Project director Audrey Yeo dishes on S.E.A. Focus, Singapore's homegrown art fair that shines the spotlight on Southeast Asian art

Project director Audrey Yeo dishes on S.E.A. Focus, Singapore's homegrown art fair that shines the spotlight on Southeast Asian art

Art of the deal

Text: Aravin Sandran

Created by local gallerists for a local audience — project director Audrey Yeo is set on delivering a fulfilling and accessible experience for all at S.E.A. Focus next year

Executive director of STPI  Creative Workshop Emi Eu stressed that S.E.A. Focus is not an art fair in an interview she did a few months back. However, according to its website, S.E.A Focus takes "the form of a boutique art fair." Would it be possible to clarify?

The question to ask is how is it different. It is different because it is run by gallerists. Emi is the executive director of STPI  Creative Workshop and Gallery in Robertson Quay, and I handle Yeo Workshop in Singapore. It is a homegrown affair. In the first year, we felt the ecosystem would be vibrant with this type of project. We don't know if this would be the same in edition two or three. In the first edition, it takes the form that looks like an art fair. It is a small boutique project, only 25 to 30 galleries.

Art Stage is happening as well, which means there will be two art fairs happening concurrently during Singapore Art Week 2019. There is obviously going to be some cannibalisation in terms of audience. What is S.E.A. Focus offering that Art Stage isn't? Could this have been avoided?

In the beginning, the galleries for the longest time didn't care whether Art Stage would continue or not. In fact, we have been very friendly with the art fair, because we are not an art fair company. The Art Galleries Association Singapore (AGAS) does an art show every year. Last year, it was at Millenia Walk. S.E.A. Focus is an extension of what we have been doing each year. In our minds, it's not really competition. We are augmenting what we used to do. We have spoken to other art fair operators all over the world. Art Stage has hundreds of galleries participating, while we are going to be working with about 25 or 30. In terms of content, even without thinking about Art Stage, there are over a hundred events going on during Singapore Art Week. We are already competing with each other for content, to begin with. 

MCH Group, the mastermind behind the world-famous Art Basel,  has teamed up with fair organisers Tim Etchells, Angus Montgomery Arts to launch Art SG in November next year. Does that pose a challenge?

AGAS do their show every year to network, whether there is an art fair or not. We are on friendly terms with Art SG. We are excited to know what's going to be happening. If I put my gallerist hat on, we need these events to sell art. We love the hype. We are always very receptive to any art fair operators who are coming here to offer something good. We are very collaborative in the art scene. It's not about cannibalisation; the problem is with the gap in the ecosystem. We want to share more art with the public. We don't have to compete with ourselves. It's about how we can get the public to understand and appreciate the value of art.

You're a gallery owner, so you're bringing a very distinct perspective compared to other art fair organisers. What are you doing for galleries that other art fairs might not be?

We have recently launched the S.E.A. Spotlight video series online. We are providing support for galleries, like how we would have wanted it for ourselves. We are providing this chance to network and meet with each other to share knowledge, collector base and artists. This is what we desire as galleries. I'm Singaporean, so I care very much about our landscape. The experience will be very different, so stay tuned for the programming. 

Connecting with a local audience is a priority for you. What are the factors that you are considering to achieve that objective?

We are still trying to think about the experience. Is it a craft beer or champagne kind of event? We are trying to craft the 'lifestyle' experience around understanding art and making it accessible so that it can be owned by everyone.

S.E.A. Focus is taking place in Gillman Barracks. It recently celebrated its sixth anniversary. You have a gallery here as well. Poor sales and visitorship have been reported in the past. How would you describe the situation now?

As a gallery owner, we don't show easy or decorative art. We show art that has cultural significance. There is a difference between symbolic value and monetary value. Galleries may choose to show work from Singaporean artist Sarah Choo for example, which is not expensive but is not an easy sale. For us, we are a local gallery. We don't have a problem with sales. We sell to our friends and networks. We are not like a shop, where things fly off the wall. Galleries who know how to sell, will sell. Every time we read news articles about sales, as gallery owners, we feel it's completely missing the point of what art is. Things are getting better. Gillman Barracks has received a lot more traction, so people know where to find art. Over the years, our client base has increased. I personally like it here, because it's not a mall. I find this extremely luxurious. 

S.E.A. Focus will run from 24 to 27 January 2019 at Gillman Barracks.