Banking on Accessible Art: How Aleksandar Abu Samra Co-Founded the World’s Largest Network of Everyday Art Galleries

Making art accessible in urban cities like Singapore is all about maximising accessibility to art, ArtWallStreet is a newly founded start-up that works with real estate partners to connect art creators and collectors. Co-founder Aleksandar Abu Samra is the urban technologist who runs the start-up with his partner from the real estate industry.

By SGN | 29 July 2021

Aleksandar (pictured) first came to Singapore for a summer position at the Future Cities Laboratory where he worked on sustainable energy flows in Singapore with PhDs and research engineers from varied research fields.

“I always tell people I’m a very bad example of a typical Serbian person,” Aleksandar says.

Born and raised in the historic city of Belgrade, Serbia, Aleksandar always felt drawn to explore beyond the borders and travel the globe. “My father is half-Sudanese, and I grew up listening to Serbian, Arabic, and sometimes English spoken in my household. That is probably why I could never fully identify with Serbian culture,” he explains.

Instead, Aleksandar shares that he identifies well with the culture of Belgrade – the city he grew up in – and with the broader European culture. After earning his software engineering degree at the University of Belgrade, Aleksandar decided to move to Berlin, attracted by the city’s young and vibrant start-up scene and rich cultural heritage.

Whilst working and living in Berlin, Aleksandar was inspired by how the city’s urban environment contributed to the way its inhabitants interacted as a community. “A large majority of people would not be driven by money or status, but by an opportunity to understand themselves and the world and make a positive impact in the community. These interactions and events could happen anywhere, from dedicated event spaces to co-working spaces and cafes, galleries, rooftops, building patios or basements, parks, bridges, or simply next to the river,” he shares.

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Swipe to view snapshots of Aleksandar’s digital nomad life: Photo taken of a river that froze over with ice at Belgrade, Serbia in February 2017; A picture of one of the street houses from a weekend trip to Jardín, Colombia; Adventuring at a famous graffiti tour in Bogota’s city centre in February 2018; Visiting LaptopFriendly Cafes in Lisbon, Portugal – this space is built inside an old bus! Check out some of Aleksandar’s travel photography on his Instagram or EyeEm.

“I now see how each city has its unique beauty and struggle, and how ultimately, urban planning has the potential to make our lives more inspiring, collaborative, and fun,” he explains. These observations changed the way Aleksandar viewed cities and inspired him to pursue a master’s degree in urban planning at the Masdar Institute for Science and Technology in the UAE.

“I felt that my mindset and skills could also be used in non-engineering fields, and I wanted to explore possible synergies. At the time, the concept of smart cities was gaining traction and I could see a clear way on how I could fit in,” Aleksandar explains. During his study, Aleksandar also took up an independent summer position at the Singapore branch of Future Cities Laboratory (FCL) – a collaboration project between the National University of Singapore and ETH Zurich – to contribute to a project of understanding sustainable energy flows in Singapore.

While at FCL, he got the chance to work with PhDs and research engineers from varied research fields – combining architecture, urban sciences, material sciences, system thinking, artificial intelligence, 3D modelling and software engineering, philosophy, policy, and governance.

During this short stint in Singapore, Aleksandar discovered how he could make a positive change in the world by combining his skills in software, urban planning, and design. “Singapore’s struggles of self-identity also resonated with some of my own, so I could feel a sense of belonging even though I was a foreigner. It left me with the impression that maybe I should come back at some point,” he says.

The Call to Synergise for Impact

The trip to Singapore also widened Aleksandar’s view on how cities could be improved and transformed with technology and progressive business practices. After finishing his degree in the UAE, he returned to Serbia, and with a couple of friends started LaptopFriendly, a community-based platform that partners with spaces to identify remote working places in the vicinity.

“It was my first take on entrepreneurship which showed me the many highs and lows of such a lifestyle, and that I still needed to learn how to successfully run innovation projects,” Aleksandar explains. This pushed him to explore careers in innovation consultancy and blockchain while working remotely from Colombia, Mexico, Cuba, Peru, Brazil, U.S., and China, which allowed him to hone his skills in product development and management.

While Aleksandar prides himself in having skill sets that span the fields of technology, urban planning, product management, and business, he tells us that it comes with its disadvantages. “Oftentimes I would feel like an imposter, and not nearly as good as the people who focused their career on either one of those verticals,” he says.

“However, I decided that connecting across disciplines, although not conventional, is the only way to be true to myself. This gives me a strong conviction that I am indeed on the right path,” Aleksandar says.

Learning to Trust the Journey

In March 2020, just before international travel was restricted, Aleksandar found himself on a one-way ticket to Singapore for the next chapter in his life and career. This time, he came with the intent to commit to one city and build a stable community around him.

With restricted movement in the city, he hopped on LinkedIn and Zoom to connect with individuals who he felt were relevant to his field of work in start-up and academia in the city. He was encouraged to join a programme led by global early-stage venture capital firm, Antler Singapore, where he would meet with budding entrepreneurs based in Singapore to develop a viable product and pitch for funds.

Aleksandar (right) with ArtWallStreet co-founder, Arun Sugumaran (left).

