Around Street 178 there are a clutch of sleek, modern galleries that have been instrumental in constructing a vibrant presence for contemporary art in Cambodia: Romeet, SaSa Bassac, Gallery X-em.
But Street 178’s nickname as Phnom Penh’s “Art Street” is not their doing. The name comes instead from the short stretch of shop fronts which face onto the Royal University of Fine Arts, which predate the contemporary spaces by at least 15 years.
The galleries, 24 at last count, make none of the claims to uniqueness of their neighbours. Inside their open shop fronts every available surface is covered in paintings, with unframed canvases stacked in corners, or propped up on the pavement outside. But whereas contemporary art in Cambodia is still a volatile pursuit, these galleries have enjoyed prolonged success.
Gallery owner Lay Seng, 76, put it simply: “I tell the artists to paint the best sellers,” he said. His gallery first opened in 1993 and, in the 20 years since, the street has transformed beyond recognition, but the paintings have not.
He reeled off a list of sure-fire hits: visions of Cambodia’s verdant countryside; animals; flowers; Angkor Wat, especially at sunset. One corner of his shop is given over to paintings of scantily clad Apsaras, the most seductive of which has a yellow scarf hung discreetly over the frame.
While Seng does get some custom from tourists, they mainly come to browse or buy small paintings and the best business comes from a growing pool of local investors, in particular corporate clients from the hospitality industry.
“My business increases day by day,” said Sokhom Sopheavy, 43, who bought the Ta Prum Gallery in 2007. She says that some months she can make upwards of $9,000, with the most lucrative sales being to owners of hotels and restaurants who have the budgets to buy larger, better quality works.
To those accustomed to seeking out individuality when valuing art, the paintings on display along the stretch can look like they’ve come off a paint-by-numbers production line. But speaking to gallery owners and artists, it is clear that there is a strict hierarchy at work.
Despite the galleries’ proximity to the fine arts school, few owners are interested in selling the work of students, deeming them to be poor quality. Most of the paintings are made instead by teachers at the school, or trained artists who dedicate their lives to making work in the required style. Large canvasses from well regarded painters can sell for up to $1,000.
One artist whose name signals quality is Venn Savat. In an apartment-cum-studio just off Street 178, he spreads out old gallery catalogues as evidence of past triumphs. One, from a 2002 Reyum show, Visions of the Future, shows an impressionistic rendering of a suited figure emerging, Leviathan-like, from a mass of crowded figures. It is an accomplished piece of political art, intended to convey the young painter’s hopes for a stable democratic order.
But today, the artist and his wife are content with making money from the sale of more formulaic work. In the small flat, they reproduce Cambodian rural scenes from photos, which are sold to the gallery for about $15.
It was the need to make ends meet that led Savat to abandon more experimental works, he explained. “It took time and hard research to complete one painting, so I thought that if I waited for it, it could not help my family to live,”
he said. But he does not seem overly concerned about the shift. Even when he has spare time, he prefers to use it to work on commissions in hotels – large-scale renderings of historical scenes for which he is paid directly.
Kim Sophorn, who specialises in painting temples, agreed that there are good opportunities for artists who build up respect among the galleries. He started selling his paintings to Street 178 in 2006 while still a student, and business has been on the up ever since. “I started selling cheap paintings because the galleries didn’t know my achievements, but now I can sell expensive paintings,” he said. Painting little aside from temples bores him, Sophorn admitted, but the pros outweigh the cons: he recently received a grant from the government to visit Japan, suggesting that it is not just hotels and restaurants that are willing to invest heavily in traditional work.
Inside the X-em gallery, Em Riem recalled his early days selling small paintings of people from the provinces to a gallery on Street 178. Today, he is a successful contemporary artist working in abstraction, photorealism and furniture design. He is keen to differentiate his gallery from those a few blocks down, and says he frequently has to redirect disappointed Cambodians who are looking for “Angkor Wat style”.
Although he has chosen to go down a different path, he believes that selling paintings on Street 178 is one of the better career paths available to fine arts graduates. He pointed out that, while his sales fluctuate month to month, friends who have established themselves as skilled producers of these generic scenes are doing well. Of a friend who paints mostly flowers and small animals, Riem said: “He doesn’t want to be a big artist. He just wants to get the money – and he finds it every day.”