Nearly a third of Gillman Barracks galleries have decided not to renew their leases

Five galleries exiting Gillman Barracks cite poor sales but developer says the turnover is part and parcel of competitive art market

After three years of persistently low footfall, the Gillman Barracks art enclave is served its worst blow yet: Nearly a third of the 17 galleries there have decided not to renew their leases.

The five galleries are: The Drawing Room, Equator Art Projects, Space Cottonseed, Tomio Koyama Gallery and Silverlens.

Most of these galleries present contemporary art from South-east Asia and broader Asia. The Drawing Room and Silverlens focus on Filipino contemporary art.

The gallerists cite low human traffic, poor sales and a "slow start" as reasons for their exit.

There is no word yet on who will take over their spaces, though the Economic Development Board (EDB), one of the developers of Gillman Barracks, is expected to make an announcement next month.

The exit by the five galleries is a significant setback for the visual art cluster, a government-backed initiative that aims to create a contemporary art hub in Asia akin to Beijing's famous 798 District.

About $10 million was spent to renovate the 6ha area off Alexandra Road, which used to house British military barracks.

In the three years of its operation, the art enclave had fallen short of its ambition, suffering from a hard-to-shake listlessness in terms of sales and visitorship.

Block 47, on Malan Road, seems to be the worst hit, being in the "innermost" area in Gillman Barracks. Four out of the five exiting galleries are situated there.

This is despite the fact that they are right next to the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Singapore, the largest and most important tenant in the barracks as it organises large-scale exhibitions of top contemporary artists and conducts residencies.

Academic and writer Tony Godfrey, who runs the Equator Arts Projects space, says the centre had opened too late in October 2013, a year after Gillman Barracks was launched.

"If CCA had opened at the same time as the private galleries, Block 47 would have been very different," he says.

"This end of Gillman has quite simply not worked out as well as the other end. We just have not sold enough works.

"For many of us, it has sadly been a missed opportunity. This is an ambitious project and I am sure eventually it will work."

While rental for galleries along this stretch ranges between $4,000 and $5,000, gallerists say other operational costs add up. It takes $20,000 a month or more to keep a gallery going.

Japanese gallery Tomio Koyama had in fact attempted to pull out midway through its three-year lease, but it could not.

It is not just those galleries in Malan Road that are facing problems.

In general, galleries are finding that the pool of local collectors is smaller than they had expected. Moreover, EDB's attempts to bring foreign collectors to Gillman Barracks had not been effective.

Some also feel that the infrastructural additions to the barracks, such as better signage, covered walkways and more food and beverage options, and programming of pop-up events, came too late. They were introduced about a year after the opening of the barracks.

The Drawing Room, another exiting gallery, falls on the main stretch in Block 5, Lock Road.

Owner Cesar Villalon tells Life!: "At this point, it is difficult for us to continue our programme in Singapore given the current market conditions. It has been a difficult decision to make as we have made good friends along the way, including some very good collectors and serious art enthusiasts. Plus we love our space."

Responding to the exits, Ms Kow Ree Na, 38, director of EDB's lifestyle programme office, says: "The turnover of galleries is part and parcel of a vibrant and competitive art marketplace. There are other galleries that have renewed their leases, and even expanded their operations in Gillman Barracks."

Among galleries that have expanded are Arndt, which shows international and South-east Asian contemporary art.

Japanese gallery Ota Fine Arts, which represents Japanese superstar artist Yayoi "polka dot" Kusama, has moved out of Block 47 in Malan Road to a bigger space on 7 Lock Road.

In September last year, a new gallery, Yavuz Gallery, moved into Block 9. It was formerly in Waterloo Street, and its owner Can Yavuz said he was drawn to Gillman Barracks because of its energy, the sense of community, the space and the high ceilings.

Other galleries renewing their leases include Sundaram Tagore Gallery which presents works of A-listers including American photographer Annie Leibovitz and American abstract painter Frank Stella, and Fost Gallery, which represents emerging and established artists from Asia.

Fost's owner Stephanie Fong believes Gillman is still the right place for her gallery.

"Both local and regional collectors have come to identify it as Singapore's contemporary art enclave," she says.

"It is important that I continue to build on the efforts of the past three years at Gillman Barracks and I look forward to the next phase of growth."

EDB says that it takes a "long-term view" of the area. Says Ms Kow: "We look forward to continue working together with the exiting galleries through a variety of ways such as pop-up shows.

"We are also optimistic about upcoming new developments in the belt; such as new non-profit art spaces, F&B outlets and the introduction of creative businesses."

Despite the board's efforts, art insiders and casual visitors alike have had mixed feelings towards Gillman.

While some praised the lush surrounds and sprawling cluster of colonial bungalows, others found the location inaccessible and the food and beverage options too limited to draw a wider range of visitors that will give the enclave buzz.

There is now a new cafe, Red Baron, run by Artistry Cafe. Naked Finn's new 60-seat fine-dining restaurant has also opened while its seafood shack is being converted into a Tapas Bar. There are also the restaurants Masons and Timbre Bar.

Independent graphic designer Angela Bowskill says: "One of the things I found missing is a reasonably priced artsy cafe. I went yesterday to see the Gilbert and George show at Arndt. It was quite empty. I do not drive and find Gillman Barracks a bit out of the way to go for just one show."

Collector Ryan Su, who visits Gillman Barracks regularly and takes overseas visitors there, observes that "local collectors are few, and walk-ins, I believe, even fewer".

Over the past few years, there had been some attempts to boost traffic. Galleries offered more joint openings, and there were more pop-up events, with occasional bursts of activity. For example, nearly 6,000 visitors showed up for the Art After Dark event, which was part of the packed Singapore Art Week in January.

Overall, these programmes have yet to translate into sustainable visitorship and sales for some of the tenants.

Regional art consultant Valentine Willie thinks that the main problem for the Gillman galleries is commercial: they are trying to sell "cheaper" Southeast Asian art in Singapore, where overheads are high.

"The high costs of Singapore are exacerbated by the lower prices of regional art relative to Chinese or Western art," he says.

Artist and writer Jason Wee says it is possible for Gillman to thrive. He says: "The agencies behind it perhaps need to work more sensitively with existing galleries for this to succeed. The big question now is: Can EDB find equally strong and adventurous galleries to replace those that are leaving?"

The optimistic view, some industry watchers say, is that one needs to be patient in trying to nurture a viable and buzzing enclave.

Ms Kanchana Gupta, an artist who visits Gillman Barracks regularly, says: "Building up a market for conceptual and high-end art is an extremely slow process. Art is a game of patience."

deepikas@sph.com.sg

How can footfall at Gillman Barracks be boosted? Write to stlife@sph.com.sg