The art scene in Singapore has a problem — one that is not acknowledged enough, even as the government pushes for Singapore to be a major art hub in Asia.
Singaporeans who intend to make visual art a full-time profession have to either display their works at art galleries, prominent exhibitions or museums; all which have limited vacancies or are not held all the time. Artists who are new lack the connections, confidence or prestige attached to their names to be able to exhibit their works, even if they are of high quality.
Less prominent artists may sacrifice material well-being in order to focus on their artwork. They typically live on minimum expenses, as their disposable income goes toward art projects. Some would argue that this struggle is the conscious choice of the artist; however, is it really necessary in the modern world?
Twenty two-year old Gregory Ong thinks differently. In conversation with e27, Ong said that artists want to get recognised for their work, to match their passions with practical concerns. The tools are already available to democratise art; and Ong intends to aid the same with theartbounty, an online portal to match the works of visual artists with price sensitive art buyers.
Ong is fortunate to be brought up in an environment that stimulates innovation, being surrounded by entrepreneurs in his family. At the age of 16, he helped his brother run Smudger & Kickers, which deals with table football products, by managing the community in Singapore. Additionally, his father runs a glass business called Cyber Glasstrade.
Ong, the Founder of theartbounty (TAB) launched the service on April 25, 2014, having dropped the chance of furthering his studies in order to have a head-start in chasing his dreams and making things happen.
Gregory Ong, Founder, theartbounty, showcasing artwork by artist Kenneth Yong
How was the idea born?
According to Ong, everybody enjoy owning beautiful things, but art is seen as a luxury product that could cost anywhere between US$10,000 to US$20,000. He was inspired to come up with the idea as some of his artist friends confided in him that they didn’t know where they were going with ‘art’ as there were limited gallery openings and selling art for a living is not easy. He realised that many local budding artists give up on their dream because of a lack of demand for their works. This is when he decided to do something about it.
When asked how indie artists become prominent, Ong replied that it mostly amounts to connections and luck, as well as intrinsic talent and techniques. Despite the government’s efforts to support the emerging art scene, museums can only showcase artwork but not sell them, and there are limited vacancies available.
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Bringing the art world to the web
TAB bridges the perceived dichotomy between the art and technology world, as mentioned in the New York Times in its article Does Anyone Here Speak Art and Tech? It is clear that the art industry is ripe for disruption by a startup. In fact, technology has given birth to new forms of art that are only possible to be appreciated digitally such as GIF (Graphical Interchange Format) as seen in the Huffington Post’s article on emerging GIF artists. Ong shared that these forms of art would be relevant to TAB.
TAB focuses on solving two big issues in the local art and design scene; the lack of opportunities for local budding artists who are struggling to make a name, and the general public’s inaccessibility to truly affordable, original art. So what is defined as original art? He is keenly aware that foreign mass produced artwork, though inexpensive, is perceived to be lacking in originality, and too much commercialisation ruins the meaning of the artist’s expression. A major feature in the portal’s operations is the firm belief that every single piece of artwork displayed must have a story behind it that ties in with the artwork itself. The synopsis basically tells the reader about the artwork itself, as well as the artist behind it.
According to Ong, online art-selling has always faced skepticism due to the high prices of art, and the lack of a live viewing of the works. However, he believes that issue can be managed by pricing affordably, and allowing people to pay only upon delivery, with the option of rejecting the piece before payment should the piece be found to not be up to expectations.
He intends to sell artwork priced at approximately US$795 and below, depending on the artist’s background.
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The community is everything
Currently, TAB has 10 to 12 artists collaborating with the site, and hopes to grow the small tight-knit community further. When asked about the market size in Singapore for his service, Ong said, at the risk of sounding too idealistic, almost every home in Singapore. He has conducted his customer development interviews in detail to determine the viability of the concept.
Additionally, he intends to build strategic partnerships with art schools and is already in talks with LASALLE College of the Arts to work something out in regard to communicating with its students in person. He also intends to collaborate with School Of The Arts (SOTA) and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA). Ong is not really looking into working together with galleries and museums yet, but intends to do so in the future once the business is more established.
To build the community further, Ong intends to organise events, conduct artist talks, get community members to share their techniques with each other, and other art appreciation sessions. It is likely that the startup would come up with a similar exhibition as the Affordable Art Fair eventually.
Since its launch, the site has had 600 to 700 unique visitors. TAB has a simple business model, wherein the profit made from the sale of an art piece is divided between the startup and the artist — 30 per cent for the business and 70 per cent for the artist. This decision was made basis talking to about 20 to 30 artists on what would be fair.
Competition in the online art space
However, TAB is not the only startup that has its eye on the growing trend of online art galleries. According to Reuters, the value of the online fine art market is expected to more than double to US$3.76 billion in the next five years as it increasingly attracts younger and first-time buyers.
In fact, recently Gallery.sg, a virtual art gallery built on a multi-player gaming platform by home-grown multimedia artist Eugene Soh, has launched, reported Straits Times, adding on the list of companies such as The Artling and Art Loft, which have been in the industry longer. The services these firms offer are very similar, with minor differences in price points and quality of art work. Hence, maintaining the community of artists is of high importance, as well as marketing the site to prospective buyers.
Moving forward, Ong intends to expand beyond Singapore eventually to overseas markets such as New York and Hong Kong, where there is a thriving art scene.