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The Secret To Monetising Your Passion: Pearl Lam of Pearl Lam Galleries

Pearl Lam talks about her journey from being an art collector to Asia's leading gallerist.

as told to Mei Anne Foo

"I was so afraid of being institutionalised and restricted that I somewhat limited the potential of my most important stakeholders — the artists," says Pearl Lam.

When I first fell in love with art, I did not aspire to open a physical gallery. I didn’t like the idea of working in the same single space from morning until night. Instead, in the 1990s, I enjoyed organising pop-up shows in my home country of Hong Kong.

At that time, there wasn’t exactly a market for Chinese contemporary art, and I simply walked into the scene without any knowledge or understanding. It all started when I was forced by my father to forgo my artistic hobbies and become a property developer in Shanghai instead. There, I met artist Sun Liang and he helped introduce me to an entirely new world.

I decided I needed to change and learn to become a Chinese. I used to have a strong colonialism stance, as most Hong Kongese do, and felt a certain supremacy over the Chinese. It was a good thing I did not know how to speak Mandarin or people would have found out how arrogant I was! Eventually, I found China’s modern art movement to be pretty cool and, for that, I fully accepted its culture.

The reason why I finally decided to open a permanent gallery was because many existing galleries in Shanghai in the early 2000s were displaying propaganda art, and I wasn’t interested in that at all. I wanted a platform to introduce and showcase other artists. Even then, I didn’t put much thought into the idea of making money. It took me some time to understand the importance of selling art.

Then the 2008 financial crisis hit. It was a difficult period for everyone, including me. An art academic reached out and told me that since I’ve decided to open a gallery, I should focus on the commercial value of the works I have. The gallery cannot continue to run like a museum and hope to attract potential buyers.

I was so afraid of being institutionalised and restricted that I somewhat limited the potential of my most important stakeholders — the artists. They went on to tell me that they didn’t want me to be the only collector of their artworks. That opened up my eyes.

Up until that time, I was more known as a collector, patron and maven of the arts. People slowly identified me as a gallerist. But that doesn’t mean I stopped caring about the art. Still, at the beginning, I thought the gallery structure in Asia wasn’t very healthy so I headhunted other nationals to lead my galleries. Now, with the local market surging in maturity, we opened my space at Dempsey Hill with Singaporean curator Josef Ng helming and furthering the cross-cultural model of artistic exchange.

Contemporary art is now an international currency. My vision, across Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore, is to represent Asian artist in the world context. Therefore, it would be meaningless to only represent Asian artists. Contemporary art is not about a passport. Art is art. Art and the artist should be represented in a globalised context. So, the second gallery in Singapore at Dempsey Hill has truly been built as an international gallery, on par with western counterparts.

Still, every day is challenge. You’re working with artists, who more often than not have huge egos. They are also constantly evolving. To tackle these delicate situations is literally learning how to deal with human relations, because you are learning about the person behind the brush. What you see on canvas is also likely not to be what you get in the artist’s persona. In this world of controversy and altercation, it is interesting how things are kept different. And it should be different.

What’s the perpetual perk of being a gallerist? Well, I have first choice of which works to buy for my own personal art collection.