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When fellow art collectors visit Linda Neo and Albert Lim’s private art space, they’re impressed by the selection of works on display. But what really makes their eyes pop – and maybe a little green with envy – is when the couple shows them the storage room behind the gallery.

Here, hundreds of large artworks are neatly stacked and stored in professionally designed racks. There are close to 500 beautiful works by the who’s who of Singapore and South-east Asian art, including Cheong Soo Pieng, Lim Tze Peng, Tang Da Wu, Suzann Victor, Jane Lee, Natee Utarit, Noberto Roldan and more. Many of the works are large, allowing the art lover to get lost in their detail and complexity. When it’s time to leave the storage room, an art lover might feel something akin to heartbreak.

For a few art lovers, however, their feelings go beyond that. Ms Neo says: “Quite a few people who’ve seen our storage and exhibition space have been inspired to think about starting their own private galleries as well . . . We won’t say names, but at least one collector in the region has done so, and two other collectors are making plans to do so. You might be hearing of these spaces in future.”

For the couple, who’ve been married for 37 years, this may be their biggest triumph yet. For the past year, they’ve been actively playing the role of art advocates – a role they had never imagined themselves playing 15 years ago when they started collecting art. Like most Singapore collectors, they had kept their collection to themselves for their own enjoyment, opening their private gallery occasionally for mostly friends, business associates and fellow collectors.

But something changed when Covid-19 struck and threatened the livelihoods of the artists they love. Ms Neo says: “We needed to do something, to tell the public about these wonderful artists, so that they too might want to support them by buying their art. So Albert and I decided to open the gallery for more public tours, so that we can help foster greater art appreciation and knowledge about Singapore and South-east Asian artists.”

During the recently-ended Singapore Art Week, the couple held tours at their gallery in Primz Bizhub and plan to do more in the coming months. Their new exhibition titled Flesh & Spirit is curated by former Singapore Art Museum curator Tan Siu Li. It is a visual feast examining the metaphysics of the human condition, with fine works by Genevieve Chua, Ian Tee, Mella Jaarsma, Pannaphan Yodmanee and others.

Mr Lim typically conducts the tours himself, passionately parsing the deeper meaning of the art on display. Indeed, the full-time businessman is so sincere in his love of art that he carved time out of his busy schedule to pursue an MA in Asian Art Histories at Lasalle College of the Arts in 2017. He was the oldest student there, but he didn’t care because he was determined to learn art history – a subject he feels all serious art collectors should pursue.

He says: “We used to be paiseh (bashful) about telling people about the art we owned. We didn’t want people to think we were showing off. Compared to our Indonesian, Filipino and Malaysian counterparts – who often open their houses and throw parties to let people see the art they own – Singaporean collectors tend to be more reserved.

“But Linda and I now realise we have a part to play as art advocates – especially in this moment when artists are really struggling. And for me, I’ve felt great satisfaction conducting these tours for people and sharing the art with them. Every time I talk about these works, I feel renewed – it’s as if I’m talking about them for the first time.”

Knock-on effects

The passion that he and Ms Neo exude has had a knock-on effect on their visitors. Prominent art collector Chong Huai Seng and his daughter Ning Chong are friends of Mr Lim and Ms Neo. When Ms Chong visited the gallery some years ago, it strengthened her resolve to realise the dream she and her father had of starting their own space for art discourse.

In 2017, the father-daughter team founded The Culture Story, an art space in Thye Hong Centre that’s dedicated to bringing like-minded individuals together to discuss various issues concerning art. They’ve fashioned the space after the popular Paris salons of the early 1900s when artists, intellectuals and other influential figures gathered to discuss matters of the day. The Chongs also serve as art advisers, helping new and seasoned collectors with art acquisition and asset management.

Mr Chong is a private investor with years of experience in investment banking and fund management, while Ms Chong has worked in auction houses, art galleries and the National Arts Council (NAC). She says: “My stint at the NAC made me realise there are some gaps in the art ecology. I thought that The Culture Story could plug some of these gaps as a ground-up initiative focused on cultivating art appreciation.

“Over the years, my father and I have met many people who have an interest in art, but have not stepped inside a museum or gallery. They need a little bit of hand-holding, and there are not many opportunities out there for them to learn about the nitty-gritties of the art world – from what to look out for when buying art, to how to bid for art at an auction or conduct yourself at an art fair.

“So we’ve conducted many talks at The Culture Story, with occasional distinguished guest speakers such as art fair director Magnus Renfrew and art collector Zain Azahari Zainal Abidin, to help people make sense of the art world.”

