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Is Singapore an Arts Hub Yet?

With various government initiatives rolled out and a calendar year chock-full of art-related events, is Singapore realising its vision as an art epicentre?

London looks to us to deal with traffic congestion. China modelled an industrial town after ours in Jurong. After years of establishing ourselves as an urban infrastructure and business powerhouse, Singapore has a bigger aspiration: to join the ranks of the great arts epicentres of the world, such as London, Milan, Paris and New York where artists want to exhibit at and where connoisseurs go to grow their collections.

It started with the city’s first Biennale in 2006. Efforts were ramped up in 2012 when the Government announced it would spend $274 million over the next five years developing arts and culture. That same year, Gillman Barracks was launched. The government-led art district houses 17 international art galleries, alongside the Centre for Contemporary Art which is a research centre of Nanyang Technological University.

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The last Biennale edition in 2013, an anchor event on the nation’s artistic calendar, saw a record number of over 560,000 visitors. This year, the much-anticipated National Gallery Singapore, housing the world’s largest collection of South-east Asian art, will open its doors. Singapore Pinacotheque de Paris, an offshoot of Paris’ largest private museum, is scheduled to open in May at the Fort Canning Arts Centre.

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With so much buzz, are these efforts paying off?

Stephanie Fong, director and founder of Fost Gallery, believes so. She says: “Yes, we are building on the foundation of the reputation laid by the Singapore Art Museum, National Museum of Singapore, Asian Civilisations Museum and The Esplanade. We also now have a thriving art fair scene.”

Julane Jones, who was a docent with the Asian Civilisations Museum for four years and is now guiding at Gillman Barracks, attests to the change. She says: “When I arrived in Singapore in 2005 (from the US), the art scene was quiet – even dormant. But in the past five years, it seems to have found a pulse and is moving into the next stage.The Government has spent a lot of money to create world-class museum spaces, and expanded at rapid speed in recent years, adding a few new museums, while existing ones have been blessed with extensive renovations and/or additions.”

The Scene Gets Livelier
One such important visual arts initiative is Art Stage Singapore which debuted in 2011. Founder Lorenzo Rudolf, who also started Art Basel Miami Beach and SH Contemporary in Shanghai, says he chose Singapore as his South-east Asian launching pad because “it is the only other cosmopolitan city (other than Hong Kong) that can support an international art market.”

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He adds: “I decided to come to Singapore and invest in its art scene, financially and personally, because I believe in this place. Being in the heart of South-east Asia, Singapore is not only the gateway for South-east Asia and South-east Asian artists, galleries and collectors to the international market, but also a bridge linking all these different South-east Asian scenes themselves.” When its upcoming fifth edition opens later this month on Jan 22 at Marina Bay Sands Expo & Convention Centre, visitors can look forward to a top cast of artists, including Turner Prize-winning duo Gilbert & George who will be showing here for the first time, and new platform programmes dedicated to Russian art, video art and modern art. Over 80 per cent of the 153 galleries from 29 countries are returning exhibitors.

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Leading up to Art Stage Singapore will be nine-day festival Singapore Art Week, a joint initiative by the National Arts Council, Economic Development Board and Singapore Tourism Board. This year will see its biggest line-up ever of around 100 events, from gallery openings, exhibitions, festivals, to tours and talks featuring local and international artists.

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Other prominent art fairs that have established themselves here include the Singapore Art Fair which focuses on works from the Middle East, North Africa, and the South and Southeast Asia regions, as well as the Affordable Art Fair.

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The proliferation is not just limited to large-scale events. Apart from public art fairs, galleries are also sprouting all over Singapore. According to the 2014 Singapore Cultural Statistics, there were 5,486 arts and cultural companies in 2013, compared to 1,260 in 2012.

One of them is Mizuma Gallery from Tokyo, which features Japanese artists as well as introduce new South-east Asian talent. CEO Ryo Wakabayashi, who recently moved to Singapore, says he chose Singapore over Hong Kong because “the infrastructure and international art projects in Singapore live up to their reputation, and we feel that the regional artists, curators, collectors, galleries, and fairs all recognise that too.”

Nurture
Interest in an arts education has also increased. In 2008, Singapore opened its first independent, pre-tertiary school in the School of the Arts (SOTA). This is on top of the country’s two other established art institutions Lasalle College of the Arts and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

According to the 2014 Singapore Cultural Statistics, 5,409 students enrolled in full-time tertiary arts – up from 4,492 in 2012.

