We first met Bee Tham in her East 23rd. St. gallery The Bee in the Lion during Carly Silverman’s Static Motion exhibit.  The pleasant sun-filled gallery resembles an elegant minimalist studio apartment that she considers a “charmed space of the imagination.” The intimacy is in planned contrast to the large white cube galleries in Chelsea. Tham thinks of her gallery as David amongst Goliaths.


Tham who was born and raised in Singapore moved to New York in 2009. She tells us Singapore is “clean, green and efficient” and that everything “works” in Singapore. Anyone who has any experience with the MTA knows that New York City is a little different. However, Tham enjoys living in New York saying “New York is amazing in a way that belies any logical understanding of a great place to live.” She admits that what she loves about New York is that it is the epicenter of art and culture.


At the first encounter, it is apparent that Tham desires a different approach to viewing and buying art. She feels experiencing art is an almost mystical experience saying,  “I have made it a point to provide a sanctuary for the privacy of that engagement, spiritual connection and magical encounter with art.” Bee had previously operated a more traditional gallery, but became discouraged with it when it became more about making rent than about her passion for art. She is dismayed by viewers who are more concerned with taking selfies in front of artwork than with looking for a deeper understanding and appreciation of the work before them. So it makes sense that Tham’s mission is to provide viewers with a peaceful realm where they may have that “magical encounter” with a work of art.


Read the full interview with Bee Tham below.


Arslan, Charlie, 2017


Art Zealous: You were born and raised in Singapore. What are your most memorable experiences in Singapore that led to your interest in art?

Bee Tham: I started reading when I was very young, and I’m still very much a bookworm at heart. My mom thought she’d encourage me to read widely by giving me a weekly book allowance to get any book I wanted from the local bookstore. To her dismay, I’d spend all my allowance on art books and artist monographs. I would devour the images eagerly – my pre-formed mind at five years old loved the books on Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, and Henri Rousseau. I was frightened by some of the Old Masters, so my love for them came at a much later age. I would cut out the images of the artworks I liked and made them into wall art or bookmarks. My greatest childhood anguish was in deciding which image to sacrifice if it turned out that the page had two of my favorite paintings printed back to back! I was too young to understand the historical significance but was so mesmerized by these works I even persuaded my parents to buy a reproduction of Mona Lisa and made them hang the work in our living room for over ten years.


AZ: When did you move to New York?

BT: 2009


AZ: How did you find it different than Singapore?

BT: We arrived in New York post-2008 financial crisis. I did not know what to expect. I had visited New York before, but living here was a different experience altogether. Singapore is clean, green and efficient. Everything works in Singapore. New York is not exactly clean or green. Anyone who uses our public services will agree that they are not efficient here either. When it comes to living in New York, I adopt what I call the Wabi Sabi attitude toward things that do not conform to our ideals of beauty or excellence. Christians would call it beauty in ashes! New York is amazing in a way that belies any logical understanding of a great place to live in. Our first home was in the Chelsea Firehouse between 8th and 9th avenue. I loved the energy and diversity of the neighborhood. I was comforted by the fact that I had such easy access to the Chelsea galleries and would hang out there most times. Now, we live in a townhouse on the Upper East Side, and I realized we subconsciously moved to neighborhoods where we’ll be close to art galleries and institutions! I suppose deep down I really love New York because it is the epicenter of art and culture.


AZ: What was your experience being involved in your first gallery in NY?

BT: I loved it, then I hated it. I enjoyed being involved in a capacity that went beyond collecting. Yet, I grew discouraged when my first gallery operated more like a business than a passion. It became increasingly like a Faustian pact I made in the end. I had a discussion with my ex-partner and made the move to close the gallery after three years.


AZ: How is it different than what you are trying to accomplish with The Bee in the Lion?

BT: With The Bee in the Lion, the artist is the rai·son d’ê·tre and driving force of the gallery. I represent largely artists whose works move me, artists who are deeply convicted in their visions and have continued producing works even if their works buck market trends. You could say the gallery tries to strike a fine balance between a patron and commercial relationship with the artists. The artist’s struggle is real. I feel it is essential to support artists in such a way that they are recognized and validated by institutions as well. As such, a large part of what the gallery does is to work together with institutions and collaborators to bring the work of the artists to a greater audience.


AZ: How do you see your gallery The Bee and the Lion being different than the other galleries in the city?

BT: The Bee in the Lion is the David amongst the Goliath galleries in the city. It offers a private and intimate viewing experience in a somewhat domestic environment. It offers visitors a charmed space of imagination and offers us ideas of how we could live with art.


AZ: You have been involved in making art yourself how has that shaped the way you look at art?

BT: I was born with a passionate interest in art and had loved my academic training in philosophy and logic. Yet nothing in my experiences with both had allowed me to understand art deeply from a three-dimensional point of view until I started sculpting. I also began to understand the technical difficulties in the art-making process. I look at art now with the ardor of a feeling mind, upon a procrustean bedrock of influences from being an artist, a gallerist and collector all at the same time.


Dana Nechmad, Cat/Cow, 2017


AZ: What is the mission of your gallery?

BT: The Bee in the Lion is born of my own personal encounter with art. Many years ago, I had visited MoMA on a day it was closed to the public in order to offer private access to people with disabilities. The museum guard was kind enough to let me visit, knowing I had come a long way from Singapore. (I was so happy I felt like a kid who was unleashed upon the movie set of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.) I saw Monet’s Water Lilies in the absence of crowds and people trying to take pictures. I was altogether humbled, intoxicated, moved and inspired, all at the same time. I’m embarrassed to say that the Water Lilies reduced me to a total mess of tears. It was the magic of that moment, something akin to a religious awakening, that would define how I would relate to art, and how I hope The Bee in the Lion is able to accomplish as a private art gallery. As a private gallery, I have made it a point to provide a sanctuary for the privacy of that engagement, spiritual connection and magical encounter with art.


AZ: You picked a space that has an intimate setting more similar to a living space. Tell us why you wanted that feel for the gallery?

BT: I don’t subscribe to the idea of keeping artworks in storage, as if we are relegating them to a burial ground of unloved objects that we have outgrown. I believe art should be lived with, and be placed in an environment where you can enjoy and admire on a daily basis. After all, art is a complex perceptual object that articulates and transforms spaces in the intimacy of one’s home. The gallery allows one to imagine art as perfectly congruent with the space and objects you have in a home setting.


The Bee in the Lion’s next exhibition will be I’m Your Venus which explores thematic affinities between the primitive art and contemporary art narratives on the complex and idealized image of women. The exhibition includes artwork as diverse as Andy Warhol’s and African sculpture. The show opens on February 18th.


The Bee in the Lion is located at 310 East 23rd Street, 2H, New York, NY. The gallery is open by appointment only. Contact the gallery by email at info@beeinthelion.com or call 212 542 0525

photos // courtesy of The Bee in the Lion