't so sure, saying that collectors still wanted to see art up close before committing to a purchase - especially if the works are upwards of S$10,000.
Ode to Art, a gallery in Raffles City Shopping Centre, received the Digital Presentation Grant to help it create virtual galleries for two of its senior artists, centenarian Lim Tze Peng and 65-year-old Hong Zhu An. In each virtual gallery, visitors get to see the paintings on the wall, listen to audio narratives and watch videos.
But Ode To Art didn't stop there. Jazz Chong, its owner and founder, says: "When a client we know is interested in a few artists, we would send a few works to their home, and sometimes leave them there for a few days so they can decide. Of course, we don't pressure them to buy or anything - we respect their decisions."
Ms Chong says store traffic has returned to about 60 per cent of its pre-pandemic levels. But the gallery will continue expanding its digital engagement efforts, which have included video visits of its international artists' studios and a Facebook Live charity art auction for families affected by Covid-19.
Meanwhile, the country's most international gallery, STPI, has also pivoted online. It initially planned for a physical showcase of its inaugural Printmakers' Assembly featuring works of 25 independent printmakers after a global call for entries - but has managed to transpose this into the digital realm. The result, says STPI director Rita Targui, has been "encouraging".
With art fairs cancelled, STPI, a regular presence at major international fairs, is also using the downtime to "reconsider and innovate all aspects of our operations, spanning business models, exhibitions, artist residencies and public programmes," she says. And with widespread travel restrictions, STPI is repositioning its interests "closer to home to further deepen our relationships with contemporary artists, members of the ecosystem and other art spaces in Singapore."
But not everyone is sold on digital. Louis Ho, an independent curator who recently curated a show at Sullivan+Strumpf, says there's no substitute for experiencing art in the flesh: "When Phase 1 of the circuit breaker started, we conceived an online show of young artists for Sullivan+Strumpf, because we didn't know when galleries would be allowed to open.
"But after the show debuted online, the government announced that galleries could reopen in Phase 2 - so we installed the physical show in the gallery and invited people to come. And that made a whole lot of difference. People saw the works, gave good feedback, there was a lot of buzz . . . The physical show did very well. The online show just didn't generate much buzz."
Meanwhile, the pandemic has already claimed some victims, among them the well- regarded Chan+Hori Contemporary, which has been an ardent champion of Singapore and South-east Asian artists, nurturing the careers of local stars such as Ruben Pang, Speak Cryptic and Loi Cai Xiang. Chan+Hori is reinventing itself as a curatorial, advisory and artists' management business.
Also at Gillman Barracks, the NTU Centre of Contemporary Art (CCA) will close its doors permanently in March 2021 because of funding pressures. Helmed by founding director Ute Meta Bauer from Germany, the NTU CCA is one of the country's leading art spaces, showing important works by contemporary art superstars such as Joan Jonas, Isaac Julien and Allan Sekula.
Ms Bauer is a major figure in the art world. She was formerly Dean of Fine Art at the Royal College of Art, London, and Associate Professor for Visual Arts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She curated the US Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale and was ranked 78 on ArtReview's 2019 list of the 100 most influential people in art. An observer, who declined to be named, says:
"(Bauer's) departure is a big blow to Singapore. Major artists like Jonas and Julien don't just say yes to any curator. They agreed to have a show in Singapore because of their relationship with her . . . She's also great at spotting terrific talents before they become superstars. And because of her vast international connections, she can help those talents go places."
To wit, Bauer was on the committee that selected Indonesian collective ruangrupa to be the artistic director of the prestigious quinquennial art show documenta in Germany in 2022.
Meanwhile, gallerists carefully navigating this prolonged crisis say they've had to rethink every one of their business strategies, from the artists they wish to keep on their slate, to their participation in art fairs. The fact that every art fair is on hiatus is a relief to cash-strapped gallerists. But some say they had resolved to stop participating in them even before the pandemic.
Ms Chan of iPreciation says: "Taking part in a major art fair in, say, Hong Kong is incredibly expensive. Typically we spend about S$100,000 to pay for the booth, flights, accommodations, insurance and so on. Then we have to sell about S$300,000 worth of art just to break even. And as you might imagine, it's very, very hard to sell S$300,000 worth of art by Asian artists who are not big auction names." (Artists typically get a 50 per cent cut off the price of the artworks. But clients often ask for discounts, which galleries have to absorb.)
Brave new world
Mr Koh of Richard Koh Fine Art says: "We've already cut down on the number of fairs we participate in, from six to eight a year, to just two a year. We found that art fairs didn't necessarily get us the new clients we hoped to find, because everyone is just rushing about looking at thousands of works, and don't have time to really get to know us. So the opportunity to build a long-term relationship with new collectors isn't really there." "Even if someone buys something from us one year, the next year he'd have forgotten about us as he rushes about again. In the gallery business, relationships are everything."
With part of the ecology upended, curator Ho says it's the perfect opportunity for the art world to imagine new ways of operating: "In a landscape where so much has been lost already, there isn't very much more to lose. The decimation around us has laid fallow ground for experimentation."
For his show at Sullivan+Strumpf, for instance, he picked mostly young artists he had never worked with - even though such a strategy carried a high risk of failure: "As curators, we tend to work mostly with artists we trust, because we know they'll deliver . . . But with all the turmoil going on, I thought, what the hell? Let's just take a risk and see what comes of it."
For full-time artists like Ms Hauger, the constantly evolving state of the market is a source of worry. She's anxious about income in the coming months if no one buys her works. She's channelling her anxiety into a blog, which she hopes to turn into a book. And, of course, she still paints.
"But my palette of colours is becoming simpler, less playful or frivolous, and more thoughtful," she says. "There's a lightness, a stripping back, a sense that we need to remember who and what are essential to us . . . These days, just being able to go out into the sun feels precious."
- Support galleries by visiting and buying art. Among them, Richard Koh Fine Art is showcasing works by Singapore artists. iPreciation, STPI and Ode To Art have group exhibitions in their galleries and select shows online. Stefanie Hauger's show can be seen at UOB Art Gallery and UOB's website. Sullivan+Strumpf's virtual show curated by Louis Ho can be viewed at sullivanstrumpf.com/viewing-spaces/flat/