Surrounded by art in Cindy Chua-Tay's New York home

Singaporean Cindy Chua-Tay's artwork-filled home in New York is proof of her passion

This story first appeared in the March issue of The Life digital magazine.

With its white, curvilinear walls and sloping facade, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum occupies a special place in New York City's cultural landscape.

But the institution's reach extends far beyond the Big Apple, all the way to Singapore, with the appointment of Singaporean Cindy Chua-Tay to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation's board of trustees. 

The 46-year-old art enthusiast, who has sat on the Guggenheim's International Director's Council since 2013, says the invitation to join the board in October last year came as an exciting, if surprising, one. 

"My initial reaction was like - are you kidding me?" says Ms Chua-Tay with a smile, in response to the offer from the museum's deputy director, Mr Ari Wiseman.

In particular, she thought of how different a profile she embodied, compared with the largely American, New York-based board members who are mostly in their 60s and have a long and experienced history of art collection.


But that was precisely her appeal, it seems. She recounts: "He said, we're trying to bring about a new group of collectors, a new voice, and connect with younger collectors who want to make the museum more relevant in today's age."

As the only Asian and one of six women on the 33-member board, Ms Chua-Tay brings a unique perspective to the foundation, which oversees not only the Guggenheim in New York City, but also the Guggenheim museums in Venice, Bilbao and, soon, Abu Dhabi.

The board meets four times a year to make decisions on topics such as acquisitions and management. 

The Guggenheim appointment means more time spent in her Upper East Side apartment in New York City as well. She is married to Mr Tay Liam Wee, 57, who sold high-end watch retailer Sincere Watch in 2007 for $530 million. He is now investing in the luxury watch arena. 

A Ceccotti Collezioni light fixture illuminates a work, NY Mercantile Exchange (1991), by German photographer Andreas Gursky. PHOTO: BARRY WILLIAMS

This is their second home in the city. The location on the Upper East Side - with its proximity to Central Park and favourite restaurants - was a big draw, as well as the fact that they have friends living in the area. 

Ms Chua-Tay splits her time among Singapore, Hong Kong (where the couple also have a home) and New York. She visits the Big Apple six to eight times a year. 

The city has long been a familiar stomping ground for Ms Chua-Tay, who has visited since she was a child. In addition to the cultural draws, it was also a base closer to her sister's family, who lived in Princeton, New Jersey for a time. 

Almost every wall in her 3,000 sq ft residence features museum-worthy artworks.

At the private lift entrance, British artist Tracey Emin's neon text installation greets guests at the start of what is an art-filled journey through the eighth-floor apartment. 

Multiple works by controversial American photographer Richard Prince line the living room, photographs by American pop artist Andy Warhol dot a hallway and pieces by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami hang in the master bedroom.

Look further and you can find a colourful painting by German visual artist Gerhard Richter in the dining room, a medicine cabinet installation by British artist Damien Hirst in the kitchen and German artist Josephine Meckseper's mixed- media collage in front of a window. 

The modernity of the artworks contrasts with the more classical bones of the apartment, which features a mixture of vintage and contemporary furniture pieces, set up in collaboration with the couple's friend, interior designer Christopher Noto, an American previously based in Singapore. 

Grey walls with white trim give off an upper-crust vibe commensurate with the tony neighbourhood, but the artwork, decor and finishings - from the floral wallpaper in the orange jewel box of a guest bedroom to the fun vintage light fixtures in the living room - add a dose of freshness. 

The overall look was a combination of Ms Chua-Tay and Mr Noto's ideas. She describes her taste in decor as "eclectic".

Art is personally near and dear to her heart. She reflects, after a thoughtful beat, when asked what it means to her. "Art is transformative and formative. It's given me so many opportunities to learn - not only about art, but with this museum appointment, for instance, about the running of a museum." 

The ability of artwork to resonate emotionally also strikes a chord with her. "Every piece, every artist is different. It can be a very personal narrative of what he or she went through, but it can also move you on so many different levels."

The art aficionado's sense of curiosity and enthusiasm was cultivated in part by her parents who taught her to "appreciate new things, discoveries, and to always reflect". They ran a trading business dealing in paints and carpets. 

Her years as a ballet dancer with the National Dance Company (the previous incarnation of the Singapore Dance Theatre) and her stints in fashion publicity for Calvin Klein, Celine and Chaumet in Singapore honed her aesthetic eye. And while she enjoys the various genres, art is the most compelling medium for her.

"With dance, you remember it because of the dancer and what she brings to it. Once she's off the stage, you sort of forget," she says. "But art, as long as you have it on your walls, it's there to stay."

Ms Chua-Tay, who has three stepchildren in their 20s, has come a long way since buying her first piece of art - a pair of sketches by Brussels-born Francois Debongnie acquired in the late 1990s or early 2000s. 

Now she and her husband own more than 80 pieces of contemporary art. About half of the collection is in their New York apartment, while others are in Hong Kong.

With meetings for the Guggenheim throughout the year, her "home away from home" and her love for the city that never sleeps, she has plenty of reason to spend time in New York City. "The energy here is captivating. It's embracing and ever-changing. You can be who you want to be," she says of the city's allure. "There's always something going on... and I'm always intrigued."

• Thise story first appeared in the March issue of The Life e-magazine.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 02, 2016, with the headline 'Surrounded by art'. Print Edition | Subscribe