Former stockbroker Chong Huai Seng and his daughter Ning want to cultivate art patronage in Singapore and are hoping to break new ground with a special show by legendary New York street artist Futura

(June 3): When art collector Chong Huai Seng and his daughter Ning Chong were planning a holiday to New York in November 2017, a friend suggested they visit the Brooklyn studio of Futura, a pioneering artist in the abstract street art movement. “Within 15 minutes, I was wondering, ‘How is it we haven’t seen his work in Asia?’,” says Ning. She was taken with the way he combined colours and how he used a spray can to create lines as fine as those made by a brush.

Her father, meanwhile, was attracted by how generous the artist was — in spirit and with his time. One of the biggest names in street art, Futura has worked with celebrities globally, such as rock band The Clash and Louis Vuitton’s artistic director Virgil Abloh. Yet, he spent two hours with the art-mad father and daughter duo from Singapore. “He was very affable and had so many stories,” says Chong, who wondered whether they could work together, but also had his reservations. “We’re not even a proper gallery,” he adds.

Chong and Ning own The Culture Story, a boutique art space and advisory company they started in June 2017. Modelled after the Parisian salon of collector Gertrude Stein, their aim is to host artists, collectors, curators and connoisseurs to discuss and discover contemporary artists and their works. “There’s a lack of sharing and networking in Singapore,” Ning says of the local art market. “We want to fill that gap.”

Beyond that, The Culture Story is also trying to promote art in fresh ways. So far, it has held seven exhibitions and 12 talks. These include Flesh Matters, which tracked the career of Wong Keen, one of the first Singaporean painters to work in the abstract style, and a solo show by Jahan Loh, a local artist known for his pop and street art, in particular his pop iconography of a Ma Ling luncheon meat tin. Loh was also the artist friend who linked the Chongs up with Futura.

Among the talks that have gone down well was one on collecting Singapore art by veteran collector and fund manager Teng Jee Hum, who has amassed hundreds of works by local artists dating back to the 1950s. Another was by John Clang, a New York-based Singaporean photographer who has worked with brands such as Hermès and Adidas. The Culture Story has also hosted Magnus Renfrew, founding director of Art Basel Hong Kong. Considered one of the most influential figures in the art world, the cultural entrepreneur talked about why he thinks Hong Kong is going to be an art powerhouse and his new book, Uncharted Territory: Culture and Commerce in Hong Kong’s Art World.

However, the upcoming show by graffiti artist Futura will be The Culture Story’s biggest by far. Last October, it flew the 63-year-old American artist over for a two-week residency at its atelier on Leng Kee Road. He created 30 works of art for a collection titled Constellation, which will mark his debut solo exhibition in Southeast Asia. Constellation is also named after the Navy carrier that Futura was on when he made his maiden voyage to Singapore in 1974 as a petty officer. There is also a fringe event where a mini documentary on the artist will be screened, followed by a dialogue. A hardback catalogue, with Mandarin translations for his growing fan base in China, has also been published. “We’ve gone quite deep as we want to do something non-mainstream,” says Ning.

Futura, who first visited Singapore in 1974, has been credited with pioneering abstract street art

‘I buy art that has a story’

Constellation has been a year-long project for the Chongs, who have a soft spot for abstract art and build their holidays around art shows and fairs. The elder Chong, 68, began collecting art while working in finance in the 1980s, first with Vickers Da Costa Securities and then with fund manager John Govett (Asia). On his business trips to London, he explored galleries and began acquiring contemporary European paintings, such as those by acclaimed Russian painter Sergei Chepik.

After leaving the industry in the mid-1990s, he ventured into publishing as one of the largest shareholders of Panpac Media and founded Smart Investor magazine. In 2003, he exited the media business and became a private investor, with a growing portfolio in start-ups and Chinese companies. During his visits to China, he discovered Beijing’s 798 Art District, a cluster of creative spaces for emerging Chinese artists, and developed a fondness for modern brush ink painters. In the last decade, he has gravitated towards local and regional artists, such as Augusto Albor, hailed as one of the master abstractionists in the Philippines, and Wong Keen, who showed at The Culture Story in 2018.

Chong may be a seasoned financial investor but when it comes to art, he is swayed by a piece that speaks to him. “I buy art or an artist that has a story,” he says, adding that he in turn often has a personal connection with that art piece; perhaps it was serendipity that led to its acquisition or maybe it dovetailed with a specific life event. He notes that art is a difficult asset class. “You can buy the blue chips such as the Picassos, but unless you get them at a steal, you are unlikely to get a very good capital gain,” he says. There are also plenty of fakes in the market these days, he cautions.

