Grow the arts from the ground up

By Clarissa Oon, Straits Times, 6 Feb 2012

A NEW ‘bottom-up’ approach to growing the arts, led by artists, corporations and the general public, with the Government playing the role of facilitator. That is what a high-level committee of public- and private-sector individuals, tasked to map the development of the cultural landscape up to 2025, is recommending.

The Arts and Culture Strategic Review, which released its report yesterday, wants to give Singaporeans of all ages more opportunities to enjoy the arts. This is to debunk the myth that it is an ‘elitist’ activity, as well as to provide a much broader base ofsupport for arts and culture than currently exists.

It wants to give hobbyists and amateur artists access to better, more affordable facilities in the heartland, improve arts education in schools, and have arts activities in the workplace co-funded by the Government.

Arts and culture, as defined by the review committee, includes not just the visual, performing and literary arts, but also heritage and traditional arts, as well as amateur and hobbyist activities.

But its 113-page report, submitted to the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts last week, also provides recommendations to support professional arts groups and institutions in their quest for excellence.

The 19-member steering committee, headed by School of the Arts chairman Lee Tzu Yang, makes a total of 105 recommendations targeted at students, working professionals, families, arts hobbyists, arts professionals and corporate sponsors.
The role its report envisions for the Government is that of an ‘enabler’ rather than leader, providing ‘funding, facilities and frameworks to create a nurturing environment’ where all forms of artistic participation can thrive.

Other notable proposals in the final report include creating a seamless arts and lifestyle precinct in the downtown area and starting an online portal with one-stop information on the arts.

The ministry is expected to respond when Parliament debates on the Budget from the end of this month.

However, it has already committed $80 million a year over the next five years to new initiatives under the Arts and Culture Strategic Review, as announced in last year’s Budget. Over half of this amount will be for building fresh audiences and increasing support to community arts and culture initiatives. The funds were allocated based on recommendations in an interim report issued by the review committee in February last year.
The Arts and Culture Strategic Review is not the first major cultural policy review. Two previous plans – the report of the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts in 1989, and the Renaissance City Plan in 2000 – spawned many current institutions such as the Esplanade arts complex, as well as the funding structures that sustain today’s professional arts companies.

Mr Lee, also chairman of the Shell group of companies, noted at a media briefing last week that the earlier plans ‘were very much top-down, driven by significant thoughts at the leadership level’. He added: ‘Now we are saying, how can the community get involved? The next step will depend on whether we can succeed in growth from bottom-up.’

His committee’s target is to double the percentage of Singaporeans attending at least one arts event a year – from 40 per cent to 80 per cent – by 2025. It also hopes to see half of all Singaporeans actively participating in arts and culture activities instead of the current 20 per cent.
Singaporeans seem to agree on the value of the arts, even if not many actively participate. The review committee’s telephone survey of more than 500 respondents showed nearly 90 per cent agree cultural activities can develop shared experiences and bring people closer.

‘Society is now at a stage where people want more. It’s not just thinking about the rice bowl or pragmatic issues. We need to have a different kind of glue to hold us together,’ said Ms Audrey Wong, one of the steering committee members and a programme leader and lecturer at Lasalle College of the Arts.

Singaporeans interviewed by The Straits Times say artists need to do more to reach out to the general public by creating a wider range of quality shows.

The arts cannot be ‘merely a prettier or more impactful vehicle for self-expression or for conveying a message’, said occasional theatre-goer, Ms L. Fang, 34, a legal counsel. For the new report to fly, people must be convinced there is ‘some inherent good in a more ‘cultured’ society’, she added.
Arts practitioners welcome the broad thrust of the report, but say the devil is in the execution and that it will require a lot of financial support and trust from all sectors of society.

Ms Kuo Jian Hong, artistic director of bilingual theatre company Theatre Practice, said: ‘It’s not about the numbers, the arts is about every individual. Realising the report will take a lot more resources, commitment, trust and faith from many parties other than the ministry. Not to mention time.’

Some key recommendations
• An Arts and Culture Day where audiences can go behind the scenes of major arts productions and exhibitions;
• A portal ArtsCultureSG on everything to do with the arts;
• A seamless, downtown arts and lifestyle precinct.

• Neighbourhood cultural centres to be set up in schools, where hobbyists can rent affordable arts facilities;
• ‘Cultural concierges’ in public libraries as information points on the arts and culture.

• Develop mid-sized performance spaces currently lacking at the Esplanade;
• Reinvent the Singapore Art Museum as a Museum of Contemporary Art for cutting-edge, multi-disciplinary works;
• Scale up funding to the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO);
• Develop Singapore Conference Hall – the SCO’s home – into a Nanyang Centre for the Arts for South-east Asian music.

• Boost curricula and profile of Lasalle College of the Arts and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and look at turning them into full-fledged arts and design universities;
• Explore ‘no censorship zones’ at designated areas, similar to Speakers’ Corner.

• Waive goods and services tax on donations and loans to national museums;
• Establish a Museum of Private Collections for private collectors to show works to the public;

• Rethink roles of National Arts Council, National Heritage Board and National Library Board.


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