Through the Antler programme, Aleksandar met with Arun Sugumaran, who shared a similar vision and interest. The duo, who come from different careers spanning urban planning, technology, and real estate, would end up joining hands to start ArtWallStreet – a global art exchange platform that connects artists with art collectors, lovers, and investors – borne out of their interest in the physical space and conversations with stakeholders.

Aleksandar’s previous experience in urban planning helped him understand what makes a good city and how the role of the public space, the sense of place and shared identity among citizens can influence culture and the way we interact.

“To improve an urban lifestyle, one obviously has to think about infrastructural efficiency, but I believe that market forces naturally push for its improvements. That is why I tend to focus on the experiential side of a city that often gets deprioritised – the feeling of walking the streets, positive serendipitous encounters, culture, and ecosystem preservation,” Aleksandar says.

On Making Art Accessible

Through ArtWallStreet, artists are able to upload digital editions of their work from anywhere around the world and venues will select which ones they want to exhibit in their spaces. In space constraint cities like Singapore, this will mean that more people will be able to experience and be exposed to real art pieces in their everyday lives. Consumers can scan a QR code located beside each artwork to discover more about the piece and the artist and how they can purchase a print.

ArtWallStreet works with public spaces, such as Funan Mall (pictured), so that artists can have greater exposure in space constraint cities like Singapore to showcase their work.
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Swipe to view past exhibitions: Bailamos Bistro Bar & Cafe was ArtWallStreet’s first partner venue; Arcc Spaces and Distrii are co-working spaces that felt art contribute to the ambiance of their work spaces; Casa Mia is a co-living space and ArtWallStreet transformed one of the units at Oxley Mansions into an art gallery; Shenton Food Hall currently features pieces by Katrina Pallon.

At ArtWallStreet, Aleksandar leads product management and technology development, and found the advantages of having honed a varied skill set – agility and flexibility. “One day I could be interviewing art galleries and collectors about the problems and frustrations of their position in the art ecosystem, and the next day I would be building a prototype website or a non-fungible token (NFT) to see if it has potential to solve the issues they are experiencing,” he says.

Presently, the art investment ecosystem is a market that ArtWallStreet is intending to tap into, and Aleksandar is actively looking into how NFTs – a unit of data stored on a digital ledger that certifies a digital asset to be unique and not interchangeable – can be integrated.

“We followed closely what was happening in the NFT space and realised we can utilise this technology to both democratise art investments for new collectors, and ensure guaranteed artist and reseller royalties,” he says. The team partners with a large network of real estate partners, and are currently developing an in-house blockchain authentication solution, to co-create a new ecosystem where physical artworks get distributed, exhibited, and traded in a secure and scalable way.

“Traditional art ecosystem focuses primarily on high-end artists and the 1% that can afford to purchase, experience, or invest in their art. At ArtWallStreet, we want to democratise this ecosystem by bringing the benefits of art appreciation closer to everyone,” Aleksandar explains.

“Currently, the barrier to becoming an art collector is high. One needs to understand how galleries and auction houses work, how to build relationships in the space, how to properly appreciate and valuate art, and how to negotiate,” Aleksandar says. ArtWallStreet was created to lower the barrier to art by making this process less intimidating and seamless.

The Role of Art in Cultures

Food neophobia is a major hurdle facing the cell-meat industry. Defined as a fear of the new foods, there is great resistance among conservative consumers in accepting cultivated meat. While this remains a major challenge for the sector, Ka Yi believes that having more transparent conversations about cell-based food production processes will change the public’s perception about lab-grown meat over time.

“My key interest in research was in embryonic stem cells, which faced many ethical and religious concerns from the public. I spent a lot of time in my undergraduate and graduate school days at Wisconsin-Madison engaging in scientific outreach to share about stem cells research with kids and the public,” she says. Since starting Shiok Meats, she has made it her mission to help the public understand scientific advancements and inspire talents to join the field of cellular agriculture.

Aleksandar (pictured) at the Cuturi Gallery in Singapore, one of the many galleries in the city that he regularly visits to check out new exhibitions.

The technology that drives NFTs also helped the team to discover solutions that resolve existing problems that have plagued the traditional art landscape. This includes helping stakeholders to guarantee artwork royalties on the secondary market, fractional investments, and ownership.

“I wouldn’t dare to predict how the ecosystem might evolve, but I can say that it’s extremely exciting being in this space that has opportunities to resolve problems of the traditional art world, and create new culture norms around it for everyone,” Aleksandar says.

Since his return to Singapore, he has taken the time to visit exhibitions and discover art in the city’s nook – which has evolved in recent years. Today, Singapore is home to a burgeoning art scene with galleries and museums scattered across the island and art fixtures at nature parks and public spaces.

“To me, the most interesting aspect of how the art ecosystem is evolving is understanding the psychology of how new generations think about art ownership, self-expression, and status, and how that will ultimately shape the industry,” he says.

What’s the working culture like in Singapore? Or what should you look out for before relocating here? Check out our comprehensive employment and relocation guides to prepare for your move!

About Aleksandar

Originally from Belgrade, Serbia, Aleksander has explored careers in innovation consultancy and blockchain where he honed his skills in product development and management, and lived as a digital nomad in cities in North America, South America, and China.

He moved to Singapore in March 2020 and co-founded ArtWallStreet, a start-up that works with real estate partners to connect art creators and collectors, and make art accessible in space constraint cities.

Connect with him on LinkedIn here.

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