As someone who’s worked in the arts for most of my career, there are several art world jobs that I’m familiar with, say, artist, curator, exhibitions manager, press officer, and gallery owner. Then there are a handful of other roles that remain enigmatic to me—with one of them being that of an art consultant.
Adding to the mystery (in my mind, at least) is the fact that my traditional understanding of consultancy work comes from what I hear from friends in corporate jobs—harrowingly long hours bookended by vague job descriptions. It’s always something I’ve typically associated with work at Big 4 accounting firms. And perhaps because I write about art more than I look to buy it, I haven’t personally encountered many art consultants in the first place.
But I was curious about what being an art consultant in Singapore might mean, and my interest was piqued when a friend in the industry mentioned that her ex-colleague from an art advisory had struck out as an independent art consultant. That friend turned out to be Jefferson Jong, who’s been running jjong Art Advisory for the past year.
After meeting each other at a gallery opening during Singapore Art Week 2023 and exchanging IG handles, we met for a coffee at National Gallery Singapore’s Courtyard Cafe. Read on for our chat about how Jefferson became an art consultant, what he exactly does in his role, his love of modern Southeast Asian art, and the importance of trusting your instincts.
You studied architecture and have worked across various fields, such as graphic design, auction houses, art consultancy, and architecture firms. How did you start in art sales and consulting?
After finishing my ‘A’ levels, I was certain I’d become an architect. At the same time, I was also interested in art. My post-‘A’ level break allowed me to try working in the arts, because back then in my mind, I was still going to be an architect.
There was an intern position at Christie’s that I applied to and got, which ran for half a year—one whole auction cycle. After that, I went back to school, and all my internships during university were at galleries. After graduating from architecture school, I was roped into the art world and somehow I’ve been involved ever since!
When I started working, I began as a designer at an art advisory, doing exhibition design, branding, and marketing, and then I got roped into the sales aspect.
How did these experiences contribute to your current career in art consulting?
Both architecture and art are visual and experiential. From an architectural perspective, it’s about creating space, so that’s how I approach my art consultancy too.
Currently, with my art advisory, when I’m talking to clients [about works], there’s the art historical aspect to it but there’s also the spatial relationship of the artwork to their space. Beyond that, there’s a lot of analytical thinking around questions of what art you want to handle and promote to clients—what is art; what’s good; and who are the original voices of each era.
Can you tell us more about what your advisory does?
My company name is jjong Art Advisory, and my tag lines are advisory and projects. These are quite wide-ranging, spanning from interior design to online exhibitions.
I started with an exhibition with a private institution to celebrate International Women’s Day—a photography exhibition capturing the micro-expressions of everyday people who encountered discrimination in the workplace. I was involved with liaising with and directing art photographers, as well as designing the UI/UX of the website. It isn’t just buying and selling, but creating specific products for clients.
What does a day in your life look like?
Today’s hectic! I was at the Rotunda Library at the National Gallery Singapore as I usually deal with modern Southeast Asian art and a lot of archives can be found there. Currently, I’m dealing with a private collection and its owner wants to let it go.
There’s a lot of research about the provenance of the works, going over literature explaining those artworks, and compiling all that information. I’ll then create a proposal about pricing and whom we can potentially engage as buyers. Now, I’m meeting you and after this, I have a meeting for a design project in Malaysia. That’s one full day for me!
A lot of the time goes into researching, having meetings, meeting people and catching up with clients.
What’s your favourite thing about being independent?
What I like about being independent is the flexibility that I can have. I report to myself and as long as everything stays on task and the timelines look okay, I can do whatever I need on my own.
You’ve spent about four years working in the art consultancy space and now you’ve been fully independent for about one year. How do these two differ? Did you face any challenges when you started as an independent dealer?
The challenge with being with a company—as with every institution—is that everyone has their point of view. With galleries, they have their own artists that they want to push.
So when I went independent, it was about finding my voice—sounds like a Beyoncé song!—and thinking about what I can provide to clients. It was an exercise to look back at what I’ve done and what I do best, which are design and advisory work.
Initially, starting out was very stressful because I was asking myself if I’d get another project or sale, or if I was just experiencing beginner’s luck. Other challenges include dealing with a lot of external and internal doubt, wondering if you can really [start your own business] and stand on your own feet.
Also, people are always asking me how old I am. When I started [in 2022], I wasn’t 30 yet, so when I tell them, people go, “oh, so young?”
How did you build your client base and how can new clients find you?
I had some existing clients from [my previous role] and they continued with me. For new clients, it’s mostly word of mouth. I tend to share my name card when we meet and have a coffee to discuss what I can do for you.
I’d rather establish good relationships like this because it’s been proven to me that a long-lasting relationship is better than having a client who only buys from you once or twice. Most of my clients are repeat customers who have been with me for years.
Some of your current clients were from your previous jobs. Were you subject to any restraint of trade clauses (that might have stopped you from approaching clients you encountered in a previous job)? If so, how did you work around those?
Yes, typically there is a non-compete clause put in place in an employment contract, especially when you are working in a sales-related position. The clauses would differ from one company to another, but regardless, it is very important to honour the employment contract that you have signed, and of course, prior to signing, one must exercise their own discretion to judge whether the clause is too draconian.
I had a few months of the non-compete agreement, and during those months I decided to take a break while strategising on what I would want to do next. It was actually a good break!
After a client approaches you to help sell or purchase a work, what’s the private sales process like?
