Days after the conclusion of last year’s edition of the Singapore Arts Festival (or Arts Fest as we know it) came this announcement. I was clearly the last person to find out (in September) that 2013, the year I am in Singapore in May/June, would see the Arts Fest in hibernation, under review.
Since I was in secondary school (the age of my artistic awakening, you could say), my mum has taken me to see at least one (dance) show at the Singapore Arts Fest every year. It’s where I first saw the sublime Cullberg Ballet, David Dawson’s exhilarating A Million Kisses to my Skin by the Singapore Dance Theatre and Tamara Rojo and Jonathon Cope in Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake. A dance-specific platform, Forward Moves, has introduced local dance makers to audiences and provided a launchpad for local choreographers like Kuik Swee Boon who has since founded T.H.E Dance Company.
The Arts Fest is a staple in the local arts calendar and even when I was living in London, I got mid-year updates, links to the freshly-announced programme and emails asking what I’d recommend (from Mum of course).
Of course, I was (and still am) very disappointed at this year’s non-Arts Fest. Punctuating the arts calendar and having an annual presence is very important. I interpreted the announcement as a bad omen, a certain indifference about the absence of an Arts Fest (how revealing of where the arts stands in Singaporean society). We are talking about Singapore’s national arts festival here!
On Friday the NAC released this massive document – a report from the appointed Festival Review Committee. To spare you from the 106 pages, here’s what I took away from it:
1. Artists and policy makers are very different. Risk VS pragmatism. Experimentation VS perfection/success. Process VS results. Space VS authority. ART VS other agendas. Intangible VS tangible. (Artist-policy makers; some of those would be handy!)
2. An I-wash-my-hands-off-you inclination. The Committee recommended that the Festival go independent (as opposed to it currently being organised by the NAC). While having the Festival’s operations and programmes spearheaded by a separate independent Festivals company allows for greater flexibility and range, it reeks of the NAC passing the parcel of blame (for possible low ticket sales and other unsatisfactory statistics), and relieving itself of principally funding the Festival (which had a budget of S$7m last year), a sign of arts funding being channeled elsewhere.
3. The grit of the local arts community needs to emerge. It is on the grapevine that in place of the (MIA) Arts Fest this year, there seems to be a similar small-scale artist-led venture on the brew. This would not be NAC-led, and it remains to be seen whether local, like-minded artists can unite in a showcase of verve, determination and creativity.
4. A balance between international hits and local productions. Why can’t visiting international artistic heavyweights be viewed as inspiration for the local arts community, an insight to global trends and standards, an education, an experience; instead of money-spinning prizes? Sure, the Internet has opened up the world, but a live performance can be a landmark event for a budding artist. That said, the kid sitting on the Singaporean side of the see-saw should be heavier. Local practitioners should be able to approach the Arts Fest confidently, knowing that their work would be considered first and foremost, as art.
5. The underestimation of Singaporean audiences. The report takes a cautionary stance towards programming for audiences and places an emphasis on audience development. Sure, that is important but I think more of this needs to be cultivated from a young age in schools (how much Math can a kid do right?). More crucially, the Internet as mentioned above, allows global audiences, among other things, behind the scenes at London’s Royal Opera and access to clips of performances, exhibitions, seminars and more. Additionally, art is a reflection of life. So why the fuss with “taboo” and “impropriety”? Put it on, and we’ll talk about it.