Gallerist Richard Koh: ‘Younger buyers are coming in — the idea of collecting is different’
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Richard Koh emerged from the pandemic with a realisation: the world had changed and so had he. With that guiding him, the south-east Asian gallerist started making some changes in his own life. First he shook up his stable of represented artists, cutting the number from more than 20 by nearly half.
“It lifted a lot of weight off. If someone claims to have not been damaged even in whatever small way during the pandemic then I don’t think they are human,” he says over tea in Singapore. “It is the same with the art world: if they haven’t changed, it is going to be tough. We are working with artists with interesting things to say.”
It is fitting then that Art SG, the biggest art fair to launch in Asia Pacific in a decade, is in Singapore. Koh says the city-state is itself transformed after the pandemic: it became a hub for summits, conferences and exhibitions as Hong Kong remained shut with crippling pandemic restrictions, to the point where there is a buzz in Singapore that did not exist before the crisis.
That buzz has flowed through to broader south-east Asia, Koh’s home and a region of 675mn with Singapore nestled in the centre. New buyers, new artists and new buying patterns are emerging. All of this, he hopes, will be on display at Art SG. His gallery, Richard Koh Fine Art, will join 150 others at the major new art fair, which was delayed for nearly four years because of the pandemic. The show was postponed in 2019 to 2020 after participants requested more time, then the pandemic struck and its debut was delayed three more times.
The 57-year-old, a longtime supporter and promoter of south-east Asian contemporary art, says another change has been a shift towards localisation. Art buyers and collectors, unable to fly to international art fairs while the pandemic raged, started looking more deeply at local artists, especially in Vietnam and Thailand, he says.
“Covid, the war [in Ukraine], geopolitical tensions between the US and China . . . under the facade there is a sense now that local is better,” he says. “Younger buyers in the region are coming in. The buying pattern is different. The visual language appreciation is different. The idea of collecting is different. They are collecting their time. Many of these buyers are from a social media generation, drawn to visual work that is fast, colourful and even virtual.” For this reason, he is hopeful Art SG will steer clear of being another generic international fair and that gallerists showcase more homegrown and regional art.
But art is an expensive business and south-east Asia’s developing economies often cannot afford to build the infrastructure and programmes needed to foster and promote local art, Koh says. This is part of what has driven his new artist residency programme, scheduled to start in the second quarter of 2023 and run for three months. The course will focus on cultivating new artistic talent in south-east Asia — applicants have to have been practising for less than five years — and giving them the bonus of more practical experience in the running of a gallery so they understand how it works when dealing with their own galleries. “At the moment they don’t teach this in art school and no one talks about it because selling seems to be a bad word,” he adds.
The project is self-funded and will run for three years, after which he hopes to attract sponsors. Having fairs such as Art SG that then promote these artists’ work, and carry on the momentum, is crucial, he says. Sotheby’s first sale of Modern and contemporary art in Singapore in August 2022 made S$24.5mn (US$18mn), with “strong results”, according to the auction house, for south-east Asian art.
Artists from the Indochina region — which includes Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam — will feature heavily in Koh’s selection. “Underdog” isn’t the correct word, Koh insists, but he says he does gravitate towards artists who are not considered trendy and don’t have a huge platform.
One of the regional artists Koh champions is Natee Utarit, who he has worked with for 20 years. A painter from Bangkok, Utarit’s latest body of work considers the question of what would happen if history was written by the east and not the west. “A lot of western curators when they see the work, they think this is about religion. But if you understand the Asian psyche, you see a lot of the quirky things in the painting.” One painting in the Déjà Vu series shows men in Buddhist robes in a historic Greco-Roman building.
Another artist he thinks local collectors will appreciate is Vietnamese-American Trong Gia Nguyen, who is based in Brussels. Koh, who describes his personal preference for art as “contemplative”, says Nguyen’s work is political in a “quiet way”. His work at Art SG considers the concept of displacement, using both photography and painting. “Indochina citizens are everywhere from the US to France but often never fully accepted or integrated. The work subtly considers the feeling of being displaced.”
Vietnam in particular has many more collectors supporting local works, more galleries opening and artists practising full time, according to Koh. Another work he will feature at Art SG is an installation by Vietnamese feminist artist Cam Xanh. The work involves a giant acrylic cross and bible with phrases sandwiched between the bonded layers, referring to the burdens put on women.
Koh admits that any social commentary, even through art, can be a risk in south-east Asia, a region known for authoritarian regimes and frequent clampdowns on dissenting voices. Singapore, where people require a permit to protest and sex between men was only decriminalised in 2022, has its human rights critics.
Still, he is optimistic about the change wrought by the pandemic. In some ways the crisis changed life — and art — for the better, including in south-east Asia. “The good thing from this is that people looked inwards. It was a time of self-discovery. Does it move on further, deeper? I don’t know, but we have had time to understand ourselves better.”