Affordable, actually

Ms Margareta Laminto, 36, is an old hand when it comes to collecting.

For more than a decade, she has been building a trove of handbags, shoes and watches, investing tens of thousands of dollars in them.

The Indonesia-born Singaporean with an eye for beauty gave art collecting a wide berth however.

She says: "I hear about Monets selling for millions of dollars at art auctions and think I could never afford to buy or collect art."

But Ms Laminto, a regional marketing manager for a health-care company, shelved her scepticism last year when a friend invited her to the Affordable Art Fair, where artworks are each priced below $10,000.

She says: "Its accessible price point helped me get over my mental barrier. For the price of a handbag, I could buy a painting."

She bought her first artwork, an oil painting by Thai artist Somnuek Klangnok, for less than $2,000 and she plans to shell out some $12,000 at this year's fair for a series of four works by home-grown urban artist Samantha Lo.

Ms Laminto's change from curious onlooker to serious art buyer is just one way the Affordable Art Fair, which began in London in 1999 and sprang up here in 2010, is transforming Singapore's art scene.

The contemporary art fair, which returns for the fourth year to the F1 Pit Building on Nov 21, has demystified art for the uninitiated, grown the pool of art lovers, buyers and collectors, and seeded business opportunities for galleries beyond the fair.

For sales manager Jacqueline Ng, 28, an occasional art buyer who first attended the fair last year, the convivial atmosphere and easy access to artists and gallerists were a relaxing way to learn how to appreciate art.

"By talking to artists, I learnt how to look at art and see it as more than just something pleasing to the eye," she says. She bought two works by young Singapore artists Eugene Soh and Ruben Pang for about $3,200 in total.

It is not just newcomers who welcome the fair's non-judgmental environment.

Financier Tan Yo-Hann, 43, a seasoned collector of watercolours and Art Deco posters, says: "Even for a long-time investor like myself, I still get intimidated if I walk into a gallery selling art I am not familiar with. The way the fair is set up, it is quite communal, so you can enjoy art and not feel judged."

The mass appeal of the fair has not turned away sophisticated collectors. Savvy investors with an eye for art see the fair as an opportunity to spot upcoming artists and snag their works for a good price.

Business consultant T.K. Chia, 55, who has been collecting South-east Asian art for 15 years, says: "Affordable art could mean anything but I was pleasantly surprised the galleries put up better artists for sale."

He has bought eight works by established and young South-east Asian artists for between $2,500 and $8,000 each at the fair.

The event has also opened the doors for art lovers to grow their interest in collecting beyond the weekend the fair is held.

Family physician and new art collector Jeff Loke, 31, did not buy anything at the first fair in 2010, but he viewed it as a "one-stop introduction to galleries that sell affordable art" in Singapore, and he signed up to be on the galleries' mailing lists to keep an eye out for interesting works that might suit his budget.

Since then, he has attended a few gallery shows apart from the fair and added works to his small collection of about six pieces of art.

The wide swathe of visitors the fair attracts and the relationships it fosters have also wooed renowned galleries, whose usual inventory exceeds the fair's cap of $10,000 for an artwork, to set up shop.

Mizuma Gallery and Space Cottonseed, pedigreed galleries from Singapore's Gillman Barracks art enclave, for example, will be among the fresh faces at this year's fair.

Ms Janice Kim, 43, owner of Space Cottonseed, says it is taking part in the well-publicised art fair "to meet new clients as well as promote our gallery to wider audiences". The gallery will show works by emerging Korean and Singapore artists to stay within the fair's price limits.

The success of the fair has also prompted some exhibitors such as Singapore-based art dealer Phuong Nguyen of ArtBlue Studio to expand their client base overseas with the fair, which is held in 12 cities around the world.

Ms Nguyen, 33, owner of the private gallery which specialises in Vietnamese art, says: "The fair worked so well for us in Singapore that we followed it to Hong Kong, New York and Los Angeles."

The Singapore edition remains ArtBlue's most successful.

Fair director Camilla Hewitson, 34, credits the reach and impact of the fair in Singapore to "how people have taken it, made it their own and are very passionate about it".

Indeed, the event has grown in size, attendance and sales every year, from 50 galleries, 9,500 visitors and $1.75million in sales in 2010 to 86 galleries, 16,000 visitors and more than $4 million in sales last year.

One thing the fair cannot afford, though, is to rest on its laurels. Ms Hewitson says: "We have to up our game every year and it is important for us to keep innovating."

This year, the fair is introducing a wall that will display selected artworks priced below $1,000 from different galleries.

This new feature, known as the Under $1,000 Wall, aims to reinforce the message about the affordability of artworks and it is launched in response to some visitor feedback that the works in previous fairs mostly fell outside their budget.

This push to improve will likely help the fair stay ahead in an increasingly competitive scene - no fewer than 10 art fairs are slated to open next year, including a second edition of the Affordable Art Fair itself in May, making it a biannual event.

Other fairs include the hotel art fair Worlds Apart Fair and Spot Art fair, which features budding artists from South-east Asia under the age of 30.

On the art fair circuit heating up in Singapore, Ms Hewitson says: "I am excited. It is another opportunity for the Singapore audience to see art and grow their knowledge and it can only benefit galleries that show here."

Regular Affordable Art Fair exhibitor Yann Bombard, 45, director of Envie D'Art Galleries in Paris and London, says: "I am sure that there is room for other art fairs in Singapore but no one will really compete against the Affordable Art Fair.

"Affordable art is not a question of price, it is a question of spirit and the Affordable Art Fair, with its easy-to-love selection of artists, cool atmosphere and transparent selling process is, to me, the only one that has understood this point."

lijie@sph.com.sg

Book it

The Affordable Art Fair Singapore

Where: F1 Pit Building (1 Republic Boulevard)

When: Nov 21 to 24, noon to 8pm (Thursday), noon to 6pm (Friday), 11am to 8pm (Saturday), 11am to 6pm (Sunday). Arty-Licious Evening is on Friday from 6 to 10pm

Admission: $15 at the door, $12 from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555), $8 for students and seniors, $30 for Arty-Licious Evening ($25 from Sistic), free for all below age 16

Info: affordableartfair.com/singapore

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