Gallery owner Ho Sou Ping knew very early on in life that he was going to be an artist. At least he thought he did when he picked up a paint brush at 13. And like many practical 13-year-old students in Singapore, when the time came, Sou Ping never seriously entertained the notion of being a professional artist, choosing instead the security that came with academic excellence. He studied his way into a teaching scholarship in physics and then an MBA. Yet he never forgot those teenage artistic dreams. So at the tender age of 37, while in a nice cushy aerospace job, he finally threw in the towel and became a full-time artist. Thanks to the help of two sponsors, Sou Ping opened Art Commune in October 2009 in Chinatown Point, representing himself and marketing his own art.
“If you want to be a professional, you cannot start too late. You can’t start thinking about competing in the Olympics at 25, right? Even artists have a life span,” he shares. Soon after, Sou Ping learnt his first important lesson about the art business – there isn’t a lot of demand for the work of young, aspiring artists. Speaking with the benefit of hindsight, he explains how the numbers were never going to add up: “There’s a big difference in income from selling a $30,000 painting compared to a $300 one. That was the problem. I rarely sell my work, it is too cheap, and I can’t sustain the business that way. We still sell work by young artists, but only as a way of supporting them. To survive, we have to sell the work of mature artists.”
Art Commune has since moved to new premises at Bras Basah Complex even as Sou Ping remains steadfast on keeping costs in check. “Paintings will sell, as long as they are not overpriced. But you must start with low overheads,” he adds. Despite this approach, Art Commune does not position itself as a budget gallery. Although it certainly does not have that sheer, minimalist expanse that characterises the larger, expensive galleries. And there is also nothing conceptual or experimental about the art on display. Depending on your perspective, you could describe it as “old school”, if you wanted to be kind. Or “old-fashioned”, if you didn’t. Not that it bothers Sou Ping.
“We do not define the work in this gallery as contemporary. Contemporary art tends to be about ideas and amusement. For us, it’s about aesthetics, composition, and colour,” says Sou Ping. “Some people like fusion food; here it’s all old-school dim sum.”
The vast majority of the work carried by Art Commune is art by first- and second-generation Singapore artists. “That generation studied in France, the UK, the US and painted women and still life. Those guys would be in their 70s now,” he explains, rattling off a list of names that includes Tan Choh Tee and Wong Keen. The latter is an artist Sou Ping admires in particular, along with another Singapore great, Cheong Soo Pieng.
As a guide, works by second-generation artists sold by the gallery can range from $5,000 to $50,000 although the average would be between $10,000 and $20,000. Prices for art by first-generation Singapore artists start at $10,000 and average $30,000. “These are for small pieces. The bigger pieces are very difficult to find. Works by Cheong Soo Pieng start at $30,000 and many go up to $100,000,” adds Sou Ping.
According to Sou Ping, these art works continue to generate a lot of interest from a small but passionate clientele. “The moment we let the word out that we have a painting by a first- or second-generation artist, people will come. These are very easy to sell,” he says. Yet what was true 20 years ago is still evident today, when it comes to entry-level art – that market is practically non-existent. “There are plenty of buyers looking for investment-grade art. There are no buyers in the sub $2,000 category. Couples spend $60,000 to renovate their home and hang a $200 painting from Ikea in the living room. That’s the problem.”
The average price of the paintings carried by Art Commune is $8,000. Yet as Sou Ping highlights, the focus on investment-grade art is not necessarily reflective of a market with sophisticated tastes. On the contrary, the reverse might be closer to the truth. “For the vast majority of buyers, one painting looks very much like the other. So they need to rely on big names to guide them. They inquire about whether the artist’s work has been auctioned before, and how much the work sold for. It gives them an assurance of value.”
While he sees nothing wrong with art as investment, he cautions that this is fundamentally opposed to the “Buy what you like” advice frequently dispensed by the industry. He cautions against confusing the two. “When you’re buying for yourself, then buy whatever you like. When you are investing, you buy what the market likes,” he says.
Viewed holistically, the issue, says Sou Ping, is one of education. Or the lack thereof. Unfamiliarity with judging and appraising art, along with a mindset that values work based on investment potential, results in a market of buyers that shuns young artists and chases after big names. “For this reason, we conduct talks on art appreciation and show things in a different light. We try to explain why one painting may be ‘good’ and another less so,” he says. “Because if we believe what we are selling is of good quality, then we really need to teach people how to recognise this quality.”
The ability to discern and discriminate, while valuable for private collectors, is vital for investors. “You need to know your art inside out, otherwise, how would you make a good decision?” he concludes. “Spend the time to learn, to do the research. That’s where all the fun is.”
Art Commune are located at 02-43, Bras Basah Complex. Tel: 6336 4240.
Photos: Albert Tan
This story was first published in Gallery & Studio Vol 1, 2014.