In its decade-long existence, the Saskia Fernando Gallery has been dismantling stereotypes about the creative industries, working to strengthen the cultural and economic ecosystem around Sri Lankan contemporary art. The gallery’s focus is on how Sri Lankan contemporary art is presented, exhibited, sold, spoken about and archived – everything. Certain core values modulate its work.
During its beginnings, there was a constant eye on both business and creative sustainability. The gallery kept its startup costs low, with art on consignment. It advanced and matured its business model in incremental steps. When it was able to fund itself, Saskia Fernando Gallery started showcasing its artists at selected international art fairs that it picked with care. It has exhibited in the U.K., Dubai, Singapore and the U.S., attracting international institutional and collector interest.
“Everything this gallery has achieved is through its own structure and what it has grown into. And that’s important, otherwise we would do things prematurely, which means we wouldn’t have been ready for it as an industry. This says a lot about the art as well because it means people are buying and investing,” explains Saskia Fernando, Co-Founder and Director of the eponymous gallery.
Fernando researched and read, to understand how galleries are managed internationally. A significant change the gallery has brought about is the application of a professional structure into the informal system which steered Colombo’s art scene – a system that had a certain grace and worked well, but was ultimately self-containing for both art and the artist.
“People need to engage more, and this is what I am excited about working on now. I am focusing on how we can get people to engage with art in different ways. Instead of sitting back and saying it’s so difficult to break through, I think we need to break through; we have to do something about it as opposed to just observing it,”
“While there was a lot of promotion, there was no formal structure which supported artist’s projects or ensured what would happen after an exhibition,” notes Fernando. This structural void didn’t provide sustainability or an appreciation for the value of work and was doing artists a disservice. “One of the biggest things for me was to get artists themselves to understand their value,” she reflects.
This rewiring required a shift in mindset on how Sri Lankan art is perceived, both from a local and international level, nudging audiences to go beyond established names in the Sri Lankan art canon and explore new artistic voices in Sri Lanka. The gallery is aware that its art is not for everyone and isn’t necessarily easily digestible by all. It has opted to differentiate itself by seeking out niche artists doing exciting work.
Criteria for selection include consistency and individuality as well as dedication to practice and skill. Its portfolio of artists consists of a combination of established names such as Saskia Pintelon, Jagath Weerasinghe and Chandragupta Thenuwara as well as emerging ones in Sri Lankan art who are pushing the limits of form and genre while exploring topical issues such as urbanization, politics, consumerism and animal conservation through their work. Running off the leading art gallery management software in the world, it also works closely with its pool of artists beyond exhibitions, bringing in opportunities for projects and commissions.
Saskia Fernando Gallery also collaborates with international galleries to exhibit contemporary Sri Lankan art. Fernando points out that these connections have resulted organically and are nurtured to sustain global interest in Sri Lankan contemporary art beyond a one-off exhibition. While one-off shows result in a temporary swell of interest, building symbiotic relationships with galleries and individuals who are interested in representing Sri Lankan contemporary art internationally, result in more rewarding collaborations.
Other aspects which modulate the gallery’s work are innovation and engaging with new audiences to remain viable. Art and culture cannot survive in isolation, and older and established international galleries are increasingly recognizing the dangers of remaining in traditional silos and clinging to an old order. When applied well, the creative industries offer potential to cross boundaries between culture, economics and technology.
Saskia Fernando Gallery has been quick to pick up on this, and the results have been noteworthy. An online gallery space to view Sri Lankan contemporary art was launched in 2015 and was recently rebranded to Paradise Road Galleries a few months ago. In one sense, the website was a digital expansion of its physical gallery. Unlike a retail space, it did not make fiscal sense for Saskia Fernando Gallery to have multiple gallery spaces in one city. It was also a chance to reach a wider audience outside of Sri Lanka.
In 2019, Saskia Fernando Gallery collaborated with Hatch on a talk series featuring people working at the intersection of art and tech – a new incarnation of an old Pecha Kucha series. It also ran an “Artist in Residence” programme. Additionally, the gallery is working with a bank to launch art advisory services for those interested in collecting art.
“People need to engage more, and this is what I am excited about working on now. I am focusing on how we can get people to engage with art in different ways. Instead of sitting back and saying it’s so difficult to break through, I think we need to break through; we have to do something about it as opposed to just observing it,” says Fernando.