Talenia Phua Gajardo is blessed with taste, beauty and ambition. Yes, she is also married to Michael Tay, group managing director of The Hour Glass. But she was already a rising star before she met him. She founded The Artling – a website selling contemporary Asian art – three years ago, sitting at her mother’s dining table. It has since become the top website for Asian art, showcasing works by more than 850 artists across the world. Besides individual collectors, her clients also include Twitter, Google, GIC and the Four Seasons Hotel. She grew her staff of just two (“me and the web developer”) to seven – and plans to double that by next year.
She also has Luxglove — an online marketplace selling pre-owned art, watches, jewelry, classic cars and other collectibles. Judging by the high number of “Sold” labels in some categories, the less-than-a-year-old website has found brisk success.
You got married two years ago and had a very “art-filled” honeymoon. Tell us about that.
Mike loves contemporary art – that’s how we became friends in the first place. So we spent part of our honeymoon in Marfa, Texas – which is in the middle of nowhere, but has some unbelievable art. You have to fly into El Paso and drive past Elmgreen & Dragset’s Prada-installed sculpture. You literally see tumbleweed everywhere. It’s like, “Where am I?” And then you see these breathtaking, large-scale works created by artists unhampered by space limitations – works by Donald Judd, John Chamberlain, Dan Flavin and others. Our two-and-half week honeymoon was mostly spent looking at art.
You came back and continued rapidly developing your websites. How have you managed to expand the business so quickly?
We use a blended model of online and off-line, which has been key to expansion. It’s not enough to have an online presence, so we do a lot of off-line events and partnerships with art galleries, art fairs and others to raise our profile. For Luxglove, we recently held a Classic Car Weekend where we had a display of vintage cars as well as a whiskey workshop and a talk on watch collecting – all to help launch the website. We recognise that strong online content is important in driving traffic to the site. So for The Artling, we have interviews with artists, gallerists, art lovers and private museum owners, as well as city art guides to help you navigate your way around art cities like Hong Kong and Jogjakarta. What’s the end goal, the big dream? The dream is to create the biggest platform showcasing the best of Asia, and to make that platform accessible to markets around the world. So when you are in London or New York and you want to know what’s happening culturally in Asia, our website should be your first-stop for information. We want that art-lover living in New York to have access to that piece from Jogjakarta that will give him delight and tell him something about Indonesian culture and aesthetics.
It’s been said that art is the ultimate luxury item, and that you need a lot of disposable income before you can consider collecting art. Do you agree?
Think Dorothy and Herbert Vogel, two people who weren’t rich but managed to amass an important art collection of minimalist and conceptual art, because they loved it. On The Artling, you can buy a cute Ronald Ventura work for US$800. So price isn’t always intrinsically linked to the value you get out of it. Art collecting is a personal activity. If you want to get into it, it should stem from your own curiosity of wanting to understand art to expand your horizons. When you do get into it, you find yourself exposed to different concepts and ideas, as well as people who help you see differently. We never advise people to buy art for investment. If people want to speculate, there are many ways to do that – but we don’t facilitate that at the moment. There are consultancies that’ll show graphs on your return on investment (ROI) on a blue chip piece – but that’s not us. We believe in what art has to say about society, culture and history – that’s why we do this everyday. I was reading a survey about high net worth individuals (HNWI) that said the allocation of disposable income for investments of passion is 10 per cent – which struck me as pretty high. That, in itself, shows you that people make it a point to have something they love – and art is one of those things that people do become passionate about.
You’re a founder and CEO at the age of 31. You knew it’d be hard work, and that you’d have to talk to people all the time. Is there anything then about leadership that surprises you? One thing I underestimated was how important your team is, and how much you have to keep them motivated and happy, if you want to be the best kind of leader there is. Before setting up The Artling, I’d spent three years working in London for Zaha Hadid Architects. That was challenging – as it should be – but switching from being an employee to employer meant facing a different set of demands. And I’ve realised among those demands, investing in my team has become one of my biggest priorities.
Do you find yourself reading a lot of management books? I’ve no time to read books, you just have to do it. Learn on the job, and understand that you can never be completely ready for anything – you just do it.
Adapted from BT Weekend; photo from The Business Times Singapore