Conversations with Audrey Yeo

By Yeo Zhi Yi

Audrey Yeo, second from the left in the photo, is the gallery owner of the Yeo Workshop, a gallery that produces exhibitions, artist projects, talks, symposiums and guiding research. Its aim is to promote the work of contemporary local and international artists with a strong artistic practice and engage with the Singaporean and visiting audience. The Yeo Workshop is currently based at Gillman Barracks.

Could you tell us more about your line of work?

A:. I am the director of the Yeo Gallery here at Gillman Barracks. I manage the sales, marketing, operations functions of this gallery on a daily basis.

Why did you choose to start this gallery?

A: I love art and think it is the future. The gallery focuses on education hence we published books, started Arnoldii Arts Club for people to appreciate arts and we change our shows here every 2 months. We want to showcase thought provoking exhibitions.

What was the most significant milestone in your career thus far?

A:  There are so many things we have done that can be considered a milestone: a first art fair, first major exhibition promoting a Singaporean artist, showcasing a famous Chinese artist, etc.

One such milestone was when we published a book for Mr Loke Hong Seng who was a photographer in Singapore active from 1963 – 1985. He had this body of work from that time that had never been shown or exhibited before, and we published a book full of his work. It now forms a significant part of Singapore’s history that was produced from this gallery.

Why did you decide to leave your corporate job in the first place?

A: Honestly? I thought I would have more time if I were able to manage and run my own business. That line of thought was pretty naive, because having your business is so much work. Being academically strong, I was also naturally pushed into industries that are more “rational”. However, that wasn’t my calling. I was able to fulfil a lot of my calling for society through this gallery.

Have you always felt this “calling” for the arts since you were young?

A: I have always known I was someone who supports others. My family taught me to give value to others, while my religious background also inspired me to be kind and to give back.

Why specifically the art scene?

A: Because the art scene is the last place where we are free from commercial marketing and politics. By looking at an art work, you can experience many lives and stories and you can give them a voice or a visual language. When done beautifully, art can touch beyond the rational. The visual arts are a powerful and multisensorial medium that can touch someone deep within.

What was your biggest obstacle in setting up this gallery?

A: That one person has to be good at everything:  art history, and working with artists, but also business skills: marketing, operations, sales. You are expected to be a superhuman, and that’s difficult. Besides needing to have more than one skill set, you also have to be proficient with industry knowledge and the know the right people. You have to be extremely on your game, and it’s a challenge every day to be better than you were yesterday.

Since this is your own solo business, how often do you collaborate with others?

A: We work a lot with artists of course, but also other businesses such as corporations to do art tours and art appreciation activities, also other disciplines such as graphic designers, academics and writers, architects., We collaborate with other galleries, and architects for our public art projects, and with c.. We also interact with the government, arts councils, agencies, and museums. When I come to work every day, I hardly have time to open my computer as there’s always a meeting, I work on my computer at night or in the mornings when its quiet.

How has your perception of this profession changed ever since you started?

A: It is very hard work. I thought this was going to be a fun and a social job of meeting artists. But I didn’t know how much work it took to bring an artwork into a gallery space!

How is the process of acquiring works like?

A: We are kind of like an artist agent. We identify artists with potential to go to the next level and we go to their studios, have a dialogue with them and make sure that we can give the artists the exposure and platform that they need to bring conceptually strong craft works into the gallery. We usually work with the artists for 8 months to a year before we bring the works into the gallery. Once we do so, we have to do marketing to draw the public in and make sure the right researchers and curators come to our shows. We have to make sure that their studio practice is sustainable, that the artist is able to be in their studio to create work in a free and well manner. We have to make sure the exhibition is beautifully designed, catalogues are published and we also have to sell the works and see whether different art collectors or museums will come by to see the work. Every exhibition is different, and the artists’ needs for each exhibition is different as well. I then have the teams accomplish the above goals we have for each show.

What inspires the themes behind each exhibition?

A: The themes come by observing the currents of artists and what they find interesting. This can also be done by visiting many exhibitions to see if you are producing new knowledge. . By observing the art available and seeing how it reflects today’s context, we will be able to garner what the artists are interested in. Subsequently, the themes will emerge.

What gives you the greatest fulfilment in this line of work?

A: We have helped many artists to showcase their works and to further their practice. We have also touched the lives of visitors who come. Besides that, art had changed my life and my perspective. Art found me through the lives of others and it gave me an amazing community. Seeing someone being converted and making meaning from their lives through art is the most fulfilling part for me.

How do you envision the arts scene to be in 10 years’ time?

A: It will be great. Your generation is amazing and loves art for what it is. And your generation has education in the arts and mine didn’t. I was lucky because my family collected art and there were artists in my creative family, so I could be exposed to the arts. It was difficult for me to access artists:  I always had to fight to see it or see it outside. Your generation is lucky because you have art everywhere, and you’re going to be better than us. Art and artists think laterally – It’s going to be the skill set that your generation will need for survival. I’m hoping your generation can be better than what we are, less commercial and more experimental. There aren’t many gallerists in Singapore, partly because of high rent and adversity to risks. The rent situation in Singapore is a problem but there are still some young writers, curators, artists who are going against all odds to self-organize and do informal art events and screenings. The next generation can change the landscape in Singapore.

How do you think the next generation can pursue their art-related dreams?

A: They should keep it real and authentic and organic.  See a lot of art, Gillman Barracks is a free enclave where you can get the benefits of the arts that the galleries invest in and supported already. See, absorb, form your opinions and then create something new for society.