Published - Buying on a budget

Michael Lee God's Villa from Office Orchitect 2011

Singapore’s visual art scene has grown in leaps and bounds in the last 10 years. New museums have mushroomed in the city centre, two major art fairs – ArtStage Singapore in January and the Affordable Art Fair in November – now frame the calendar for art lovers, and the opening of a new cluster of contemporary galleries at Gillman Barracks on Saturday  are all helping to make the Lion-city a bona-fide contemporary art destination.

While many of these developments can be attributed to a top-down approach on the part of the government, which has for many years been intent on developing Singapore as a “Renaissance City”, there are now signs that sufficient momentum has been created to allow efforts from the ground to begin directing the way the local arts scene is developing. Amongst these efforts is the push to offer more affordable art to collectors with a limited budget.

In recent years, several new galleries have emerged that specialize in representing young emerging artists whose prices have not yet reached giddy heights and galleries offering limited edition prints of well-known contemporary artists like Damien Hirst or Takashi Murakami. In doing so, they offer the opportunity for collectors to own a genuine work of art for only a few thousand dollars.

Utterly Art can be considered as one of the grandfathers of this new breed of "affordable art" galleries in Singapore. Set up in 2001 by two knowledgeable art enthusiasts, the gallery has over the years championed Singaporean artists such as Justin Lee, Hong Sek Chern, Boo Sze Yang and Martin Loh as well as a number of emerging artists from other Southeast Asian countries. In 2002, Utterly Art gave Kiko Escora his first overseas solo show where the young Filipino artist presented a series of small charcoal drawings, many priced around the $800 level. Since then Escora's works have appeared numerous times at auctions, and in 2010 at Sotheby's auction in Hong Kong, a larger charcoal on paper sold for 56,250HKD (S$9,275).

"From the start we knew we wanted to offer works that were affordable. Being a collector myself, I sort of  know internally what prices we wanted the works to be priced at. And even today, I still use my internal clock to guide the pricing of works: 'I like this - what would I be willing to pay for it?,'" explains Pwee Keng Hock, co-founder of Utterly Art.

 “When we started, many works were priced below $1,000 for something small, but I admit, average prices have been creeping up, partly because people tend to look for much larger works to put up on their walls. Today, I think it would be quite hard to find an oil painting below $1000, but for a young artist, you should still be able to find something around $1,500-$2,000,” he adds.

 Pwee says his gallery has been able to keep prices down because of its slightly off-centre location in Chinatown, which means lower rental costs allowing the savings to be passed on to buyers. Other galleries have followed Utterly Arts’ strategy. Also to be found in the Chinatown area are Dalhia Gallery on Pagoda Street, which specializes in contemporary art from Southeast Asia, and Gallery Soggan & Art, which specializes in modern & contemporary Asian art. A little further afield on Spottiswoode Road are Give Art and Vue Privée, two galleries founded in 2010 which represent young emerging artists from the region, while around the Fort Canning area a new small cluster of art spaces has also developed around the newly opened Viridian Art House.

 “Too often, affordable art is associated with decorative art or not so good art. We want to show you can own work with artistic merit at an affordable price. There are many exciting artists in the region and we wanted to show you can buy really high-quality art works without spending tens of thousands of dollars,” says Tolla Sloane, director of Give Art, which presents up-and-coming Singaporean artists like Genevieve Chua and Michael Lee, as well as some more established Asian artists such as Ahmad Zakii Anwar and Justin Lee.

 Vue Privée has made “democratizing the arts” its official mission and owner Olivier Henri says there is plenty of interesting and potentially highly-collectable work by young emerging artists under the $10,000 mark. “If you want a piece by someone established and you have a smaller budget then you should look at their prints and lithographs. It’s a very good way to start collecting a well-known artist. For example, we sell limited edition silk prints by well-known Chinese artists like Feng Zhengjie and Guo Wei for about $8,200 and we have limited edition prints by Justin Lee, who is a well-established Singaporean artist, starting at $250,” he explains. Beside traditional art works, the gallery recently started to offer a limited edition of silk scarves carrying the works of the up and coming Chinese artist Han Yajuan as a way to reach out to new audiences.

 Other galleries that offer limited edition prints of well-known international artists include Pop & Contemporary, which has many works by Yayoi Kusama and Damien Hirst, which can start around S$3,000-$,4000, as well as Collectors Contemporary, which has prints by Andy Warhol and Takashi Murakami, amongst others. Both galleries participated in the Affordable Art Fair in Singapore last year, which requires galleries to only present works below $$10,000 at the fair.

The Affordable Art Fair’s organisers say that in the past two years, the fair has introduced thousands of people to the pleasures of collecting quality contemporary art on a budget. Attendance rose 42 percent between the first and second edition to 13,500, while sales grew 73 percent to an impressive S$3 million, with an estimated 44 percent of visitors purchasing at least one work at the fair.

 Though this overall sale level is still only half of that of the original London edition, “It’s still a lot of pieces moving, proving there is real demand in Singapore for quality art work that is still affordable,” says fair director Camilla Hewitson, noting the average price for an artwork at the fair last year was $2,230.

 “The Affordable Art Fair shows there is a large art-buying crowd here that may not be the sort that visit galleries regularly, but who might make an effort to go to the fair once a year. There were a lot of first one-time sales, and for a gallery maybe you can develop a couple of regular customers out of it,” says Pwee of Utterly Art.

For the upcoming fair in November 2012, the fair has received more than 140 applications for the 80 spots available, Hewitson says.

 Iola Lenzi, an independent curator, says the recent proliferation of new art galleries, fairs, and co-operative artist-run spaces is giving people more opportunities to compare and allows them to distinguish good from bad. “It may not be politically correct to say so, but there is such a thing as very bad art!,” she notes, adding that over time she hopes people will learn to trust their eyes and not the price tags!

Pwee agrees noting that while more galleries equates to more choice for buyers, would-be collectors also need to educate themselves about the galleries and their artists. “Unless you are a very experienced collector you may not know whom some of these artists are because they are so new. Some may be very good, but some may be quite amateurish,” he warns.

 The Affordable Art Fair Singapore runs November 15-18 at the F1 Pit Building, Marina South