Intentional adieu for Tu Do

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Vietnam's first privately owned art gallery says farewell to locals, contemplates the overseas market

Tu Do gallery's owner Tran Thi Thu Ha. Ha said closing the gallery in
Vietnam is not the end, just a new chapter in the same book about the love of art.

It would take enduring difficult hardships for a private gallery to survive the fledgling fine art scene of 1990s Vietnam, but Tran Thi Thu Ha was determined to open Tu Do (Liberty) Art in 1989.

Now, Ha feels the time has come to say goodbye to local fans and partners and move on.

The gallery owner, quite a painter in her own right, tends to impress guests with her courteous demeanor and sweet smile. 65 paintings celebrating her 20-year career are currently on exhibit through January 4.

As has been reported in many local newspapers, Ha's private exhibition will be Tu Do's last; many consider the gallery's closing a regretful choice.

However, Ha seems at peace with her decision, which she said was influenced by her children and the promise that they would follow continue her life's work.

"The retirement of Tu Do is related to my children's changing mind. My daughter was a journalist in Vietnam before she settled in US. Now she wants to carry on my gallery in San Francisco. My son will give his sister a hand. And my husband and I will come to be their consultants and the thought that finally fine art has connected my family makes me happy," said Ha.

Ha said that the gallery will be closed when her house, located the gallery, is sold.

To some art-lovers, the closing of the first personal gallery in Vietnam raises the fear that it will take with it a substantial portion of Vietnamese art out of Vietnam.

But Ha suggested it was already happening anyway.

"Mine and many Vietnam-based galleries have to accept the truth that foreign customers come from bigger markets than locals. Huge quantities of paintings slip out of the country through official purchases at local galleries. But the good news is that more and more locals are ready to spend money on authentic fine art, unlike previously," said Ha.

New paths

At Tu Do, the price of paintings ranges. Those of the late famous painter Nguyen Gia Tri cost hundreds or thousands of dollars apiece. Ha told The Thao & Van Hoa newspaper in a previous report that she did not want to bring the precious paintings of Vietnamese well-known artists abroad or sell them.

Opposed to many local galleries who base their inventory on customer's tastes, Ha said Tu Do chooses its art more independently.

"We welcome a full range of media relating painting, sculpture, works on paper, photography and conceptual installations. The customer's taste is varied, we just choose some trends that meet the gallery's basic standards and interests," she said.

"When the artists come and ask us to collaborate, they have to enter an agreement to give 50 percent of the profits earned from their paintings. Years ago, the commission was 25 percent, but now, we cannot afford the increasing expenditures at the same percentage. Compared to the old times, local paintings are now sold at much higher prices," said Ha.

She also mentioned that many of her friends, some of who are noted painters, respected and supported her decision to close Tu Do.

"Some of them have a close relationship with Tu Do, since they were just emerging artists. They had no idea about my movement, as they can have their paintings hung in my gallery wherever it is. The collaboration remains the same. I will try to keep shuttling between Vietnam and US," said Ha.

Ha said that there might be some changes when she re-establishes the gallery in America.

"Being as professional as possible is my priority. Besides specializing in Vietnamese fine art, we also have to maintain an internationalist point of view in such a big market as the US. Some Asian artists' works are under consideration to be exhibited and traded in the future. We also focus on sculpture as well as painting. Besides the wholeheartedness, the business is always the big concern," she said.

Originally located at 142 Dong Khoi Street, Tu Do has been dedicated to the concept of promoting contemporary Vietnamese art produced by local artists. In August 2000, Tu Do moved to 53 Ho Tung Mau St., Dist. 1, Ho Chi Minh City.

As of November 2011, Tu Do gallery had organized around 179 exhibitions including 116 individual, 51 collective and 12 from overseas. It has introduced more than 3,600 works of art to the public and private collectors.

The trowel as muse

It was a childhood love of art that brought Ha to the easel 21 years ago. Although she does not consider herself a good painter, three quarters of her paintings displayed in 11 private exhibitions since 1991 have been sold.

Marc Hurner, in a report on Vietnam Business released in 1997, commented that "art critics do recognize in a few [of Ha's] paintings some of Edvard Munch's style, or a touch of Marc Chagall, but it makes no difference, when we know how much she taught herself with books. The marvelous thing is to see something close to what has been done somewhere else, because the master themes are always the same. Ha is painting with her soul and is obsessed by life."

Renowned painter Rung said that when he looked at Ha's first paintings, he immediately knew that she would be a great painter someday.

Rung is also a close friend of Ha's family who stimulated the birth of Tu Do when he rented her house to exhibit his paintings. Rung's first-ever art exhibit caused a great public stir in 1989 and helped push Ha into her destiny, to be an art manager.

Ha said that the biggest change in her painting career was abandoning the brush in favor of the trowel, an arduous tool to use, but its strong sketches gave her paintings deeper undercurrents. Like the name of her gallery, which means liberty, her paintings were unbounded by conventional rules.

She is also one of very few female artists who fell in love with lacquer, although she has quit using it in recent years due to health concerns. Some of Ha's lacquer works are displayed in her ongoing exhibition, titled "Twenty years in art."

So far, she has sold six paintings for a total of US$9,000.

"Painting not only helps me to understand my job more, sometimes, I also sell my paintings to cover losses. It's not just a pure love of art anymore," Ha laughed.

However, not all of her paintings are for sale. She has refused generous offers for her first painting from 1991, opting to keep the piece for its memories, full of joy and love of life.

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