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?
Yes, one may argue that commercial galleries should then not bet their resources on non-profitable artists. And, granted, the successes or failures of an art gallery business are not the responsibility of the state. Where then in Singapore could local artists find professional support and generate decent economic revenues from their art to independently sustain their careers?
In Singapore, there exists a constant (if unspoken) pressure on commercial galleries to show exciting, cutting edge art - read non-commercial. Running a gallery here is ‘slavery to passion’ and, to be perfectly honest, not much goes to profit. Artwork sales pay for rent, staff salaries, marketing, participation in art fairs, collector engagements, visitor engagements, online presence and so much more. If the average price for an artwork by a young artist is priced at S$5000, a gallery would need to sell about 10 of them to simply break even each month. Unfortunately, artworks are not yet flying off the walls like Chanel or Louis Vuitton handbags here. And, please sober up, sales of primary artworks by local and regional artists in excess of S$100,000 or S$1,000,000 are practically unheard of.
SEA Focus, the regional boutique art fair centred around Southeast Asian markets that emerged at Gillman Barracks, incidentally at the same time as the demise of Art Stage Singapore, will take place elsewhere for its upcoming 2021 edition. In operational terms, this is definitely a reasonable budget-conscious decision. The future fate of The Substation, an independent inter-disciplinary arts centre founded in 1990 by theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun and where many local visual artists and curators cut their teeth is anybody’s guess. As a joint development by the Economic Development Board (EDB), National Arts Council (NAC) and Jurong Town Corporation (JTC), the visual arts enclave that is Gillman Barracks was launched to much fanfare after the S$10 million makeover of old military barracks in 2012. Barely eight months after its launch, Dr Eugene Tan, its programme director hired by EDB specifically to oversee the development of Gillman Barracks left to take on the Directorship of the National Art Gallery, Singapore (NGS). To date, no replacement has been found for this role. Today, EDB appears to have vanished from the picture. The Singapore Land Authority (SLA) has also replaced JTC as landlords. On the ground, the mood at Gillman Barracks seems to have quickly turned lethargic after Eugene Tan’s departure. Public event initiatives such as Art After Dark by the NAC do nothing to help bring buyers of art to the grounds. In this respect, much is to be learnt from the annual Affordable Art Fair organisers here. If one could imagine the resident galleries at Gillman Barracks as booths in an art fair, then, commercially-centred trade events could be designed around them to embrace not only local, but regional and international art collectors as well. Yet, the last two editions of SEA Focus at Gillman Barracks did not pursue the possibility to include these pre-existing entities as part of its core programme.
In the past few months, a flurry of significant departures by Gillman Barracks tenants were announced in the news. My own outfit, Chan + Hori Contemporary left at the end of June. Later in August, Playeum, the play museum ceased its operations there and the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art (NTU CCA) announced that it would close its office, gallery and residency studios by March 2021. Just a few days ago, in end-September, Australian gallery Sullivan + Strumpf made the decision to leave by November 2020. Pearl Lam Galleries had already left last year to move to Dempsey Hill but even their gallery there is now shut. It only takes a personal visit to the enclave for one to decide for themselves if the developers of Gillman Barracks have indeed achieved a semblance of the original ambition to emulate the 798 Art District of Beijing, Heyri Art Village of Paju, north of Seoul and Chelsea in New York. These, supposedly, are visual art communes that inspired the re-development of Gillman Barracks. We can all agree that money, a dedicated location and infrastructure remain what they are - infrastructure, or shells. Great infrastructure cannot guarantee meaningful content. Ambition cannot be achieved without sound leadership. And, may I emphasize, leadership is key here, not only management.
Competent directorship, management and planning of art establishments and infrastructure, let alone what one would like to describe itself as an ‘arts scene’ do not equate to the leadership of it. Leaders for the arts are necessary and, preferably, are visionaries. Such leaders are sensitive to, but are not quick to subscribe to trends or popular opinions of the hour. The visionary is charismatic, inspiring, empathetic and transformational. Often with extreme foresight and unconventional thought processes, the individual is able to forge deep paths and plant seeds that enable the aspirations of present and future communities. The visionary does not inject systems within existing systems in order to exert control, dictate gratuitous administrative protocols or conveniently pilfer ideas from one scene to transplant onto another - in the hope of creating an instant, successful collage. The visionary arts leader is a disciplined risk-taker, voracious knowledge seeker and resilient revolutionary, exceptionally personal yet professional and, most of all, one whose principles are trusted and resonate with the grassroots.
