Recently I gave a lecture to Arts Management students at LaSalle – College of the Arts and posted a question during discussion time, “Are there too many arts venues in Singapore and why?”. A bright young man stood out among his peers and caught my attention by bravely replying there are indeed too many arts venues in Singapore, and they are not being effectively used by the venue operators, arts groups and hirers. The follow up responses I received from his classmates amazed me simply because the conclusions can only be reached if the individuals are familiar with the history and evolution of arts venues in Singapore.
Is the demand driven by a fixation with a certain type of arts venue (specifically proscenium stages) or is it a comfort zone that the venue owners, arts groups and hirers are unable to depart from? Let me come back to discuss this later.
On March 11, the Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong announced in Parliament that the Government will allocate S$65 million to revamp Singapore’s cultural institutions over the next few years. The National Museum of Singapore and Asian Civilizations Museum will receive an estimated sum of S$35 million for renovation and expansion, and the Esplanade will receive S$21 million to enhance visitor experience and renovation of a theatre primarily for children. The balance S$9 million will be channeled towards building capabilities in conservation at the Heritage Conservation Centre. This is on top of the S$158 million that is already committed into the revamping of the grand old dames of Singapore’s performing arts scene – the Victoria Concert Hall and Victoria Theatre that will open first quarter of 2015.
What is this government’s fascination with the continuous investment in brick and mortar? We can trace this to the first Renaissance City Report, published 1999-2000, where it laid foundation for the heavy investment in the local arts sector. The Esplanade and 5 flagship arts organizations were key beneficiaries and there is no doubt that it was an excellent decision that changed the landscape of the Singaporean arts scene.
Perhaps this is what the current government wants to repeat believing that such investment will enhance arts education, increase audience participation and make Singapore a culturally attractive destination. A possible factor to consider may also be the Hong Kong West Kowloon Cultural District’s first phase that will open by 2015 and deem to give the Esplanade and our cultural institutions a run for their money.
Lastly, the motivation behind the latest announcement seems to be a result of increased visitorship to the museums; one can make a causal link between the increases with the abolishing of admission fees at the museums last year. And Esplanade has been around for 12 years, the surroundings that it resides on have changed tremendously with the new Marina Bay Financial Centre and most notably, Marina Bay Sands. As such a facelift is presumed to possibly inject a new lease of life and also draw more patrons to the centre.
Why then did a group of young students opinioned that there are too many arts venues in Singapore?
It reflects the preferences of the hirers (mostly arts groups) that have a preference for what a proscenium stage allows them to do. Very few of them venture beyond the confines of what it can provide them and in terms of artistic value, it may be easier to preserve than if it was held in an outdoor or alternative venue.
There are many different performing venues in Singapore, from the bigger ones like The Star Performing Arts Centre (5000 seats) and Esplanade Theatre (1900 seats) to mid-sized venues like the Drama Centre (615 seats) and soon to open Victoria Theatre (673 seats), and beautiful outdoor venues like the Botanic Gardens, Gardens by the Bay or the many parks that were given a new life by the Urban Redevelopment Authority.
But most arts groups or hirers will not venture to explore such facilities due to the possible fear of rain or increased cost of putting up an outdoor performance. The few times that they do have an outdoor performance, it is usually once or twice per year. As a result, it created a demand for venues from the desire to do something safe and familiar rather than to break out of their artistic comfort zones.
Instead of investing in brick and mortar, I see the urgent need to pump such monies into growing and training arts management practitioners. The support for an arts group’s administration functions is critical for their sustained growth and function; the old days of OMO (one man operation) should not be accepted as the norm but a hindrance for the arts organization to excel. I do not dismiss the need to balance the books, but emphasis has always been for artistic creation than for capable and properly trained headcount. Importantly, the allocated budget for marketing and marketing people usually does not achieve its intended and desired outcome.
Ultimately, my fear is that there is no upward or lateral movement for arts managers that spent years in the arts sector, resulting in the loss of talent in the very small and tightly knitted local arts industries. One example is the departure of Low Kee Hong from the National Arts Council to the Hong Kong West Kowloon Cultural District.
With such brain drain happening merely 12 years after the Renaissance City Report, who will one day take over from Benson Puah at the Esplanade or Angelita Teo at the National Museum of Singapore?