Art galleries grapple with pandemic times

SINGAPORE – Gallerist Helina Chan has seen better days. Her gallery in Orchard, iPreciation, which deals in modern and contemporary Asian art, has been quiet amid the global pandemic.

In more normal times, art lovers – many of them collectors from other parts of Asia – would stroll in, pull out a chair and sit down with Ms Chan and her staff to find out more about the artworks and their artists. These days, footfall is down by about 80 per cent.

“The way we usually do business is person to person, but this model is not working any more,” Ms Chan says, noting that the gallery will do more to engage younger collectors via platforms such as social media.

“Rent in Singapore is very high. I still believe you need a physical presence, a physical space. But do we need such a big space when people’s behaviours have changed? We need to relook our business model.”

In July, iPreciation launched an online showcase of paintings by Singapore ink master Zhuang Shengtao. Some existing collectors made appointments to view the art in person and bought pieces in the $6,000 to $9,000 range. This did not really help with the bottom line, says Ms Chan.

Covid-19 has hit galleries hard. Fairs have been cancelled or postponed, overseas collectors cannot travel, and buyers are more cautious. Of the 15 galleries The Straits Times spoke to, most say business has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, with varying degrees of loss in revenue.

At Tanglin Shopping Centre, some galleries have had a rough couple of months. Gnani Arts lowered its shutters and moved to 55 Genting Lane this month. Hai Hui Art Gallery, whose business has fallen by at least half, cut its operating hours to just two to three days a week. Kwan Hua Art Gallery, whose customers are largely foreigners, has seen its business plummet by at least 90 per cent. It will relocate to a smaller unit in the same building at the end of next month.

“Our art gallery has been established for 25 years,” says Kwan Hua gallerist Sandy Tan, “but this is the first time that business has been dismal for an extended period of time.”

Earlier this year, the Government introduced a raft of measures to help arts groups tide over the pandemic. Among them are the Capability Development Scheme for the Arts, as well as a Digital Presentation Grant for the Arts (DPG) to support the efforts of artists and arts groups to go digital.

Yeo Workshop is one of a dozen galleries to have received the DPG so far. It has mounted a solo show by Singapore artist Wong Lip Chin, with paintings, a recorded performance and an interactive virtual exhibition in the form of a video game.

“We were very slow to the digital game,” admits Yeo Workshop’s Ms Audrey Yeo. “A lot of our sales were done in person and we always were events-based, installations-based, so people had to come in to experience it.”


Yeo Workshop has mounted a solo show by Singapore artist Wong Lip Chin, with paintings, a recorded performance and an interactive virtual exhibition in the form of a video game. PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE ARTIST, YEO WORKSHOP AND EMERSE

During the pandemic, the gallery’s strategy changed. It revamped its website, it updated its social media profile, and it hired a full-timer and two freelancers to focus on digital marketing. It also now has active dealings with digital platforms Artsy and The Artling.

Ms Yeo adds: “More people are discovering us online, but I wonder if that translates into them walking into the gallery, which then translates into sales.”

Yeo Workshop is one of many galleries that have beefed up their online presence.

While some are sceptical about how effective an online exhibition can possibly be, those who have mounted such shows – which typically feature images of artworks on a website, or a 360-degree view – tend to see them as merely a complement to physical ones. Ultimately, nothing beats seeing a work of art in person.

“The greatest happiness for a dealer is when someone walks into his physical space,” says Gajah Gallery founder Jasdeep Sandhu, who has launched several digital exhibitions.

Some galleries which have sold art online find that collectors usually go for artists they are familiar with, or artworks at a lower price range.

This was the case for Gnani Arts co-founder P. Gnana, 50, who recently revamped his website and introduced a new online payment gateway.

He has also noticed that some collectors expect bigger discounts these days. “We will check with the artist. We have to be very careful, we can’t bring down the artist’s image and profile,” he adds.

Amid the pandemic, there are silver linings. A few galleries have noticed more interest from local collectors who, unable to travel, are looking homeward.

Richard Koh Fine Art’s recent A Decade Apart/Together exhibition, featuring Singapore artists born in the 1980s and 1990s, saw “tremendous support from the Singapore community – we almost sold out”, says founder Richard Koh. Works sold were generally priced under $4,000.

“What I find interesting is that people are looking inwards and looking at local artists instead of thinking ‘foreign is best’,” says Mr Koh, who observes a similar trend in his Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok galleries. His business is still down by about 60 per cent.


Richard Koh Fine Art’s recent A Decade Apart/Together exhibition features Singapore artists born in the 1980s and 1990s. PHOTO: RICHARD KOH FINE ART

With Singapore’s push for domestic tourism, some galleries are seeing a more diverse crowd.

Over at Kampong Glam, small gallery Coda Culture says recent exhibition sales have exceeded expectations. Founder Seelan Palay notes that around half of the works by young painter Faris Heizer, whose debut solo show is ongoing, have already been bagged by art lovers. These are priced between $900 and $1,400.

He adds: “You don’t expect people to focus on art at this point in time, but I guess it’s also therapeutic.”

Art Porters Gallery, housed in a shophouse in Spottiswoode Park Road, is seeing more domestic tourists on weekends.

Co-founder Guillaume Levy-Lambert adds: “Some people are looking more at art as an investment… Art is something tangible. If you put your money in the stock market, it is a bit abstract.”

The gallery is expanding the price range of its works – it will introduce more affordable pieces, but also sell more expensive master works from secondary markets to cater to would-be investors.

Mr Levy-Lambert, who will soon launch an exhibition on art information website MutualArt, believes art lovers will continue to buy art that speaks to them. He said that a fortnight before the circuit breaker, an expat couple walked in and told him they had lost most of their life savings in the recent stock market crash.

“They said, ‘We woke up this morning, and we’ve decided to not be depressed. We’re going to buy art.'” They left with two works of art – one of Mr Levy-Lambert’s, priced at $2,400, and another by young artist Priyageetha Dia, at less than $1,000.

Later in the year, Art Porters Gallery will join about 20 other galleries for an SG Gallery Weekend, which is organised by the Art Galleries Association Singapore and runs from Nov 20 to 22.

Art fairs are a way for gallerists to reach out to new collectors, but not everyone is upset that they have being cancelled or postponed.

“We’ve been on this carousel for so many years – it’s good to take a breather,” says Mr Koh, whose gallery spends around US$50,000 (S$69,000) to US$100,000 per fair. Before Covid-19, they had already attended fewer art fairs – down from about eight a year to five, as they had found it increasingly hard to meet new collectors that way.

The Affordable Art Fair is going digital, and Singapore’s Utterly Art gallery is one of 50 galleries from around the world that will take part in the Affordable Online Art Fair from Nov 4 to 30. Works at the fair are no more than £6,000 (S$10,500) each.

Collectors may be more cautious these days, but many are still willing to collect good art if they see it.

Prominent Singapore collector Jackson See, 60, is keeping an eye out for young local artists responding to the pandemic in their work.

“If the artist can think outside the box and do something related to Covid, it would be very interesting,” he says.

“This is history (in the making). The impact is so heavy, and it affects every one. In 20, 30 years, we’ll look back and reflect on what the situation was like in the world.”

With so much uncertainty over how long the Covid-19 pandemic will last, galleries hope collectors will continue to support them.

Kwan Hua Art Gallery’s Ms Tan adds: “For those who enjoy art and have been fortunate to not be badly impacted by the pandemic, I hope they can continue to show support for local art galleries.

“It would be a sad day if local art galleries put up their shutters because of the pandemic.”

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