National Museum Art Gallery, Art Competitions, New Innovations

Kwok Kian Chow

This document is part of a joint project of the Singapore Art Museum and the Honours Core Curriculum, National University of Singapore. This image and accompanying text appears here with the kind permission of the Singapore Art Museum.

Scholars Programme

The National Museum Art Gallery in Singapore was established in 1976. In terms of institutional development in the visual arts, it was the next important milestone after the inception of a gallery space with the start of the British Council in 1947. The first major exhibition of the National Museum Art Gallery, entitled "Colour", appeared to have responded to the various aesthetic concerns of the 1970s, Constance Sheares, the curator, explained the theme of the exhibition:

Whatever the style, whether figurative or nonfigurative, geometric or expressionist, surrealist or constructivist, the principal concern of the exhibition should be colour... the most immediately impressive exhibits are those in oils and acrylics by virtue of the intrinsic brilliance and richness of the media.... (Anthony Poon, for instance, was) deeply concerned with colour, and has progressed from working with hard-edge, geometric forms to more subtly modulated, curvilinear ones. ["Using Colour to Achieve Effect of Artist's Works"]

Prior to the establishment of the National Museum Art Gallery, the focal point of the visual arts in terms of exhibitions and events was the National Day Art Exhibition series which started in 1969. The series continued the tradition of categorising art into "Eastern" and "Western". This great divide was not questioned in curatorial terms until 1987 when the National Museum Art Gallery staged a major art exhibition to commemorate the National Museum's centenary. Constance Sheares, who also curated this exhibition, organised the works into three broad categories -- abstraction, nonobjectivity and realism. Sheares took the meaning of non-objectivity beyond its usual sense of non-figurative and non-representational, to exclude even the most remote relation to human experience other than the visual experience of the art work itself. This idea of pure art would be both an expression of, and a catalyst for, a popular aestheticism in a late phase of modern art in Singapore which younger artists would challenge in the late 1980s and 1990s (Kwok Kian Chow, v1, n3).

A new competition series which emerged as the salon of the 1980s was the United Overseas Bank Group's Painting of the Year competition. Its attractive cash prizes drew a very good response from artists working in an increasingly event- and media-orientated arts culture. The competition was also timely in that it enabled the art market to raise art appreciation standards, since the art industry had to be promoted through its hierarchy of outstanding artists. The comprehensive approach of the National Day Art Exhibition series did not do this. In the initial years of the competition, artists like Goh Berg Kwan, Anthony Poon, Thomas Yeo, Teo Eng Seng and Tay Chee Toh won the top prizes.

In 1979, the Cultural Medallion was instituted by the Ministry of Culture to give recognition to individuals who had attained artistic excellence. Visual artists who have received the award are Wee Berg Chong (1979), Lee Hock Moh (1981), Ng Eng Teng (1981), Georgette Chen (1982), Thomas Yeo (1984), Tay Chee Toh (1985), Pan Shou (1986), Teo Eng Seng (1986), Tan Swie Hian (1987), Iskandar Jalil (1988), Goh Beng Kwan (1989), Anthony Poon (1990), Ong Kim Seng (1990), Wong Sui Pick (1992) and Han Sai Por (1995).


Constance Sheares. "Using Colour to Achieve Effect of Artist's Works". Business Times, October 4, 1976.

Kwok Kian Chow. "A Movement Towards Plurality". Mondial Collections, 1991.

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Last updated: May 2000