In the scheme of what is often referred to as the Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art, Singapore, for all its up-to-date infrastructure and political and economic steadiness has often been touted as a key candidate for the confluence point of scholarship. The reality, it seems, is that this aspiration to be the centre of Southeast Asian visual arts scholarship is often naively aligned with the creation of a marketplace. The intention, I assume, is for long-term financial independence and sustainability of the visual arts scene. Conceptually, there is no real fault in this idea. Regretfully, the juxtaposition of art, market and popular public-centred initiatives are often entangled; this confuses the constituency. Unless curated by qualified and respected curators, fellow professionals, scholars and established art collectors are unlikely to come out in full force to attend events such as Art After Dark at Gillman Barracks or the Light to Night festival by NGS. Speaking of which, aside from publications and a handful of programmes specific to in-house exhibitions, the approximately 20-odd, highly-trained curator-scholars of NGS hardly receive regular and public airtime. And other than the SEA Focus art fair and artworks of Southeast Asian origin in the SAM and NGS collections, can we recall any strategic, consistent and deep engagements with the visual arts, artists, curators, collectors, academics, galleries, museums, art centres or artist-run initiatives from Southeast Asia in recent times? How daring of us to imagine ourselves as the pivot point of Southeast Asian discourse and art scholarship!
Instead of being seen as partners and peers, art galleries and professional art consultants are systematically perceived by state-linked agencies as a ‘conflict of interest’. Having traversed roles in public and private spheres, I speak from personal experience. By virtue of their work in supporting local artists, galleries and professional consultants should not be walled in by this ‘conflict of interest’ policy. Furthermore, for each engagement with artists, curators and arts funding recipients, the limits of conflict can be mitigated and filtered thoroughly as proposals are usually discussed and refined well before contracts are finalised and signed.
Not unlike art centres, museums and artist-run initiatives, galleries and consultants play just as critical a role in the professional development of local artists. The fact that they are business-registered and self-declared as professionals necessitate the professional delivery of their services. Besides, many artists here today have registered themselves as businesses in order to account for taxes and other provisions such as insurance and contributions to the Central Provident Fund (CPF). Consequently, the actions of qualified curators who register their operations as business entities to professionalise do not mean that scholarship has been forsaken in favour of financial profit. Art should no longer be seen as an ‘industry’ in its raw sense, because today, it has pretty much become a specialist profession. To promote quality and professionalism, stakeholders need to be allowed to operate, deliver and be remunerated as professionals. Isn’t income tax also the artists’ and curators’ recompense with respect to the many public grants, funds, bursaries and support the scene enjoys from the state?
Limited by our resources and physicality, all plans, schemes, strategies, initiatives and activities within Singapore’s visual arts scene are inevitably consequential to what could be regarded as its successes and failures. If we would like to be present at the international table, we need to be openly committed, daring and original. It was and never has been a competition. We need to stop comparing ourselves with Hong Kong, Paris, London, New York, Berlin and so forth. Instead, look at the well-loved advisory committees and boards of our arts institutions, the folks that have been roped in to advise on strategic and critical operational matters concerning art and artists here. You might agree with me that it is about time that a mix of youthful and diverse expertise are brought in for these roles, as well as for leadership roles in our institutions; to have candidates who are not only invested in arts and culture but also active participants on the ground. Yes, we might face some minor setbacks due to inexperience but, to quote Kuo Pao Kun, “A worthy failure is more valuable than a mediocre success.” We need to embrace risks!
Our art museums, institutions and major international projects such as the Singapore Biennale and Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennale will all be key in signalling the future passage for our artists and visual arts scene in the wake of Covid-19 and the unprecedented recession we are in. In turn, the marketplace will realign itself in the way it needs to. We have witnessed how suitable and bold exhibition programming at SAM in the first half of the 2010s inspired and positively kickstarted activities in the market. To cite a select few, there were solo exhibitions and retrospectives of Vincent Leow, Lee Wen, Amanda Heng, FX Harsono and Sutee Kunavichayanont. SAM mounted the highly-influential exhibition Negotiating Home, History and Nation, featuring guest curator Iola Lenzi and 20 years of political and socially-engaged art from Southeast Asia. There was Future Proof, a group exhibition of emerging, Singapore-based artists, many of whom are now represented in local galleries. The series titled Collectors Show brought together key collectors from Asia and beyond to our city. Also organised by SAM, the Singapore Biennale of 2013 combined 28 curators from Southeast Asia in a momentous feat of regional camaraderie and capacity-building. Back in 2011, through Children’s Season, SAM even birthed the first extensive contemporary art programming for children here. Even if it could obviously do with tighter curating, the influence of SAM’s activities in invigorating the mood of the marketplace in Singapore then was a little too obvious to deny.