At the moment, The Culture Story is showcasing Of Human Bondage, a showcase of 38 nude artworks by 22 artists including Chua Mia Tee, Teng Nee Cheong, Wong Keen, Tang Da Wu, Lee Boon Wang and others. The works are drawn from the family’s collection of over 300 pieces from some 30 countries.

Mr Chong says: “I’ve been accumulating art for over 30 years, and I felt that it’s a bit of a waste to keep the art in a warehouse. So we thought of creating The Culture Story to display the works and foster art appreciation at the same time. From there, I found my role naturally evolving from being a collector to an advocate.”

He says: “Singaporean collectors used to be a bit averse to media coverage and telling people about the art they own. But I think that attitude is changing as more and more of us realise the importance of art advocacy.”

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New Singaporeans play a part

But the role of art advocates is being played not just by Singapore-born art lovers alone. Many new Singaporeans, PRs and expats play a big part in art advocacy, running various non-profits organisations and conducting tours and fundraisers.

Long-time Singapore permanent resident Jim Amberson has been beating the drum for Singapore and South-east Asian art for over a decade. Originally from Minneapolis, the prominent art collector moved to Asia in 1998 for work and began collecting art of the region, acquiring works by top contemporary artists such Dinh Q. Lê, Sopheap Pich, Handiwirman Saputra, Ho Tzu Nyen and Yee I-Lann, among others.

Like Mr Lim, Mr Amberson wanted a deeper understanding of the region and the art he was buying, so he pursued a Masters of Arts in Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.

The director of a multinational insurance company has hosted many curators and delegations from the United States at his home to introduce them to South-east Asian art.

He says: “I would serve only kuehs and South-east Asian fruits like chiku, soursop and Thai mango. I would play only a selection of South-east Asian music so that everyone knows they’re in this region.” Then, he would take them on a leisurely tour of his three-storey house in the East where art hangs everywhere, from the bedroom walls to the stairwell, and even the bathrooms.

His decade-long efforts have slowly borne fruit. The Minneapolis Art Institute, for instance, has shown greater interest in Southeast Asian art. Last year, the Institute and Mr Amberson co-purchased a Jason Lim artwork for its permanent collection. Lim’s work titled Dharma was the centrepiece of the Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2007.

Last year too, Mr Amberson was invited to join the Asia-Pacific Acquisition Committee of the Tate Modern, which advises the renowned British museum on its purchases of artworks from the region.

Mr Amberson says: “There’s a point in a collector’s life when you move from being an acquirer of artworks to a protector of artworks (ensuring they remain in good condition), to an advocate of artists and art scenes, then to an ambassador of these scenes, and, eventually, to a matchmaker between the various players of the global art scene.

“There are a lot of great artists in Asia who are not yet recognised by institutions outside of the region. I’d like to help redress that.”

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Unique Asian perspective

Meanwhile, another non-Singapore-born avid supporter of local and regional art is Lourdes Samson. She and her banker husband, Mike Samson, moved to Singapore for work from the Philippines in 1998. After living here for almost two decades, they became Singaporeans in 2017. They own over 400 artworks by some of the region’s best known artists such as Geraldine Javier, Norberto Roldan, FX Harsono, Agus Suwage, Sutee Kunavichayanont, Nadia Bahmadhaj, Charles Lim, Robert Zhao and Kray Chen.

In 2017, Ms Samson pursued the MA in Asian Art Histories at Lasalle College of the Arts, and struck a bond with classmates Ivy Lam and Connie Wong. The three shared a common desire to strengthen the support system for artists, so they started the non-profit organisation SEED The Art Space after they graduated.

Their current project is the excellent Singapore Ceramics Now 2021 showcase at Gillman Barracks curated by Jason Lim, as well as the video art exhibition Work In Progress at SEED’s space on 46 Kim Yam Road.

Ms Samson says: “Personally, I feel that there is more to be done locally and regionally for South-east Asian art in terms of scholarly research, documentation and exhibitions – and that expansion onto the global stage should not be the main focus. We don’t need validation from the West to know that art from the region is worth exhibiting and understanding. Instead, we need to create a broader understanding of art history from this region and how artistic practices might have been shaped by colonial influences, local cultures and global trends.

“The narrative has to be written by people from this region and from our own local perspectives, because we understand the nuances of our culture more profoundly. The world will begin to understand us better when we first tell the stories from our own local perspective.” To that end, Ms Samson has allowed her lifelong passion for art to expand rapidly from simply acquiring objects to delving deeply into the art research and sharing that knowledge with the public.

She says: “Art is no longer just for personal enjoyment, but has acquired a communal dimension. I love that I always learn something new on each curatorial project by SEED . . . And if I can create a narrative (in the exhibition or the accompanying essays) that allows audiences to better understand contemporary art from this region, then the exercise would have been worthwhile.”

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

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