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Then there are grants, arts housing schemes and scholarships offered to help develop individual Singaporean artists. Installation artist Donna Ong, who was given the National Arts Council’s (NAC) Young Artist Award in 2009, acknowledges that the grants and scholarship she has been fortunate enough to receive, have helped her “survive and thrive as an artist.” Benefactor of a $100,000 Shell-NAC Arts Scholarship, she attended the prestigious Goldsmiths College at the University of London from 1999 to 2003. Her works have since been sold in Europe.

 

“While Singapore becomes a homing site for the arts, it is important that we do not just have a domestic mindset to the arts. (We should) look at how Singapore can play a role globally in the art world. Having Singapore artists, writers, curators and arts leaders working internationally as influencers of global cultural flow will help proposition Singapore as a site to learn from and be part of” – Venka Purushothaman, provost at Lasalle College of the Arts.

 

Painter Jeremy Sharma too, believes he is “extremely privileged and fortunate” to have got much support from the Government. The Della Butcher Award winner, who also teaches at Lasalle, says: “I can’t complain. I have seen artists in other countries get by with little or no funding and support.

The Singapore government has created a lot of financial schemes and infrastructure in place that artists here may take for granted.”

Becoming a Global (Art) Citizen
Still, there’s more to being a reputed arts hub than government initiatives and the explosion of galleries and art fairs. Singapore has to cast its sight further.

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“An arts hub is not only about being a destination,” says Venka Purushothaman, provost at Lasalle College of the Arts. “While Singapore becomes a homing site for the arts, it is important that we do not just have a domestic mindset to the arts. (We should) look at how Singapore can play a role globally in the art world. Having Singapore artists, writers, curators and arts leaders working internationally as influencers of global cultural flow will help proposition Singapore as a site to learn from and be part of.”

For instance, Singapore can step up engagement with economic powerhouses that it already has ties with, such as China, India, Indonesia and Japan that are also rich in culture and art, Purushothaman says. Singapore must also find important platforms to be seen and engaged in dialogue, like the World Economic Forum’s cultural platform or UNESCO’s work on arts and culture.

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It is important for Singapore artists to show work abroad, especially in countries with a longer art history “as it puts us in the context of the world,” says Ian Woo, one of Singapore’s leading abstract painters and Master of Arts programme leader of the Faculty of Fine Arts at Lasalle College of the Arts. Having exhibited in Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, and the UK, Woo values the feedback, connections and “insightful conversations” that come out of these shows abroad.

Prolific artist and Cultural Medallion Award recipient Milenko Prvacki shares a similar view. Aside from having exhibited extensively overseas, the senior fellow and former dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at Lasalle College of the Arts, has participated in various artist residencies abroad, such as the Cité Internationale des Arts residency in Paris, and 18th Street Arts Center residency in Santa Monica, Los Angeles.

Prvacki, who moved to Singapore from the former Yugoslavia in 1992 and became a Singapore citizen in 2002, says of his experience: “They would organise frequent studio visits, as often as on a daily basis, for prestigious art critics, curators, artists to view the work in process. It is very common to have dialogues and collaboration with other artists and art communities in Los Angeles. In Singapore, the only art institution that has a similar practice is Centre of Contemporary Arts. In order to be connected with the global contemporary art scene, we need more exchanges between artists from various countries.”

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And if we do not seize the momentum now, a world renowned arts hub may never happen, says Rudolf. The founder of Art Stage Singapore says:

“If Singapore understands that it should not act as a closed national scene but also as an open cultural hub, embracing the best of the entire region and having all forces cooperate and support one another, then I think the future belongs to it. All the ingredients are here, we just have to put them together in the right way. Singapore, as an international city, has all the chances to become a global hub but only if it functions globally – that would be its formula to success. We have to understand contemporary art as a global language; we should not be afraid of leaving the warm nest, and artistically interact and compete with the world. That also means that as a region, we have to support one another in a much stronger way, demonstrating a strong and united region and market to the rest of the art world.”

For the artists who continue to push the envelope, the answer lies perhaps, not so much in achieving this grand ecosystem of an arts hub. Rather, it is to look inward.

Woo says: “I never thought of the arts hub. I don’t understand what it’s all about. I don’t want to make work to service a system that is positioned by the government. I fear I may end up making work that caters to a certain assumption. So, to Singapore artists, you make the best work you can make. The most original, the most individualistic that’s unique to you; you just have to be excited about your work. If you make good work, the hub is going to happen anyway.”