The young and fashionable audience of today, buoyed by an obsession and inexhaustible appetite for social media presence are on a constant quest to make their personal and collective activism on specific social causes known, or to embed themselves and be seen amongst the picturesque and fantastical. They also drive what is known today as the ‘experience economy’. The inclination for the latter has placed remarkable pressure on event organisers and state agencies to present often indulgent, large-scale, festival-format events that centre around art. Unfortunately, these are usually rather cursory in nature. Although typically well-attended, these events do not arouse much interest in the appreciation or scholarship of art, neither do they generate revenue in terms of artwork sales. There is also not much corporate participation towards the commissioning or co-creation of art with artists and curators. In fact, for a first-world economy, corporate participation for the co-creation and presentation of public-facing art is severely lacking. We all have to agree that the state cannot be made wholly responsible to initiate and fund every visual arts venture here. Established fashion brands such as Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Swarovski and Yves Saint-Laurent run independent museums, programmes and art centres in their places of origin. In this respect, kudos to UOB for keeping their Painting of the Year programme living on for a 39th year this year. The least that relevant state agencies could do here is to facilitate the meeting of artistic and corporate minds, to encourage similar brands parked here to collaborate and partner with Singapore-based artists and curators.
Arts infrastructure, social circumstances and everyday culture has advanced with unprecedented speed since the establishment of the NAC as a statutory board in 1991. The state ministry overseeing the development of the arts has also been renamed and restructured twice from the Ministry of Communication, Information and the Arts (MICA) from 1990 to 2012; to the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY). Within these 30 years (1990 to 2020), we have seen eight ministers at its helm, which works out to an average of 3.75 years per minister. Out of the eight, four ministers held their positions as arts ministers for three years or less. It is worth noting that in the ministry, the arts are parked within an organisation with various shared functions and responsibilities. The extreme pressure on NAC to outline and deliver both ‘hardware’ and ‘software’ for the arts here is tremendous and, therefore, absolutely understandable in its difficulty to policy planning and execution. In a world of Uber, Grab and Gojek, we all seem to have forgotten the power demonstrated by a ‘sharing economy’.
As a denizen of the visual arts landscape here since the late 1980s, I cannot help but feel rather despondent and, in some ways, responsible. It has been 20-odd years since the unveiling of the Renaissance City Plan (RCP) by then MITA minister Lee Yock Suan in Parliament. This plan was to ‘establish Singapore as a global arts city conducive to creative, knowledge-based industries and talent; and to strengthen national identity and belonging amongst Singaporeans by nurturing an appreciation of shared heritage.’ Since then, two more RCPs have been published, the latest being in 2008. These are overarching plans for both the arts and traditional culture. The visual arts is but one of its components, just as it exists as a division within the NAC. Given our limited physical, natural and human resources, it is even more imperative that the resources availed are utilised with extreme diligence. The visual arts community should grouse less, and search deeper to install truly independent, long-term frameworks that parallel that of the state. After all, we, the visual arts community, seem to perpetually echo the opinion that we know what is truly needed, better than any bureaucrats. For our own benefit, we all need to consider alternative routes to those that have been set out by the RCPs of past and future.
Collectors who would like to see more done here could themselves do more to be present, participate and get their fingers in the pie, just like their peers in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. Artists, museums, art centres and institutions should not cower in the face of informed critique, because there are good things that come from bad reviews. To the art writers, I am sorry, but your personal opinions, if not supported by some semblance of scholastic knowledge that is required of the terrain, do not qualify your claim to be a critic. Critics, theorists, historians, sociologists and philosophers, without your public participation, we are left with a false and hollowed existence and no one to pick intellectual fights with. Young curators, please continue to innovate, engage and share your vision with the world because, today, the virtual sphere is as real as the physical realm, and you were born in the age of WiFi. Artists, like many great artists before you, adapt yourselves to fluently traverse professional, personal and bureaucratic realities. Together with conservators, art handlers, techies, contractors, gallery sitters, graphic designers, interns and many more in the visual arts ecosystem, we are essential. We contribute as much to the economy, to social lucidity, and if not for others, then to ourselves.
And, save for all limitations inherent in the laws of our land, we should all complement and propagate the foundations that have already been established. I believe that even if Gillman Barracks were to mysteriously evaporate tomorrow, artists would continue to create. The true artist and impassioned visionary is not one to waver in the face of crisis.
We are not undead.
We are not competitors.
We are a community.
 Global Wealth Report 2019, Credit Suisse, https://www.credit-suisse.com/about-us/en/reports-research/global-wealth-report.html, accessed 3 Oct 2020  Xtreme SkatePark @ East Coast Park. Singapore's First International Standard Skate Park Cater to Extreme Sports Enthusiasts, https://www.nparks.gov.sg/news/2009/7/xtreme-skatepark--east-coast-park-singapores-first-international-standard-skate-park-cater-to-extreme-sports-enthusiasts#:~:text=Constructing%20the%20skate%20park%20cost,shared%20by%20NParks%20and%20MCYS., accessed 3 Oct 2020  The Straits Times, S’pore Arts District Launched, Deepika Shetty, 15 September 2012, pg B8, Singapore  Ministry of Information and the Arts, Renaissance city report: Culture and the arts in Renaissance Singapore, 2000, Singapore