Art Hotspots
Art Hotspots

This is what art isn’t.

Art isn’t a museum, a gallery, or a queue for the masterpiece. Art isn’t a handheld radio, an earpiece yapping in seven languages. Art is not the rarefied air of attendants, scholars and curators, speaking a lingo no one else understands.

But neither is art everything and everywhere. This is not a piece about the beauty in a passing cloud or the structure of a street lamp. Art, like everything else, needs to eat and sleep and pay the rent – and it is a problem for those who are neither da Vinci nor Damien Hirst.

This is a look at how the artists and artisans of tomorrow survive – those who are not in the Met and the Guggenheim. They insert their work into the nooks and crannies. Into cafes. Into pop-up exhibits here today and gone tomorrow, with rents almost as vanishingly small.

Art Hotspots
Art Hotspots

Local artist Alvin Mark Tan chose to have his first solo show at That Spare Room ( “It was much more affordable than any gallery would have been,” he says. While galleries typically take a 50 per cent commission from new artists, rents here start from $78 a day – well within the tight budgets of many emerging artists. The name is more honest than tongue-in-cheek – it’s not a gallery; it’s a small space about the size of a garage at one end of The Fabulous Baker Boy, a tranquil little eatery at the foot of Fort Canning. Former theatre actor Juwanda Hassim, who owns the restaurant, began running the creative space in 2013 and keeps rents low to support artists who, like Tan, are just starting out.

As the dining and art spaces are separated only by glass doors, visitors of one find themselves naturally going through to the other. “It helps that we keep the art friendly,” says Juwanda, who often reaches out to new artists whose work he finds interesting and accessible. “People feel comfortable coming in here from the restaurant.” (Here’s Hassim on another type of art – Singapore food).

This collision of functions also puts the artworks in context – smack in the middle of the din and unstudied mess of everyday life, not isolated from these the way they would be at a gallery. At the time of our photo shoot, That Spare Room played host to Stranded In Paradise, the debut offering of Taiwanese photographer Sung Lin Gun. In Sung’s stark portraits of the Bajau, a sea nomad tribe living on the coast of Borneo, every face seemed more sunburnt and poignantly foreign amid the restaurant’s cool, muted decor and the quiet, convivial chatter of the ladies who lunch mid-afternoon.

The Fabulous Baker Boy isn’t the only place where you can enjoy art in the context it’s meant for. Many others in the local creative community are beginning to pounce on what we could call the serendipity quotient, slipping art into lifestyle haunts or, conversely, incorporating lifestyle elements into art spaces.

Art Hotspots
In May, British artist Donna Wilson’s knitted creatures and handmade homewares took over K+ at Scotts Square,
a pop-up curatorial space that changes monthly.

Sixteen-year-old design and branding agency Kinetic Singapore, a veteran by local standards, is opting to do the former. In January, it set up K+ at Scotts Square (#03-14/15), turning a freshly vacated shop lot into a pop-up curatorial space that’s “all about sharing art and showing people unexpected things”, says Carolyn Teo, co-founder of Kinetic Singapore. “Over the years, we’ve met so many talented people here and abroad. K+ is our way of putting their work out there and getting people to notice.” Everything on display is for sale, so artists get a retail platform too.

Located on the third level of the upscale mall, tucked between UOB’s private banking facility and hair salon Cinq, K+ is meant to be stumbled upon in between shopping and running errands. Every month or so, the spectacle changes (the art as well as the space), and it could be anything, really – local artist Keng Lye’s resin sculptures, Japanese child artist Mondo Okumura’s pop art illustrations and British knit artist Donna Wilson’s quirky lambswool creatures are just some of the things that have taken over the walls and shelves of K+ since its launch. This month, K+ presents Faculty, the first menswear label by Larry Peh, Designer Of The Year at last year’s President’s Design Award.

Art Hotspots
White-walled and sunlit, architecture firm Zarch Collaboratives’ expansive creative space is literally a tabula rasa for artists

In a different kind of mall, offering a different sort of art experience, is architectural firm Zarch Collaboratives’ creative space. Leveraging on the fact that Golden Mile Tower is beginning to attract the hipster set (indie cinema The Projector occupies the fifth floor of this once-near-forgotten building), Randy Chan, director of Zarch Collaboratives (, has dedicated the second floor of its office space to staging art exhibitions, installations and workshops.

“Local artists need more platforms to promote their work, and we have this great space with lots of daylight… I thought it would be perfect as an art space,” says Chan, who’s a frequent collaborator in the local art scene and co-founded the now-defunct Night & Day Gallery + Bar in 2008.

Chan carefully curates the programme list for the Zarch creative space so that there’s a mix of shows for both the casual observer (such as design collective Vertical Submarine’s murder-scene-inspired installation in February) and the serious creative-industry player (May’s by-invite-only workshops and talks on the meaning of drawing across disciplines from medicine to architecture). There’s a private staircase leading up to the creative space from Zarch’s third-floor office, but anyone can enter the space through a separate entrance on the fourth floor whenever there’s a show.

Art Hotspots
Art Hotspots

“I was on my way to the cinema and followed the signs here,” says Tilen Ti, a watercolourist who chanced upon the opening of the Vertical Submarine installation. “I’d never have expected to find art at Golden Mile Tower, but now I’ll check this space every time I’m here to see a movie.”

Also upending expectations is Canvas (#B1-01 The Riverwalk), a club that launched in July last year and does the extraordinary feat of doubling as an art space. Unlike other clubs, which tend to open closer to midnight, this one starts up at 5pm. That’s when art takes centre stage.

