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The Peak Interview: Chong Siak ching, CEO of National Art Gallery

A former property developer chief turns her sharp business sense to making history for the Singapore art scene. Meet Chong Siak ching, CEO of National Art Gallery.

The fourth level of Stamford Court is a typical collection of offices and meeting rooms. Clean and functional, nothing fanciful. The visitor may notice a number of art pieces on the mostly beige-coloured walls. There is a certain calm here.

But the serenity belies the feverish activities that have been going on in the past few months, as its future occupants continue to work in the lead-up to the 2015 opening of the some $530-million National Art Gallery in the former City Hall and Supreme Court buildings.

The leader of this monumental project, which will further enhance the city’s position as a regional and international art hub, is Chong Siak Ching, 54, chief executive of the gallery.

“I was a little surprised but excited by this opportunity,” says Chong, who was the former president and CEO of Ascendas, the space solutions provider.

She saw the appointment as a privilege, a chance to give back to the community, something she would repeat a couple of times during her interview with The Peak at her office in Stamford Road, quite a change from her previous headquarters at the more spacious Science Park.

But she had mixed feelings. “I know that I am not a natural candidate for the position, in the sense that I do not come with an art- history background or a fine-arts degree, so, if anyone was expecting such a person, my appointment would have been a surprise.”

MAKING HISTORY
The expectations are indeed daunting. By dedicating two of the most iconic landmarks to the cause of art in a country not yet known to be a society of art lovers, the Government has more or less thrown down the gauntlet to the art community.

“I know that I am stepping into a project of historical significance and great importance to Singapore,” Chong says.

She adds that she was encouraged by the show of absolute confidence in her by the gallery’s board of directors, of which she was a member from October 2012 till last April, when she was appointed as CEO. She is also head of the Visual Arts Cluster – three visual-arts institutions under the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, namely the National Art Gallery, Singapore, the Singapore Art Museum and the Singapore Tyler Print Institute.

She elaborates on her National Art Gallery appointment: “When I met the board members of the selection committee, they all stressed the fact that they were also looking for someone who could bring in organisational skills, someone with the ability to build an organisation, in a way, to build on what previous leaders have done, and bring this gallery to opening.”

“What was also very reassuring was that I would be working with a team of people that were experts in this field. Some key appointments I would have a hand in deciding – for example, the director of the gallery, Eugene Tan. I also believe that the success of any organisation lies not in the hands of one person but a team of people – individuals that come together, believe in a common vision and work together to make it a success.”

Chong’s travels have furthered her interest in art. She’s pictured with her family at Yehliu Geopark in Taiwan.
Chong’s travels have furthered her interest in art. She’s pictured with her family at Yehliu Geopark in Taiwan.

Some of the phrases that readily come to mind in describing Chong’s management style are “teamwork”, “consensual and not top down”, “good listener”, “calm temperament” and “personal”.

She needs to be closely involved in her projects, being on the ground and meeting people, in order to get a feel of the situation to do a better job.

Her previous company, Ascendas, has investments in 10 countries and 33 cities. She made an effort to visit all. “I believe that one should not always be sitting in HQ. When investment proposals surface, you need to have a feel of what the demand-and- supply situation is like. And the best way to do this is to be out there meeting customers and investors. Talking to our people and also letting our teammates in different countries feel the presence of senior management, so they don’t feel like they are fighting a war by themselves. I think this is a very important part of my job.”

She has developed a greater interest in art, as a consequence of all that travelling. She says: “I realise that every place I go to… the different peoples would use art to tell a story, tell a history. This is where you see the differentiation of countries and cultures.”

But in the more recent past, through Ascendas, she discovered another role of art.

“Ascendas doesn’t see itself as just a real-estate developer or a landlord, but a firm that creates environments for the people who work in the buildings and industrial parks, and people need to be inspired to be productive.

“Clearly, art is a very natural way to do this, because it’s a result of a creative process. It is inspiring and healing, so we started, at every opportunity, to bring art into the spaces. At the same time, we found it was a good way to give back to the community, particularly the host community.

“We needed art, sculptures, installations. We went out to the local community –
where Ascendas has a presence – and commissioned such pieces. And we also found that budding local artists lacked space to gain exposure. And here we had plentiful space – whether it was in the lobbies or outside, in the landscape areas – for art to be exhibited. It was a natural partnership between us and the artists in the community.”

Chong examining carved wooden figurines in Cosmology Of Life by Indonesian artist Toni Kanwa at Singapore Art Museum. Some of them are smaller than a grain of rice.
Chong examining carved wooden figurines in Cosmology Of Life by Indonesian artist Toni Kanwa at Singapore Art Museum. Some of them are smaller than a grain of rice.

Although Siak Ching did not come from an art background, she makes time to understand the industry and form her own perspective on it. She isn’t forcing her former corporate experience into this role but taking her time to feel the subtleties.
Dr. Eugene Tan, Director Of National Art Gallery

GRITS AND GOALS
Because of her naturally modest and friendly outlook, Chong has somehow camouflaged the fact that she has always been an achiever. This might have something to with her humble background.

She was from Penang. Her father worked in the sales department of a Dutch company. Her mother was a housewife. The youngest of seven children, she grew up on hand-me- downs and learnt to be self-dependent. She is married to semi-retired Seah Cheng San, 56, and the couple never had maids to help raise their 19-year-old daughter, Samantha, who is studying life sciences at Cambridge.

