Molecular biology makes way for art

Molecular biology makes way for art

Managing Partner
Utterly Art

Dr Pwee Keng Hock trained as a plant molecular biologist and gave it up for art.

He lectured at the National University of Singapore for nine years and was a research director in a biotech company before he became a full-time gallerist in 2002, when Utterly Art opened its space in Chinatown.

"I simply took my hobby, which was collecting art, and turned it into my business," the affable collector-turned-gallerist says. Focusing on local artists, he says, "seemed a very natural thing to do. We were a local gallery with easy access to local artists".

The initial years were "tough going" and it took about a year for him and business partner Kenneth Tan to break even. Their belief that it could work and their passion for art kept the gallery going.

During this early period, he gave breaks to young artists such as street artist TR853-1. He showed some of the latter's graduation works in the group exhibition Pardon My Icons in 2005.

Their artists were drawn from the local art scene and some of the shows received funding from the National Arts Council.

"In this way, we built strong ties with the local artist community. We gave space for solo exhibitions and looked at developing long-term partnerships with many of them such as Wong Shih Yaw, Boo Sze Yang and Yeo Siak Goon," says Dr Pwee.

He found artists such as Vivien Yang at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art by visiting graduation shows and offering his gallery space to artists he liked.

"From the start, we had no prejudices against young artists with good work. We quickly became known for that and started showing them alongside more established local artists."

The gallery's successful outings with some artists have also resulted in multiple exhibitions. Painter Andre Tan, for instance, has done four solo exhibitions since 2011. He sold more than 50 per cent of his work each time, with the paintings priced between $2,200 and $5,500.

For Dr Pwee, however, success is not always about sales. They take pride in discovering exciting new artists, finding new collectors for existing artists and encouraging novices to make first-time purchases of art. To that end, the prices in the gallery are kept at entry level.

Dr Pwee points out: "We sell ceramic cups by local artist Chua Chon Hee for $50. Our most expensive painting sold this year was priced at $12,000, through we most commonly sell work between $800 and $5,000."

This year, apart from their outing at the Affordable Art Fair where they clocked up more than $100,000 in sales, Utterly Art had three successful sell-out gallery shows for watercolourist Aaron Gan, painters Wong Shih Yaw and William Sim.

The gallery actively participates in art fairs and puts on an annual show at the Ion Art Gallery.

"It allows us to reach out to new clients," says the Singaporean gallerist, who is single.

He says that in the years he has been in business, he has seen a sea change in the young artists who come through his doors. These days, artists are well-travelled, Internet savvy and in tune with global art trends.

"So many young artists are involved in new and exciting media suited for Biennale showings. But the grand gestures can suit the budgets of only institutions and high-net-worth collectors.

"As a commercial entity, I have to point out that many new experiments are fairly alien to the market. Right now, when I look at the work of our younger generation, I feel we have too few really good painters and sculptors who can make art that is easily collectible."


Where: 20B Mosque Street
When: 2 to 8pm (Mondays to Saturdays), noon to 5.30pm (Sundays), closed on public holidays
Admission: Free

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