The alternative is to look at emerging artists whose works sell for $10,000 to $50,000. In some cases, resale prices of over 10 times the original are possible. However, investors will typically have to wait a good 10 to 15 years and will need luck, as such cases are rare. “It’s the exception rather than the rule. If people think speculating in art can make money, they are going to be disappointed,” he says. “But it can be a lot of fun. You derive so much pleasure.”

Ning, 34 and the eldest of three children, grew up immersed in her father’s hobby, which has multiplied into a collection of some 300 works. Despite that, she never saw art as a career option. “Maybe it’s a Singapore thing. People think, ‘I can’t be a gallerist’,” she says. Instead, she opted to study economics and economic history at the London School of ­Economics as she was “genuinely ­interested in economics”. However, after completing her studies in 2006, she realised she did not want to go into banking. “The whole rat race didn’t appeal to me,” she says.

Her father suggested she study art, saying that although she might not see it at the time, in 10 years’ time, the Asian art scene would be bustling, buoyed by China. Ning stayed on in London and did a Masters in Modern and Contemporary Art at Christie’s Education. She also attended her first auction and promptly “got addicted”. She managed to intern at auction houses such as Sotheby’s but found it hard to get a job in that circle.

Cultivating art patronage

Ning returned to Singapore and got hired by the National Arts Council (NAC). She stayed for five years during which she worked on the first three editions of the Singapore Art Week as well as the Singapore Pavilion for the Venice Biennale on two occasions. That gave her exposure to how international art players work and how to manage artists — experience that is invaluable now.

Her time at the NAC also got her pondering about how to promote art patronage in Singapore. Like her colleagues, she spent a lot of time processing grants for artists looking for funding. However, government support for art is just one part of the equation. Private money and corporate sponsors are also vital — and less visible in Singapore compared with the US, Europe and Hong Kong. “It’s still hit and miss, more miss,” says Chong of corporate sponsorship of art in the city state.

Hong Kong is far ahead, he adds, with a mind-boggling number of partners at its premier show Art Basel Hong Kong. “The government has tried with Gillman Barracks and Art Stage but Singapore is still struggling to break through,” he says. This year saw the shocking last-minute cancellation of Art Stage Singapore; smaller art fairs have also dialled back and galleries have been closing, citing factors such as diminishing traffic and high costs.

Chong concedes that the collector base in the city state is quite limited. However, Singapore remains a premier destination for the Southeast Asian art market and with an inaugural show by heavyweight Futura, The Culture Story may add some buzz to the local scene. Ning notes that the show has received a chunk of interest not just here but from the region. “We hope that what we are doing with Futura will raise the game in terms of how exhibitions can be done,” she says.

Sunita Sue Leng was previously an associate editor at The Edge Singapore


From street to designer art

Graffiti is often unsanctioned and typically associated with social or political undertones. But today, street art is a legitimate art form in most places, with large-scale murals adorning urban buildings in many cities. Futura, born Leonard McGurr, started out in the early 1970s spray-painting New York subway trains and public walls. However, he stood out from other street artists, who favoured bubble lettering and pseudonyms, by blending text and abstract imagery.

Over the last 40 years, he has gone from street to canvas, his game-changing inverted aerosol painting style displayed in galleries and museums from Berlin to Shanghai. He has created artwork for brands such as Nike, Converse and Hennessy and collaborated extensively with British punk rock band The Clash.

For his debut Singapore show, Futura created 30 pieces, showcasing his fine spray work and splatter control as well as his trademark motifs such as atoms and cranes. These can be seen in Landing Position, a large painting of orbiting planets that The Culture Story’s Ning Chong believes delves into his inner universe. The artist has always been forward-thinking, she notes, having chosen the stage name Futura based on his favourite film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Stanley Kubrick, and the typeface, Futura, which represents the future.

Another painting titled Rainforest was inspired by the city state’s greenery and generates different responses in different people. “I see a canopy while others see barbed wire and camouflage print,” says Ning. All the works are up for sale. “My dream is that one of these pieces will end up in a museum,” she adds.

Constellation will run from May 30 to June 9 at Gillman Barracks, Lock Road, Block 9 #02-21. The Culture Story is also running a fringe event on June 1 called “Futura: 60 minutes with the street art legend”, where there will be a screening of a new mini documentary on Futura’s career followed by a dialogue session and party at The Projector and Intermission Bar. -- Sunita Sue Leng