Singapore Art Museum, New Regionalism

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

Although modern art is an individualistic practice, visual arts are known as an exhibiting art because it is at the event and space of an exhibition that artists, art works and viewers meet. The history of art in Singapore can be narrated through the development of art events and exhibition since much of its stimulus can be attributed to the emergence of an infrastructure.

Indeed, museums, commercial galleries, art market, scholarship, curatorship, media, art works, auction houses, art schools, arts policies, and so on are components of the art industry, The British Council of the 1950s, arts promotional efforts of the 1960s, the National Day Art Exhibition series and art competitions of the 1970s and 1980s, the National Museum Art Gallery from the mid-1970s to the early-1990s, and the newly-established Singapore Art Museum are all milestones in the development of a visual art infrastructure in Singapore.

In the 1950s, Tay Long and Frark Sullivan were amongst the first visual art promoters and dealers in Singapore. Loke Wan Tho emerged as the first serious art patron and collector while Michael Sullivan taught art history at the university. The British Council exhibition hall, opened in 1949, provided a focal point for the local art culture and industry and was a predecessor to the National Museum Art Gallery.

Although the "museum" in the 1950s was just an exhibition hall without any systematic curatorial-based programme, its role as a consistent venue for exhibitions was crucial for the development of Singapore art. It was only when the National Museum Art Gallery (1976-1995). began staging curated exhibitions in addition to leasing the gallery space for private exhibitions that a curatorial-based art museum began to merge. [From September 1993 onwards, the exhibition and publication programmes of the museum came under the name of the Singapore Art Museum.]

In the development of an art market, the number of commercial art galleries grew over the decades and has, in recent years, reached a new height with largescale international art fairs, auctions and shopping malls specialising in art.

In taking stock of the infrastructure of the art culture and industry in Singapore at the close of the century, the entire trajectory may be described as a movement towards exploring, devising and upgrading the various systemic components following the models set by more advanced art infrastructures. The process has been encouraged by Singapore's gradual engagement in the international art system and the realization, from such engagement, that there is a need to have a compatible structure in order to facilitate reciprocal communication and exchange.

To achieve this, it is important to plan the collection and exhibition programmes of the Singapore Art Museum in the context of Singapore's art history. A particularly delicate concern is the museum's role in helping to balance aesthetics and market in Singapore's cultural context.

In post-colonial societies, the history of Western-inspired practice of art as an individualistic expression is usually relatively short. Although there were varying levels of support provided by the colonial administrators, in most cases the artists themselves were the strongest driving force in the development of an art infrastructure in the postcolonial period. An art market would be a basic feature that the artists aspired for. The relationship of humanistic and educational values vis-a-vis commercial and consumptive values in art was thus set up differently from the bifurcation often seen in the West. This was followed by artists wanting a venue for exhibitions as well as for sale of art works. Thus, it is important that the museum maintain a distance from the art market, to help keep a dynamic balance between the curatorial and the commercial aspects of art.

This pattern of combining exhibition (curatorial) and sale (commercial), if continued, would back-fire on the visual arts development in Singapore. This is because the logic of the market would take priority over aesthetics. What was originally a movement toward the setting up of a compatible art structure to secure reciprocal arrangements with the international art community would become subservient to economic motives. When the market dominates art, only works which appeal to consumers are promoted and this immediately poses threats to innovative experimental works.

This is an important point given the recent rapid growth of the art market in Singapore. The concerns raised by Low Kway Soo, Cheong Soo Pieng, Equator Art Society, Modern Art Society and Artists Village serve as important thinking points.

Thus, Singapore needs an art museum that is able to articulate and negotiate the many delicate issues in art museology, especially in terms of the interaction with the international art community. The Singapore Art Museum should demonstrate adequate understanding of the complex relationship amongst the various components of art infrastructure and how they reconfigure at different historical times. It should reflect on Singapore's own art history and help promote scholarships of local and regional art history. The museum should be fully committed to curatorial development, research and education. It should further facilitate all such efforts in the country and by extension, the region.

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Last updated: May 2000