Because artists — like everyone else — can and should be able to carve a living out of their passion.

Jolene Hee  |  Singapore
Published 2015-03-16 16:06:07

Back in November last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong emphasized the importance of the arts in Singapore by quoting, “Man does not live by bread alone.” But despite Singapore’s bid to establish itself as an international arts hub, and our fast-expanding calendar of local arts events like the Affordable Art Fair and Singapore Art Week, it’s undeniable that our arts scene is far from joining the ranks of global arts epicentres such as New York and Paris.

What is theartbounty about?

And 23-year-old Gregory Ong would like to change that. Last year, he started online art gallery theartbounty as a platform where budding local artists can be empowered to monetise their works, while the man on the street can discover and buy art at affordable prices. Asked about the spark behind his startup, he said:

“Theartbounty was birthed due to two reasons – firstly, I felt that Singaporeans deserved to enjoy and own art easily. Secondly, I felt that locally-based artists have trouble making a living out of their passion. And many of them are really talented.

And so, I started talking to artists, and people whom I felt would be interested in art, and theartbounty was started.”

Gregory Ong, founder of theartbounty
Gregory Ong, founder of theartbounty

How it Works

For local artists – and especially less-established ones – theartbounty works as a freelance platform for them to exhibit works online; an alternative to traditional channels such as museums or art galleries. Each artwork comes complete with photos and a synopsis – if you find one that speaks to you, you can purchase the piece through the site, making payment only upon delivery. Prices range from around $50 SGD to above $5, 000 SGD.

One downside of online art galleries is the lack of live viewing, making purchase a rather delicate decision. To counter that, customers are allowed to reject a work before making payment. In addition, there is a refund policy that lasts three days.

Image Credit: theartbounty
Image Credit: theartbounty

Are Singaporeans Art Lovers?

Think of the average Singaporean, and “art-lover” is rarely a description that comes to mind — we typically perceive the arts as being separate from more practical concerns of everyday life. So what is the point of bringing art – even affordable art – to Singaporeans? For Gregory, the answer is clear:

“I think art represents culture. And I feel that moving forward, we should all learn to appreciate art a bit more than we did, and move towards having a more cultural perspective when it comes to living in Singapore. Appreciating subtle, and possibly unseen, beauty is what art is about.”

After all, Gregory emphasizes that he himself is nearer to the average Singaporean than a professional art collector. He would describe himself, he says, as “someone who’s always appreciated art — in every form — because of its beauty and what it represents.”

“And at the same time, I used to think that collecting art was a very expensive hobby — not something I could particularly afford. So one of the reasons why I started theartbounty was for others, who are just like me, to collect art at affordable prices. You can’t expect Singaporeans to start collecting art when prices are set so high – I’m trying to help make their entry into art ownership and appreciating a bit easier.”

Image Credit: theartbounty
Image Credit: theartbounty

Problems In The Art World

It might be surprising for some, Gregory notes, to learn that in the arts scene, “there’s not as much support as you’d think there should be. And [some] artists stop practising art because they are unable to make a proper income through their works.”

In Singapore’s drive to develop its artistic presence in the world, it was announced last year that $20 million would be dedicated to promoting our local art and artists abroad. A new visual arts institution, National Gallery Singapore, is set to open later this year. Art Stage Singapore, our flagship art fair showcasing Asian contemporary art, has been providing valuable exposure for local artists, and this year’s edition saw a record-high attendance of 51,000 visitors.

Art Stage Singapore 2015
Visitors at Art Stage Singapore 2015 (Image Credit: TimeOut Singapore)

So you could say that Singapore’s art scene is definitely picking up steam. Yet, to be an artist in Singapore still means straying off the beaten path in some way – the path which decrees ‘study, get a good degree, and work your way up the corporate ladder’. Besides a lack of exposure, Gregory feels that local artists face difficulties because “no one gives a voice to the community.”

It’s testament to his unique position as both art insider and non-art-professional that he provides an interesting flipside to the situation, commenting, “It doesn’t help that there isn’t much effort [from the art community] to show the rest of us, meaning non-artists or collectors, the beauty and subtlety of art.”

Image Credit: theartbounty
Image Credit: theartbounty

Online Art Galleries – A Break from Tradition

As an art gallery in cyberspace, theartbounty is an intersection of many things. Besides aiming to bring the mass public into the world of art appreciation, art and tech share a distinctive fusion here.

Other than theartbounty, there are several other virtual art galleries based locally, such as The Artling and The Bower Birds – and these have the potential to disrupt the art industry. The art world is traditionally based upon periodic exhibitions and art fairs, and Gregory is quick to point out the major advantage of online art galleries: “they can obviously display more works and a wider variety than a gallery at a certain point in time.” Besides, just as online shopping from your armchair at home is clearly more convenient, so online art galleries may be less cumbersome for both artist and buyer.

"Little You And I" by artist Amirah Eliyana (Image Credit: theartbounty)
“Little You And I” by artist Amirah Eliyana (Image Credit: theartbounty)

Still, there’s something about art that constantly makes us question: ‘Why?’ Why buy art from obscure, indie artists who haven’t made their name yet? This is, Gregory tells us, one of the hugest challenges that theartbounty has faced, and his answer to that:

“One big obstacle is making people realise: you don’t have to purchase art only from well-known and established names. Some budding artists produce really amazing art, and what they need is a chance. In fact, purchasing art by budding artists can be seen as an investment, just like real estate or stocks. Art has the ability to greatly appreciate in value.”

Because of this, Gregory counts it as an achievement that his startup has managed to show that “locally-based art can be equally amazing.” Another thing theartbounty has proved, he says, is that “buying art online isn’t as scary as it sounds”.

Image Credit: theartbounty
Image Credit: theartbounty

So, what’s ahead for theartbounty? Gregory believes that “we are far, far away from achieving our long term goal of establishing Singapore as an art city.”  He remains undaunted, though, and affirms that he and others in the local arts scene will continue to put in their efforts in pursuit of that goal. Asked about his vision for theartbounty a year from now, he says, “The same as it was when theartbounty was started — to bring art to everyone — collector or not — and to help artists carve a living out of their passion.”

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