Since early this year, I have been asked by various stakeholders here in Singapore for my take on why our visual arts landscape appears so dismal these days. There is a collective feeling that we have sunk to an all-time low. The Singapore Art Museum Museum (SAM) has been closed since 2017 and is now undergoing renovations. It is projected to re-open only in 2023. The scene had dramatically lost the Art Stage Singapore art fair in early-2019. The much anticipated Art SG art fair has been postponed, twice. Covid-19, as an upside, has inadvertently forced many stakeholders to reassess their plans and commitments with a deeper and more acute sense of purpose.
The circumstances that have placed our scene where it is right now (if we, indeed, still have one) did not just reveal themselves overnight. Over the years, we have witnessed how various well-meaning mega visual arts initiatives and investments quietly dissipated, went to waste or were squandered.
According to the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report of 2019, Singapore is a country where 2.18 million of its inhabitants make up the top 10% of global wealth ownership. Of this figure, 207,000 are millionaires (in US$), all stemming from a total population of less than six million. Reflecting on this data, I cannot help but imagine that perhaps, investments such as the S$10 million Gillman Barracks visual arts enclave are inconsequential to the economic bottom line.
Let us for a moment make a quick, simplistic comparison based on dollars and social value. The Xtreme SkatePark at East Coast beach, built in 2009, cost S$7.6 million. You don’t have to pay an entrance fee to enjoy the facility. Meanwhile, all galleries at Gillman Barracks pay rent. I am not saying that galleries at Gillman Barracks should be given rent-free spaces to conduct business, but could we not see local art galleries, particularly reputable ones, who are tirelessly supporting the career developments, regional and international presentation of local artists as providing similar merit as the skatepark? Visits to commercial galleries (anywhere in the world) are free-of-charge. In my experience, at least 50% of visitors to Chan + Hori Contemporary, my former gallery space at Gillman Barracks, were below 25 years of age. This is practically the same age bracket compared to those who utilise the skatepark. In a skatepark, users polishing their skills to whip out skate scooting, bicycling and skateboarding tricks could be described as direct beneficiaries, while anyone else strolling through assumes the role of mere spectators. Meanwhile, in art galleries, spectators or visitors are interested guests, people who benefit from knowledge and skills acquisition as much as the artists and curators presented. Are galleries’ financially precarious investments on local artists (young, emerging or otherwise) unmatched in their social return on investment vis-à-vis the skatepark? Even if they are private entities, do art galleries also not provide safe, conducive and public recreational resources compared to a skatepark? Does S$10 million now begin to sound inadequate to fit the ambitions of an international art gallery cluster?