In conversation with: Howie Lau on how history illuminates the future

Howie Lau

MA Asian Art Histories student Howie Lau is not only an art enthusiast and collector, but also a giant in the tech industry. Recently named IT Leader of the Year 2020 by the Singapore Computer Society, he worked for companies such as IBM, Lenovo, StarHub and the Infocomm Media Development Authority, before pursuing his MA at LASALLE on a part-time basis. Howie is currently serving as Managing Director, Corporate Development & Partnerships at NCS Group.

If the tech industry is about constantly looking ahead to the next big disruption, why would a tech stalwart like Howie find himself drawn to art histories? And as new technologies like blockchain continue to transform even non-technical sectors, how might we see the impact in the arts? We caught up with Howie to learn more about his journey from IT into the arts, how looking back could just as likely help us to shape the future, as well as the potential impact of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) on the art market.

1) Hi Howie! You came from a business background before diving into the tech sector. How did your interest in fine arts initially come about?

I have always enjoyed art, having dabbled in painting and doodling, though my interest only became more intense after I bought my first painting in 2004. From there, I found that there was so much to learn, admire and appreciate about visual arts. Working in the technology industry since 1993, my  travels have also created opportunities to be exposed to more art, cultures and histories. Perhaps these interests have provided a balance to the ever accelerating pace of change in tech and helped to open my mind to look at things in different ways.

Howie and his wife, Teresa, at the Venice Biennale 2019.
Howie and his wife, Teresa, at the Venice Biennale 2019.

2) What motivated you to take that first step towards an MA in Asian Art Histories?

I was encouraged by a friend who had completed his MA to attend a short course by [LASALLE lecturer] Jeffrey Say and Clare Veal. The glimpses into Asian Art Histories that I discovered were very stimulating. In particular, these two phrases from the course left a strong impression:

“The study of history is to uncover new knowledge so that we can improve the future,” as well as, “Modernism is a response to modernity.”

The realisation that the study of history is not just about looking in the rear view mirror but an opportunity to shine the headlights on the future increased my interest to dive deeper. 

3) What have been some of the most impactful takeaways from your MA studies?

My classmates and I have gotten to appreciate the breadth of historical theories and constructs, whilst being able to use them as a platform to create new thinking and potential actions to grow the arts ecosystem further. For instance, as part of a paper I submitted for the module on ‘Society and politics in Asian art’, I researched art in the 1970s in Singapore. It’s the first time that I gained an in-depth understanding of post-independence struggles, challenges and policies which were implemented to address the multidimensional challenges that Singapore was facing.  

With the focus on the survival of the nation and its people, the arts ecosystem was in a nascent stage with limited galleries, exhibition spaces and art institutions as well as limited buyers. The formation of the Alpha Gallery in 1971 by architect Lim Chong Keat provided a much needed platform, as well as art buyers, for contemporary art. Lim himself was inspired by and brought the Bauhaus influence to this community. As there were limited galleries and exhibition spaces, a generation of contemporary and abstract artists grew from the Alpha Gallery. The lesson to take forward is that in order to grow the Singapore art ecosystem further, there will also be a need to focus on the development of art patrons, the role of art buyers and communities beyond art and artists.

4) As an art collector yourself, how do you see your role in the arts ecosystem? 

For any art ecosystem to thrive and grow, many stakeholders play a part. Artists, museums, curators, publications, auction houses, gallerists and collectors each play an important role to create a vibrant art scene. Art for art’s sake has its place, but – as with anything too singular and purist – has its challenges. Throughout the histories of art, there has always been a close association between patrons, buyers or collectors, and artists. Collectors play a role to support the artists financially and to encourage continued creative expansions of artistic boundaries.

During one of my trips to Hanoi, I acquired two abstract paintings from a small gallery. It turned out these were the first paintings that the artist had sold and the gallery owner said that the sale encouraged her to paint more. So beyond financial value, collectors offer validation and encouragement. There’s unfortunately still a relatively small base of collectors for Singaporean art, be it modern or contemporary.  But it does also mean that there is good potential to attract more patrons to support local art and artists.

5) What are some interesting stories about the pieces in your collection?

Since I bought my first piece in 2004, it has been a very enjoyable journey of learning, exploration and appreciation. Every piece has its own intrigue and story. I enjoy the works from pioneers like Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Wen Hsi, Chen Chong Swee, Liu Kang and Lim Cheng Hoe with the richness of their journeys from China to Singapore and the formation of the Nanyang style. I also enjoy the works of artists from the Equator Art Society like Chua Mia Tee, Lee Boon Wang, Ong Tian Soo and Koeh Sia Yong as they captured early Singapore through social realism. Singapore modern art captured the various stages of transformation that Singapore underwent from pre-independence challenges to post-independence progress – I think it’s a wonderful way to understand the history of Singapore.

(From left) Howie, with Equator Art society artists Koeh Sia Yong, Chua Mia Tee and Ong Tian Soo.
(From left) Howie, with Equator Art society artists Koeh Sia Yong, Chua Mia Tee and Ong Tian Soo.

6) You recently moderated a panel at a blockchain conference about NFTs. What do you think about NFTs and how might they impact the art world?

I am super excited that the tech and art worlds are converging. NFTs, whilst new and potentially dismissed as mere hype, would present the following interesting opportunities:
Firstly, NFTs provide the basis for a massive expansion of potential art forms as it captures provenance and makes ownership easy. Digital art, in particular, is one area which would benefit from NFTs.

Secondly, NFTs and cryptos open up more funds and resources into the art world. With more options, as well as new players and collectors entering the art ecosystem, there’s a higher likelihood for artists to make a living and be commercially viable.

We’re only at the beginning and there’s so much innovation and potential behind this. I believe that tech will transform the arts industry like it has with many others.

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