The art-catchers

By Kim Nga, Thanh Nien News

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A non-profit quarterly publication gives local art-lovers a chance to unearth a spectrum of artistic talent all around them


The full-color, 100-page quarterly “Saigon Artbook” is dedicated to inspirational work from a variety of artists.
The third edition ready to come out in April features local visual artist Tung Khi (Tung Monkey,) local illustrator Khoa Le and French abstract painter Laurent.
What has captivated local art-lovers is not only the books’ catchy simple design and the artists’ artworks but also the launching parties, held in last October and January. Nearly a thousand audiences were at each even to enjoy the free publications, drinks and artworks on display.
Armed with a master's degree in teaching and a bachelor's degree in English literature self-taught photographer Alexander McMillan is the founder of the “Saigon Artbook” project, which flashed through his mind three years ago.
“I realize that Saigon [Ho Chi Minh City] has many fashion magazines, all about the same thing. I think it [Saigon] deserves something more, and something that encourages people to think. I try to go in a different direction, like a book, and it’s kind of growing from that,” he told Vietweek.
“It took a year to turn a very complicated idea into reality. What we got is a book of three artists with twelve pieces of work, released every three months and a party. It keeps growing, changing until what we have today.”
McMillan said that after the first issue, his team decided that the book must be more focused on Vietnamese audiences.
“We have a change. In book one, it’s only in English, and book two, you see, the text is written in English and Vietnamese. We realize that mostly our audiences are Vietnamese people and we want to distribute a book for them, give them a picture of what’s happening here and encourage young Vietnamese to learn, to grow. We also want foreigners to see how art develops in Saigon and take a look at Vietnam. But mainly, it’s a printed book for local people. That’s why we make it. Foreigners can also download it on our website.”
McMillan said that they do not have “criteria” for artists to be featured in the book. Their art, “goodwill” and “enthusiasm” are the deciding factors. He also said that the book appreciates different styles of art; however the editors at this time prefer photos, paintings and illustrations that are easy to be printed and expressed in book form. Music and literary works, maybe poetry, will hopefully be included later somehow.
Dang Thanh Long, a producer and designer at The Others Creative House – an art collective involved in publishing “Saigon Artbook” – told Vietweek that he could not target a specific audience because “anyone can be an art lover.”
He knows that many in the crowd who joined in the book issue parties were not interested in art.
“Of course we’re gonna have some people who may come for the free book, party, fun and even curiosity. But those who keep coming back are the true audience. That is the sense of community,” he said.
“We want to improve the party, a lot of things to do,” said McMillian. “Our next one will have more activities for the attendees to engage with the artists. Now what we do is more like an exhibition, everyone comes in, and some don’t know what to do. We hope to cross the bridge, create a place where people can entertain and interact more. It’ll be a surprise in the coming party around April.”
Long said that they made the book hand-sized so that it could fit in a backpack and be carried anywhere, but also made it beautiful so it would stand out.
“We want to become something special in your collection, lying on the book shelf colorfully,” he said.
The expenditure for such a non-profit project like “Saigon Artbook,” however, is a tough hindrance.
Long said that every member in the team received no money for the project, and in fact many contribute their own funds to keep it going.
They have to work other jobs to survive, but that doesn’t stop them.
“Our advertisement is actually like the way Facebook did long time ago,” said McMillan. “At the beginning, it started as a free and cool website, but later people searched to be involved with it, then they monetized it. We look at it with the same way, trying to make a cool product. And the way that we want to make money out of it is showing the book to the sponsors and asking them if they like to be a part of this cool project. Sponsors can also help sponsors,” said McMillan.
Long said that non-profit project does not mean it cannot earn money, but “when we got enough money to run the project, the balance will be invested in the community activities.”
From money back to community
“We go to schools, give books, and send an artist come to speak to students. All we want is to change the way people, of different ages, look at art.”
“In next one or two weeks, we will go to walls, somewhere in the local Saigon, and paint them,” said McMillan.
“Another one is painting the food carts; one of our artists will take a coffee cart and paint it. We will give our books to the neighborhood. We don’t want that the publication is just available to those who came to the party but the community as well. Many beautiful things in Vietnamese art happen here.”
Long said that the book has gotten great feedback so far and his team has a spectrum of plans for the book through next year. One of the plans is the idea of connecting all the artists from the year in a big gala.
“All of them [artists] share a common thing which is Saigon’s breath in their works. This is the biggest connection...”

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