Her academic and professional credentials were those of a top performer. She graduated with honours in estate management from National University of Singapore (NUS) and won a Gold Medal from the Singapore Institute of Surveyors and Valuers. She got an MBA from NUS, and completed an advanced management programme at Harvard Business School. Before Ascendas, she was deputy CEO of the former Jurong Town Corporation, now referred to as JTC Corporation.

She was already a person on the move and the stewardship of the National Art Gallery will be her biggest challenge yet.

Chong says she came in at a very late stage in construction. “As far as design is concerned, it’s more or less locked in. We are now just two years from the opening and probably just about less than a year from the physical completion of the building.

“So, I would obviously be focusing very much on ensuring the building is completed on time and within budget, and with the quality expected of a museum.”

She adds: “It requires a lot of creative thinking and design, and I must say that we have a very good architectural team that has come up with an elegant way of linking the two buildings and transforming them into the National Art Gallery.

“The fact that it also involves building additional levels of basement to create carparks and taking into account room for expansion of the gallery if necessary…adds to the complexity of the project.”

The equally important and long-term goal is the curation of the National Collection, which is one of the world’s largest collections of modern and contemporary South-east Asian works of art. Through careful nurture over the years, the collection now has 10,000 pieces. They have not only been on display in Singapore, but have also travelled to museums and venues in the Americas, Europe and other parts of Asia.

The collection includes works by such local luminaries as Chua Mia Tee, Cheong Soo Pieng, Georgette Chen, Chen Wen Hsi, Liu Kang, Chen Chong Swee, Xu Beihong and Tang Da Wu.

The collection also holds important pieces by regional artists of world standing, such as Hendra Gunawan (Indonesia), Nguyen Gia Tri (Vietnam), Syed Ahmad Jamal (Malaysia), Montien Boonma (Thailand), Sopheap Pich (Cambodia) and Imelda Cajipe-Endaya (the Philippines).

Chong says: “We are going to be probably the only museum in this region, if not the world, that focuses on South-east Asian art. Singapore’s strategic location makes it a natural hub for regional art. We will be able to present a collection that the Government has amassed over many years to showcase not just to Singaporeans or our neighbours, but to the rest of the world. We can present the art in a global context that narrates the story of Singapore and South-east Asia from the perspective of our artists, curators and art historians.”

There will be two permanent galleries – the Singapore gallery and South-east Asia gallery. She says: “We will partner overseas museums to bring in some of their works, then we co-curate with some of ours. We have to ready the facilities, the whole building, to make sure they will offer visitors an experience that one would expect of a new art gallery and, more importantly, of a national gallery.”

THE X-FACTOR
Providing exemplary service to customers has garnered Chong terrific success at Ascendas, which grew into a multi-billion- dollar entity under her watch.

The same strategy is at work now. She says: “To me, service is not just satisfying customers, but it extends to delighting them. We aim to welcome visitors to the museum with a holistic experience.”

This means offering first-class food and beverage, with outlets and cuisine complementing some of the exhibitions in the gallery; leveraging on technology such as apps to allow visitors to opt for a self-guided tour; and interacting with them through the Internet and social media before and after their visit.

“We would like visitors to have all the information they wish – but at their own time, according to their preferences.”

She is going for the wow factor.

She says: “I hope that visitors who walk in will say, ‘Oh, I am glad that the Government decided to dedicate these two significant buildings to be an art gallery and not for any other use.’ That would be a reaction I hope we would get.

“Another would be people walking in and saying that they are really impressed
by how the architects and the builders have been able to preserve the old, and yet blend in the new, because this is, after all, a historic building put to a new use.

“I also want them to realise that we have great artists of our own, in Singapore and within the region, who have created all these works.

“Visitors should develop the habit of wanting to come back again and again.”

A STUDENT AGAIN
For someone who has no art background, Chong has taken to her new career with the same fervour that drove her in Ascendas.

She starts work at 9am. “From the moment I wake up, I start consolidating my thoughts for the day, looking at what the schedule is. So a typical day would have many meetings – often back-to-back. My lunches are often working lunches.

“I normally don’t leave the office until 7pm, unless I have an event to go to, and even so, I will usually step into those events only at 6.30pm or 7pm.”

Weekends are not sacrosanct.

She says, with a laugh: “Even during my holidays, when I was in Bali, for example, I visited some museums and galleries. It is, as my colleagues put it, a kind of occupational hazard.

“It’s become part of my family’s activities as well. Even when I was at Ascendas, they would tag along with me to check out the latest buildings and sculptures. Now, they come with me to museums. The good thing is, these are all pleasurable activities.”

Chong and family cycling in Ubud, Bali.
Chong and family cycling in Ubud, Bali.

To prep herself for the job, Chong has been reading books on museums – museum management, museum marketing, museum strategy, visual culture.

But it is not these practical books that have offered her the path to calmness. She draws inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa.

Chong quotes from Mother Teresa: “The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow. Do good anyway.”

She says: “And I think this can be applied in many, many aspects, in the sense that sometimes we come across very difficult situations and sometimes you just ask, ‘Oh, should I do it?’

“You know there’s so much objection. But, if you believe that it is good, it is the right thing to do, do it. Regardless of the hurdles, objections and resistance you have to face, just do it anyway.”

Chong receiving a catalogue of works at Neka Art Museum in Ubud, Bali, from the museum founder and director, Pak Neka.
Chong receiving a catalogue of works at Neka Art Museum in Ubud, Bali, from the museum founder and director, Pak Neka.