Firstly, we see if the work matches my category, which is modern Southeast Asian art. Every dealer has their own speciality.
Then there’s research into the auction house and secondary market prices. This gives me an initial understanding of the prices, which I can then compare with the market prices of other works with similar styles and datings, colours, subjects, and so on. This shows potential clients how I have derived the pricing for the work.
After that, things are pretty easy. If the seller is agreeable to the numbers, I’ll then approach potential buyers. If it goes through, it goes through—if not we try to find other ways to let it go.
I also help to represent clients at auctions and bid on their behalf. There’s a lot of homework to be done on buying through auctions, from the condition report to viewing the painting.
Are there reasons why clients may not want to go to auctions by themselves or need you to represent them?
Buying at auctions is not straightforward at times. There is some homework to be done prior to bidding, and also logistical arrangements to be taken care of after the payment is made.
Prior to the auctions, I would typically ‘shortlist’ a few artworks that would be suitable for my clients’ acquisitions, and I would do the necessary check for their conditions, as well as research the market prices for these artworks.
This would typically require knowledge of and experience with the client’s preference, the physicality of the artwork (medium, restoration options, etc), and, of course, the art market.
After the bid is won and payment is made, I typically take care of the shipment of the artworks from the auction house’s warehouse to the client’s house. This would typically involve installation as well.
Many collectors find such comprehensive and ‘all-in’ services to be very helpful, and of course, the market insight that I provide is something that the collectors appreciate.
You work across Singapore and Indonesia. What’s that like?
I’m from Indonesia but I’ve stayed in Singapore for 15 years, so Singapore and Jakarta are my homes. Being an Indonesian based in Singapore, I get to meet a lot of clients in both cities. Many have stuck with me.
At the end of the day, my line of business is about honing relationships with clients, so being able to speak Indonesian and English helps. It’s different being able to speak to people in their own languages, as compared to a lingua franca.
Why are you drawn to working with modern Southeast Asian art?
When I was at Christie’s, I was with the modern Southeast Asian department (which is no longer around). I was lucky that I had very good mentors there, which influenced my love of Southeast Asian art.
When I’d go to collectors’ homes for work, it was like finding treasure. You see a dirty, dusty-looking thing and then you learn who the artist is and realise that it’s essentially a national treasure. There’s that sense of discovery and collectors often have personal stories of the artists that I can’t meet as they’ve passed on.
Though, for the past year, I’ve been dealing with the contemporary market in Southeast Asia and occasionally other regions. Part of my job as well is to have a good network of galleries in Singapore and overseas, and I’ll usually travel to other art fairs to preview booths and new exhibitions.
If modern Southeast Asia is your specialism, to begin with, why have you branched out to contemporary art and regions outside of that?
For me, modern Southeast Asian art is a starting point and how I try to make sense of art and collecting.
The ‘branching out’ is not something that I ‘plan’ but is rather [based on] how the art world operates and how everything is interconnected. My first exposure to art history and the art market was through modern Southeast Asian pioneers. Hence, I would say that I am most familiar with this subject.
Although it is easier to categorise everything in well-defined boxes and to present yourself as a ‘specialist’ in one specific area, the truth is modern Southeast Asian art (or Southeast Asian art itself) is but a well-defined box.
Art is something that is always built upon. Many of our Southeast Asian pioneers were émigrés (e.g. Georgette Chen, Liu Kang, Lee Man Fong) and travellers (e.g. Affandi, Le Pho), and their artistic DNA were palimpsests of the cultural exchanges that took place then.
Fast forward to today, there are many contemporary artists who paid artistic homage to their predecessors (both with reverence and irreverence), or rode on the wave of popular culture from different parts of the world—again building upon what has been done before.
Being based in Singapore, I’ll also be serving as the Liaison for Southeast Asia for Asia Art Center (AAC) in Taipei and will still keep my advisory at the same time. The foundation that AAC has laid in Southeast Asia for the past decade through exhibitions with various Southeast Asian museums (such as Taiwanese sculptor Li Chen’s 2009 exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum, Li Chen: Mind·Body·Spirit) galleries and art fairs, has shown the deep connection between Southeast Asia and Asia as a whole.
Being an art consultant who has fingers in many pies, do people have any misconceptions about what you do?
That we’re money launderers! It’s either that or being associated with an ultra-rich lifestyle. Yet, there’s a lot of on-the-ground work that needs to be done that I enjoy, more so than going to parties.
The stereotype is that many art consultants or advisors themselves come from monied backgrounds, thus equipping them with the networks that they need to succeed, from the get-go. In your mind, is this a fair generalisation? Do you need to be well-connected and would you say that art consultancy is an easy field to break into?
Is this a fair generalisation? I would say so. Connections are always important, but it is not exclusive to the art world. We can name any industry and we can all agree that connections are very important. People who are born with privilege are equipped with a head-start in their careers, and surely it might make certain aspects of their life easier. C’est la vie.
However, I wouldn’t think that it’s sustainable in the long run if they are not equipped with knowledge too. One should always be able to substantiate what they say and stand for. In this regard, I always believe that, at the end of the day, competency is always the key.
And whether art consultancy is an easy field to break into, I would say the barrier of entry is pretty high and competition is stiff.
To close our conversation, what qualities do you think aspiring art consultants should have?
You have to be receptive to what people say. But at the end of the day, you have to trust your instincts, be it finding clients and artists you want to work with.
Get in touch with Jefferson through his website or Instagram account here.