Gallery owner Helina Chan’s foray into serious art began when she decided to invest in a gallery in Hong Kong, to represent artists in the former colony. Then 1997 came and as Hong Kong was handed back to China, Helina made her way to Singapore, where she soon established a gallery that would continue from where she had left off, representing artists from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. This remained a formula she would adhere to for over a decade. In 2012, Helina felt the time was right to work with more Singapore-based artists.
“When I first started, I thought, being from overseas, that I did not understand the local culture enough to show local art,” Helina explains. “But after so many years here, I know now that there is a need for local artists to be well represented.”
This is true not only for Singapore art but Asian art as a whole, which is still in its infancy. Even contemporary Chinese art, notes Helina, only started to garner strong international acclaim at the tail-end of the 1990s. Around this time, art from Hong Kong and Taiwan also started developing as well. Even the Singapore art scene would be swept along by this prevailing mood.
“The collector base is new so we’re in the primary level of collecting, where art is bought first-hand direct from the galleries,” she adds. “The auction market is not really developed yet, unlike in the Western markets, where you have had many generations of artists, a mature secondary market, and relatively high prices.”
For Helina, playing her part in growing a fledgling art industry means keeping a keen eye out for rising talent, and then ensuring that talent is nurtured and shielded from exploitation. “When I look at an artist, I want to see work that is original,” adds Helina. “I don’t want to see things I have seen before. I want to look at people who have their own ideas. The work needs to speak to me.”
Talent and vision aside, Helina is adamant that artists need discipline: “That’s very important – the discipline to go after their dreams, to be original, and to not compromise on their work merely to give the market what it wants at the moment.”
The danger to art, says Helina, is when a gallery owner, dealer or a collector tries to steer the artist one way, typically by offering to buy more paintings of a certain type. The net result is that artists end up churning hundreds of these copycat paintings. “This is dangerous. I’ve seen a lot of young artists who were very determined and focused at the start became ‘corrupted’,” she adds. “Artist needs to be able to say ‘enough is enough’, this is the painting I am working on now. After this, I will move on to something else’.”
According to Helina, this is exactly what has happened in contemporary Chinese art in recent years. Artists have resigned themselves to making copies of their works since the early 90s. “People who have now become rich want something on the wall that visitors recognise, that visitors will go: ‘Wow, isn’t that a $20 million painting?’ Unfortunately, that is becoming the market,” she elaborates.
Yet it follows then that for the quality of art and artists to grow requires not just disciplined artists but corresponding increase in the calibre of art patronage as well. Arts patrons, buyers and collectors need to be better-informed and more self-confident. “At a level of appreciation, you hang something on the wall that is decorative. From a fine art perspective, you hang something that is critical. Something that challenges traditions,” she says.
Specifically, she believes what artists need are patrons who can understand, appreciate and of course, support the artist by buying their art, most of which would not be very expensive to acquire. “The collector grows with the artist and in so doing, a secondary market for their work is naturally created,” says Helina. “It’s important that our artists be able to survive through their careers. Artists are our intellectuals. Were it not for their art, many would be university professors and lecturers. Most of them have to rely on sponsorship and government grants to make ends meet.”
A large chunk of Helina’s customer base is made up of corporations with art collections and wealthy individuals buying for their private collection. Even so, Helina has seen a marked change in the profile of her customer base. Where one segment of the market used to be dominated by expatriates, this has effectively been replaced by a market of younger professionals, many of whom are Singaporeans. “Some of them are very disciplined in their collecting – they put aside a bit of money every year to buy Singapore art,” she says.
She reveals further that works priced below $10,000 tend to be easy to sell although many of her customers would be willing to spend up to $50,000 for an established local artist. “Anything beyond $50,000 and they would have more buying options on the international market,” she says, adding that the gallery also works with banks to assist customers with the financing of art purchases.
iPreciation is located at 50 Cuscaden Road, #01-01. Tel (65) 6339 0678.
The story was first published in the Vol 1 edition of Gallery & Studio magazine.