The Singapore Art Book Fair (SGABF) is one of the largest independent art events in Singapore. Three days a year, vendors made up of local and international creatives come together to make art accessible within our borders by showcasing their work, books they have made or curated, and bringing conversations to the table. Like-minded individuals gather to appreciate art books, prints, and everything creative. Dialogues and workshops are also carried out by both established and upcoming creators to share their knowledge, expertise, and experiences with anyone looking to discover something new.
But how much do we know about the art book fair’s history and its journey? We speak to Renée Ting, founding director of SGABF, as she walks us through how it all started, her biggest challenge, and what we can look forward to in this edition and the ones to come.
The very medium of the art book is that you can pick it up, experience it, and learn about an artist through their work without stepping into a white cube gallery.
When did your passion for books start? Was there a specific art book that made an impact on you?
As a child, I grew up in a very religious household and back then, I was not allowed to read. My parents would leave me at the library and there, I spent a lot of time reading children's books. They were ok with that as the books were unthreatening. However as I grew older, they became really strict. I was not allowed to read anything that was not the bible or Christian-related. I had to read in secret. One fine day, my parents found me reading Angels and Demons by Dan Brown (laughs) and she threw it in the trash.
Those were novels. Art books came into my life only later on while I was working at BooksActually. My first art book encounter wasn’t an art book per se but a zine by Yu Tong. Sounds cheesy I know. (laughs) I came back to the bookstore from running an errand that day and I saw a stack of zines entitled Corners. When I picked it up, it had no words, just film photos of corners – full colour, staple bound. I flipped to the last page and there was the contact sheet of the film roll. I thought it was such a brilliant idea. It’s like a documentation of a very specific subject on a very specific medium. As it was images captured on only one roll of film, I felt that whatever the reader was experiencing when reading the zine is within this time frame, through one specific object. It caught my eye because I felt it was very fresh and interesting. That was my very first art “book” encounter.
It is no longer just an arts event, it has to be financially sustainable. I think that is one of the biggest challenges. I have to put thought into figuring out how this can run for the years to come.
What is the biggest challenge when it comes to running a fair on such a large scale independently?
In 2017, I left the bookstore and at that time the art book fair was still run by BooksActually. However, I wanted to take over and run it alone as that was my dream. In 2018, I went independent and the fair grew exponentially. It then became a challenge of sustainability. When the fair grows, your expenses grow. The thing about the fair is it’s completely self-funded, and probably the only large scale event in Singapore that does not take any sort of funding. Because of that, I have to think about things very differently. It is no longer just an arts event, it has to be financially sustainable. I think that is one of the biggest challenges. I have to put thought into figuring out how this can run for the years to come.
In 2018 to 2019, the book fair was just a passion project so I was doing a lot of freelance jobs to support myself. But I still had to pay people to make things happen, so whatever I earned from the book fair went back into running the fair – paying designers, staff and logistics. Then in 2020, Covid hit and dug us into a huge debt. From then on, I had to make up for the loss because it had started to eat into my own savings. In 2021 to 2022, I quit all my freelance jobs and decided I was going to do this full time. I don’t have a fall back plan and I feel that I can no longer do this for free. I need to be able to pay myself and my staff comfortably but also sustain it for the long run, which is why we chose to ticket the fair this year.
The book fair is an important space in the larger art ecosystem in Singapore. It fills this gap by making art accessible without dumbing it down.
You always get asked about what visitors can take away from the fair, but what about yourself? As the director of SGABF, what is one of your biggest takeaways having run this for almost a decade?
That’s a very good and difficult question. Every year when the fair happens, I feel really exhausted and feel like I can’t carry on. However, when I see the exhibitors so passionate about what they do, and having so many of them believe in us far more than I believed in this, it really keeps me going. The book fair is an important space in the larger art ecosystem in Singapore. It fills this gap by making art accessible without dumbing it down. The very medium of the art book is that you can pick it up, experience it, and learn about an artist through their work without stepping into a white cube gallery. Art then becomes very accessible. But honestly, my biggest takeaway might be the adrenaline I get. Why do people do drugs? Just organise events. (laughs) And of course, the bond we have in our team – it is very special to me.
This year’s design takes bits and pieces from the previous editions. Paying homage to the last four years since our independence; setting the stage for the years to come. We’ve set a place in the art community in Singapore, and now it’s time we establish our roots.
Is there anything different about this edition that visitors can look forward to since this edition marks the 10th year since the founding days of SGABF?
For one, we’re introducing festival merchandise and we have the largest amount of vendors this year. We also have a workshop that’s happening with a visually impaired artist, the usual line up of talks, and an artwork installation. Actually, it’s hard to answer this question because it is not new things that are being introduced per se – but more of focusing on making the same things better. This year, we are also settling into a brand identity because I feel people need to be able to identify with the art book fair. This year’s design takes bits and pieces from the previous editions. Paying homage to the last four years since our independence; setting the stage for the years to come. We’ve set a place in the art community in Singapore, and now it’s time we establish our roots.
SGABF runs till April 16. Tickets are still available here. On-site tickets are also available in limited quantities.