Published in Mizzima Business Weekly – Issue 44, 31 October, 2013
Gill Pattison is the owner and curator of The River Gallery at The Strand Hotel and the newly opened River II, which are located in close vicinity of each other in downtown Yangon. She shares a decade of experience in Yangon’s contemporary art scene with Mizzima Business Weekly.
Why did you come to Myanmar?
We came to Yangon in 2002 – on a lark really. My husband and I had been living in Hong Kong for a decade, both with very busy jobs. After really enjoying our first trip, we decided to come and live here for a couple of years, do some general things and then move on. Yet here I am, 10 years later…
Do you have an arts background?
I had no relevant experience or qualifications – except that I’d looked at a lot of paintings. I’ve always enjoyed looking at art: I would rather go round art galleries than buy shoes. I think I am very affected by certain kinds of paintings; it’s almost a physiological thing.
How do you come to acquire a gallery at The Strand?
I had been looking around for a place to have an art gallery, and I thought The Strand would be a good location with all the people millingabout… Although in those days, there weren’t so many people, that is. When I saw this space, which was at the time being rented out to a couple of businesses [who subsequently vacated], I could easily see how it would look after restoring the floor, taking out the false low ceiling and removing the cubicles and partitions. We also knocked a hole in the wall and put in a Myanmar-styled arch entrance. When I first saw the space it was really dreary, but it’s scrubbed up really well. River II was the same – it didn’t need much done to it.
When you first set up the River Gallery, tourists were few in number and sales must have been far more infrequent than they are today. Was it a labour of love?
I think the gallery business in general is a labour of love: unless you’re Charles Saatchi or one of those big names. It’s a difficult business as well as polarising – the big galleries are getting bigger, becoming corporatised and turning into very substantial businesses. There are opportunities for small, niche galleries that focus on particular artists, but the middle ground is becoming a dessert.
Financially, there were a series of events that made the business a difficult one. There was the monk’s protests of 2007, which was followed the next year by Cyclone Nargis, and then the financial crisis of 2008-09. Now, with the “Myanmar Spring,” there are certainly a lot more people around who are interested in the arts.
Has the introductions of ATMs had a huge impact on sales at your galleries?
Not so much for me, because I’ve always been able to take credit cards. The transactions took place offshore, through an offshore company. I was very fortunate in that regard, because the lack of ATMs was a real dampener on business. However I would say that art is more of an impulse purchase – I don’t know that there’s many people who come on a trip to Myanmar and think, “I’m going to buy a painting.” What we do find is that the people who come are so enchanted by Myanmar that they are attracted to local products, including art. People want to own of something that perhaps reminds them of this country, though we’re not selling particularly touristy paintings and they’re not cheap either. So it’s not a case of just getting a souvenir. But while I do talk to people and try to understand what appeals to them, one’s emotional reaction to a piece of art is something we don’t easily have the language to express.
What appeals to you as a curator?
I have very particular tastes, which all the artists know about [laughs]. For example, I am not very fond of particular shades of green. I have artists who come here with a painting and say, “Ms Gill, I know it’s green, but please look at it…”
The work has to be executed very skilfully – I have to be able to understand what the creative idea was and then to see that it has been executed well. This requires a high level of technical expertise. Another thing I look for is seeing something that I haven’t seen depicted in the same way before. What I find is that the paintings that appeal are those that quite often take a traditional subject, but the artists has given it a contemporary twist; they’ve done something that makes me see the subject differently. If the purpose of art is to banish the banal and give you that little jilt of recognition, the “twist” is essential.
Do you see a lot of paintings of monks and pagodas and feel frustrated by recycled ideas?
Well, my door is always open to artists, so I have many coming in to show me work. However most of them aren’t ready for River Gallery. There’s a lot of work that takes traditional subjects and paints in quite a traditional way. That’s not what I’m about. I’m trying to look for the new and different.
On the other hand, I have great admiration for Myanmar artists because they’ve operated almost in a vacuum. That’s changing now, but for 40 years the country was cut off from the global art market. There wasn’t much access to the internet, there were no art books or magazines, no TV shows about art. The art schools were starved of resources and art history classes didn’t go much into the 20th century, let alone the 21stcentury. So the artists who succeed here have to be very clever, persistent and talented.
Although there is now a far higher degree of artistic freedom in Myanmar, what more does the arts sector need to thrive?
There are lots of things needed to make a healthy, thriving, “art ecosystem”. We lack many components, and one of them is scholarship on Myanmar art. We don’t have the art writers and the art criticism, apart from one individual I know of, Nathalie Johnston. But we almost never see work like hers. We need art professionals to be commentating on art, supporting and developing art, and making connections. In that regard, it’ still so limited here.
You also work part-time heading up Proximity’s agricultural microfinance business unit. Do you consider yourself a workalholic?
No – I’m too lazy! I get home at night and talk to my daughter and later I think ,“I should do a few more hours of work.” But I don’t. Both my jobs are really interesting. [Microfinance] is actually a great contrast and counterpoint to the art business. I love them both more because I do them both – if that makes sense? Yesterday, for example, I was at Proximity and talking to farmers, preparing training, working out the loan program and looking at the numbers. It’s all very busy and corporate and then I come and sit here and look at beautiful paintings and talk to interesting people.
Do you have any hobbies outside work?
My family is tennis mad. We play the round-robin tournament at L’Opera, which starts in October and runs until March. This is the seventh year it’s been running. The people there are fabulous and welcoming and it’s really fun.