What it takes to run an art gallery
Tell us the story of your gallery, 1961
1961 opened its first show in January 2017 with a solo exhibition by Ian Whittlesea, Ian Whittlesea: In the Beginning. The gallery is located in Ubi, a relatively industrial area in the east side of Singapore. The gallery features a programme of projects by international and local artists.
When I first returned to Singapore after my time at NUA, I naively told myself that I would give myself about two years to find out about the local and regional scene and do a bit of groundwork. I spent the first two months travelling, visiting places like Japan’s Naoshima Island, which hosts the Setouchi Triennale, and the Jakarta Biennale.
I was inspired and decided to open the space much earlier than I ever expected. I looked to artists I’d worked with in the UK and their work became the first programme.
What tensions exist between Gabriel the artist and Gabriel the curator?
Although there isn’t a conscious conflict, I do understand that there is a level of negotiation, compromise and sacrifice that exists between the two roles. The relationship between my practice as an artist and a curator is more of a transition. Although I do have a fine art practice, I feel that the exhibition has, in some ways, become my medium. A lot of the creativity is required for discussions with artists and developing and understanding of their practices.
How has the experience operating a gallery impacted your view of the curator’s role?
Aside from the obvious (that there are more logistics involved in running the gallery as opposed to working directly with artists for one-off exhibitions), my authority as Director of Exhibitions allows me hand over control to the artists.
There is also a lot more scope for me to manage the audience; I’ve learned to see exhibitions from the perspective of a visitor to the space. Although it is crucial to understand an artist’s practice, it is equally important to have a voice as a curator. Throughout the past year, I have learned that the dialogue, debate and critique between artist and curator is vital to putting on a successful exhibition.
Describe the contemporary art scene in Singapore and how 1961 fits in
At the moment, 1961 sits in a very unique spot within the art scene in Singapore. I have been working with a close collective of smaller spaces which share similar goals but each one presents very different programmes, sensibilities and exhibition languages.
There has been a lot of support from local artists and curators, with keen interest from larger institutions, too.
"Many of the artists I work with now I met during my time in the UK."
What were the biggest lessons you drew from your time in the UK?
Being in a different country, I believe one has to be a sponge: open to new experiences, observant and immersed in the environment around them. Lessons are not only learned within the university or studio but through casual conversations with friends and tutors when you bump into them on campus, over dinner or at a pub. It’s a network that you should aim to build and maintain even after you’ve left. Many of the artists I work with now I met during my time in the UK.
What advice do you have for graduates looking ahead to after graduation?
During my postgraduate year of study at Chelsea College of Art, I participated in Shades of Yellow (2015), an exhibition curated by NUA graduates Stephen Chambers, Tom Davis and myself. The exhibition featured several other NUA graduates and the work I installed was Art Now 4, which was a 1.8-metre wooden sculpture of block numbers: one, nine, six and one. The number 1961 was the average year of birth of the 100 artists in a publication called ‘Art Now! Vol. 4’, published by Taschen in 2014.
What the work represented was my surprise that artists considered ‘now’ belonged to my parent’s generation. Two things I got from that work: one, the road I’m heading down is a long one and two, there is no rush to get there.
I believe the British artist Grayson Perry provided this analogy in the first series of his Reith Lectures: a lot of graduates get on a bus at the bus station but after a couple of stops on their journey they realise that they aren’t getting close to their destination, so they stop, turn around and head back to the station to start again. What is important, he said, is to stay on the bus because you will get there eventually.
Any specific advice for Singaporean students?
The so-called rat race in Singapore is only one way to view the scene; many like-minded individuals are keen to work together to overcome hurdles and challenges in unity.
Also, the skills that they’ve acquired can be put to use in more than their chosen field, so it is vital that they broaden their horizons whilst staying true to their craft.
What advice do you have for Singaporeans selecting a university?
Different environments work well for different people. You might enjoy a city with a large selection of eating destinations or another with a rich history. You might search for a university with specialist facilities or one where you can focus in a field you’re interested in.
Whatever the case may be, select a university and a city that will best suit you. As someone coming from a metropolis like Singapore, it may seem a bit of a shock at first to live in a smaller city like Norwich, but it offered an intimacy and familiarity that larger cities may not.