A large piece on the massive door, usually of a provocative nature, dominates the outdoor lounge area, where designer types often gather for after-work drinks. Inside, prominently displayed near the bar counters and on the pillars: more artworks, part of a series of curated works (there’s a new series every month or so). Even later, when the party crowd arrives and the place switches into conventional club mode, digital art – designed in-house by Canvas’ creative team – is projected across the walls, simultaneously backdrop and visual stimuli for night-time revellers.

Like most of the regulars here, Alvin Tan of local design collective Phunk Studio, is a big fan of the concept: “Not many people visit museums or galleries as they find them intimidating, so combining lifestyle and art like this is a perfect way to bring art to the public… over drinks in a club.”

Canvas takes this seriously – the club has its own art curator, Razi Razak, who regularly collaborates with local artists such as Ong Lijie and Tiffany Tan on shows that he feels will connect with the club’s young, modern clientele. “We like to think we’re bridging the gap between partying and art,” says Mahen Nathan, co-founder of Canvas. And people do ask about the pieces, he says, adding that a couple of pieces in past exhibitions have been sold.

Art Hotspots
The Workspace on the third floor of bistro The Refinery, a working commune for hand-picked artisans

The Refinery (115 King George’s Ave) too, is putting art where drinks and, in its case, dining, are the first draw. The multi-hyphenate venue jointly set up in December last year by The General Company, a purveyor of made-in-Singapore craft, and architecture firm Architology has been attracting the yuppie crowd with its Japanese-fusion bistro and cocktail bar, which take up the first and second levels of the industrial shop lot. But out of sight on the third level, which is accessible only via an external lift, a group of handpicked artisans ply away at their craft – among them bespoke carpenter Greg Swyny and furniture designer Melvin Ong.

Sunlit and high-ceilinged, The Refinery Workspace combines shared workshop spaces and individual work stations, and aims to enable these local artisans to focus on honing their skills and collaborating with each other without the burden of high rents (here, they only pay $300-$1,000 a month, depending on the size of their work stations). “There’s no money to be made out of this,” says Colin Chen, creative director of The General Company. “We’re doing this to raise the standards of local craft, which means skills need to go up, and then opportunities will follow.”

Art Hotspots
Art Hotspots

Aside from the cost savings, the workspace artisans also benefit from the exposure that comes from being above a bistro and a bar. It’s easy to imagine people going to The Refinery without art in mind, but finding their curiosity piqued by the idea of a creative space upstairs, where they can attend craft workshops (Swyny conducts woodworking sessions once or twice a month), meet various artisans, and even commission a bespoke piece.

Taking the opposite route and inserting lifestyle elements into art spaces are the folks behind Yavuz Gallery. In March, the gallery’s founders decided to convert the space it used to occupy in the middle of the Bras Basah art enclave into meetings and events space Congress (
What they’ve done is basically kept the art and put in modular office furniture.

This sounds a little banal but isn’t: Imagine being at a corporate seminar, surrounded by large-scale contemporary works – sculptures, abstracts in acrylic, photographs – by big names such as Thai artist Manit Sriwanichpoom and Indonesian artist Jumaldi Alfi. At $3,000 a day, rental isn’t cheap, but compared to the typical boardroom or hotel function room setting, the space offers a mise en scene that’s naturally going to be fuelled by the social commentary and visual stimulation of the artworks.

These come from the gallery’s stash or the owners’ private collections, and are rotated regularly to make sure clients get a fresh experience every time. Irene Fung, who works at Yavuz Gallery and manages Congress, says: “Part of the point of Congress is to display pieces we think people would be keen to see, on top of the current show at the gallery.” The art doesn’t have to be relegated to the background either – clients can request for a curated selection that matches the theme of their event.

Art Hotspots
Mad Museum of Art & Design looks more like the home of an eccentric collector than a gallery

At Mad Museum of Art & Design (10 Tanglin Road), art is both background and foreground – which
it is depends on the visitor. The 19,000 sq ft space combines two levels of art exhibits with a cafe, a store selling works by local craftspeople, and even a cigar lounge.

Founder Jasmine Tay hopes this will entice more people to venture in for a look, whether or not they know anything about art. “Art must be eased into lifestyle for people to notice it,” she tells me over coffee. “Art lovers come here to see the work, but this cafe will attract people who like good food and coffee, people who can explore the art space as part of their dining experience.” She points out renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s bronze sculptures in the garden, just beyond the glass windows of the cafe. “Where else can you have a drink and admire these?”

To ensure no one feels intimidated at Mad, which opened its doors in December last year, Tay has taken numerous un-gallery-like liberties. Though many of the works fetch five-figure sums, there are no suited attendants, no velvet ropes and no protective glass. Nothing to stop anyone from trying out British artist Maximo Riera’s sculptural sea-monster furniture or eyeballing Japanese photographer Yonehara Yasumasa’s risque photographs, though a detailed, guided tour is available to anyone who asks. Tay explains: “I don’t want people to feel like they have to buy anything to enjoy the space – you don’t need money to appreciate art.”

That, essentially, is the sentiment behind this new art-meets-lifestyle movement – the sense that all worldlier aspects should take a backseat to simple appreciation. So go forth and enjoy the art, and feel free to leave the credit cards – and the encyclopedia – at home.

This feature first appeared in the July 2015 issue of Female magazine, out on newsstands now.

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