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Woaw Gallery Founder and Serial Entrepreneur Kevin Poon on Launching in Singapore

Arun Kakar
Jan 10, 2023 8:56PM

Portrait of Kevin Poon, 2022. Courtesy of Woaw Gallery.

Exterior view of Woaw Gallery, Singapore. Courtesy of Woaw Gallery.

Kevin Poon is a busy man. The Hong Kong–born serial entrepreneur is, among other things, a DJ, fashion designer, retailer, coffeemaker, and gallerist. His Instagram, which has more than 130,000 followers, features everything from snaps with Pharrell Williams at Untitled Miami to late-night DJ sets in Hong Kong.

Artsy found Poon in full gallerist mode when we caught up on Zoom this week, while he was gearing up for a busy week ahead in Singapore. His gallery, Woaw (which stands for “world of amazing wonders”), is opening its fourth outpost, located in the island’s lively Chinatown neighborhood, and is also exhibiting at the inaugural Art SG fair, a banner event that is set to position the city-state as a major international art center.

As we spoke, Poon’s excitement was palpable: “It just feels like people are really eager to learn about art and they want to get involved,” he said, describing Singapore as a “hub” for its neighboring countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Koichi Sato, installation view of “Ecstasy Journey” at Woaw Gallery, 2019. Courtesy of Woaw Gallery.

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Poon’s road into the commercial art world is an unconventional one. Starting out as an intern at the record label Interscope in 2000, he immersed himself in the worlds of art, fashion, and music, even starting his own music festival, Blohk Party. He co-founded the streetwear brand CLOT in 2003, and a decade later opened Woaw as a multifunctional space to house his various interests under one roof in Hong Kong’s buzzy Wan Chai district.

A long-time collector of art (he is an admirer of Drew Englander, Greg Ito, Sayre Gomez, Jonas Wood, and KAWS, among others), Poon developed part of the space into a full-fledged gallery. The debut show, in March 2019, was a well-received solo exhibition of Japanese artist Koichi Sato. This was followed by a strong slate of shows featuring a range of rising international artists including Anna Weyant, Cristina Ban Ban, and Tide.

Since opening, the gallery has grown at an impressive pace despite challenging times by honing its digital platforms and expanding its physical footprint: Woaw seized on a second space in Hong Kong’s Central district in 2021 while the pandemic was still afoot, and opened a third in Beijing’s Blanc Art Space last year.

Born in Hong Kong and educated in the United States, Poon’s taste as a gallerist reflects his international upbringing. Woaw’s stated focus on “bridging the cultural trends between Asia and the West” allows Poon to elevate and connect a range of emerging artists from across diasporas. The current show at its Beijing gallery, “Mixed Gene,” is curated by Chinese artist Kang Haoxian and is comprised of artists of Chinese ethnic origin, while the Wan Chai space is hosting the debut solo show of Brooklyn-based artist Drew Englander.

“Anyone that pushes the boundaries and really continues to push the conversation is what I look at,” Poon said of his approach. The gallery now has five artists from three continents in its stable: In addition to Haoxian and Englander, it represents American artists Charlie Roberts and James Goss and British artist Jon Burgerman.

Woaw’s Singapore branch marks its largest venue to date and its first foray into Southeast Asia. “I was just lucky enough to have some friends from Singapore that were out in Hong Kong, and they just kept on encouraging me, saying, ‘You really should open up,’” Poon explained.

Architectural rendering of Woaw Gallery, Singapore. Courtesy of Woaw Gallery.

Art SG was the perfect hook to make the Singapore outpost a reality. And fortunately, Poon and his team “organically” landed on a location that they admired, an “iconic Singaporean” shophouse. These historic buildings formed the bulk of Singapore’s pre–World War II city center and served as storefronts and dwellings. Poon and his team transformed a corner unit into a dazzling 1,100-square-foot, blue-and-white space that sits between the historic Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and the Thian Hock Keng Temple.

Its maiden show, “As Friends & Partners,” curated by Poon, features what the gallery calls a “heady mix of emerging artists, all of whom are reflective of the dynamism and zeitgeist of contemporary art today.” It features works by 12 artists, including Aryo Toh Djojo, En Iwamura, Kang Haoxian, and Szabolcs Bozó.

Aryo Toh Djojo, Average Size, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Woaw Gallery.

En Iwamura, Neo Jomon: Future Boy, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Woaw Gallery.

Given Poon’s track record of business pursuits on the cutting edge of culture, the decision to make Singapore the location of Woaw’s first Southeast Asian outpost is unsurprising. The country has been on an upward trajectory in the worlds of finance, industry, and creativity for some years, a trend bolstered by how well it has navigated COVID-19. Singapore is ranked as the most stable country in the world in terms of political and operational stability by the Global Innovation Index, and its total economic output now exceeds pre-pandemic levels.

Poon isn’t alone in noticing this remarkable rise: Japanese pioneer Whitestone Gallery has set up shop in Singapore, and international trendsetter Lehmann Maupin has appointed a Singapore-based director to oversee its activities in the region.

“There’s a lot of affluent people that are living here,” Poon said of the city-state. He’s observed newer, young collectors coming to Singapore. “People just want to have a good time, see cool stuff, and I’m happy to be here and be a small part of it.”

The arrival of the much-anticipated Art SG, which will gather more than 160 galleries at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre along the bayfront, is cause for further enthusiasm. Billed as the “largest ever art fair” in Southeast Asia, it finally arrives after several postponements since its launch in 2018 and is the brainchild of the Art Assembly, which also organizes India Art Fair, Sydney Contemporary, and this summer’s inaugural Tokyo Gendai. It’s a fair that Woaw will relish. As well as joining an esteemed roster of global and regional names from David Zwirner to de Sarthe Gallery, it will be present at an event that is drawing the attention of esteemed international art collectors.

“We’re really happy to be a part of it,” said Poon, who is friendly with the fair’s founder, former Art Basel founding director Magnus Renfrew. “We really have no expectations, just other than, you know, seeing all our friends. Hopefully, it’ll be well attended, and people get to hang out.”

Charlie Roberts, Threading the Needle, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Woaw Gallery.

Jon Burgerman, Chameleon, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Woaw Gallery.

Launching in Singapore was a “big push” for Poon and his team, but it’s the continuation rather than a culmination of a busy schedule that continues to roll onwards. He’s hoping to do more shows at his Beijing space (the location has held four shows thus far since opening in July 2022) as China continues to ease its COVID restrictions. Further expansions are on the horizon, too.

Poon is particularly eager for Tokyo Gendai, which is set to stake a new claim in Tokyo’s art market, and he’s also anticipating Art Basel in Hong Kong to return in a “strong way” this March.

Otherwise, 2023 is more of the same for a gallerist that refuses to sit on his laurels: “We just want to be able to tighten up our programs, show more cool stuff, be a platform for a lot of young emerging artists and established artists alike,” he told Artsy. Given his track record, Poon’s movements will have the eyes of the art world paying attention.

Arun Kakar
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019