Art prize marries capitalism with culture

The artwork One Has To Wander Through All The Outer Worlds To Reach The Innermost Shrine At The End, on show at the Singapore Biennale, is by Qiu Zhijie, who has been shortlisted for the Benesse Prize.
The artwork One Has To Wander Through All The Outer Worlds To Reach The Innermost Shrine At The End, on show at the Singapore Biennale, is by Qiu Zhijie, who has been shortlisted for the Benesse Prize.ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

Capitalism and culture may strike many as strange bedfellows, but billionaire art patron Soichiro Fukutake believes that when they get comfortable and remain committed, they can power social rejuvenation.

He has spent the last three decades putting his money where his mouth is, by championing art and culture through initiatives such as the art award, the Benesse Prize.

The award, which comes with a cash prize of three million yen (S$40,000), is sponsored by Benesse Holdings, a Japanese company with business interests in education and nursing care that was founded by Mr Fukutake's late father in 1955.

The prize was launched in 1995 at the prestigious Venice Biennale and, until 2013, had been awarded in conjunction with the Italian biennale. Recipients have included acclaimed artists such as Olafur Eliasson from Denmark, Rirkrit Tiravanija from Thailand and Cai Guoqiang from China.

The 11th edition of the prize, however, is presented with the Singapore Biennale.

Five artists participating in the Singapore Biennale, which opens today, have been shortlisted. They are Martha Atienza from the Philippines, Bui Cong Khanh from Vietnam, Ade Darmawan from Indonesia, Qiu Zhijie from China and Pannaphan Yodmanee from Thailand.

  • VIEW IT / SINGAPORE BIENNALE: AN ATLAS OF MIRRORS

    WHERE: Various locations, but mainly Singapore Art Museum, 71 Bras Basah Road; and SAM at 8Q, 8 Queen Street

    WHEN: Thursday to Feb 26, 10am to 7pm (Saturdays to Thursdays), 10am to 9pm (Fridays)

    ADMISSION: $15 (adults) and $7.50 (students and senior citizens) for Singapore citizens and permanent residents; otherwise, $20 (adults) and $10 (students and senior citizens)

    INFO: www.singaporebiennale.org

Mr Fukutake, 70, says the prize was moved here because Singapore is well placed in Asia, where the growing economy and wealth from private corporations can be tapped to promote public well-being through art.

He terms this "public interest capitalism" and says that Singapore, as a centre of finance with a strong arts and culture infrastructure, is poised to be the "starting point for activating culture through business success, so that the promotion of arts and culture can be sustained".

He says: "It is my hope that this model can start from Singapore and spread to other parts of Asia and the world."

The model, he adds, is not an ad-hoc gesture of philanthropy, but sustained endorsement - pledging the dividends from a percentage of the company's shares to causes in arts and culture.

This has been the practice at Benesse Holdings, where the dividends from about 5 to 6 per cent of the company's shares are regularly used to support the work of its charitable arm, the Fukutake Foundation.

Among the foundation's initiatives is the Benesse Art Site Naoshima, an acclaimed art project on the small islands of Naoshima, Teshima and Inujima in Japan, which it oversees with Benesse Holdings.

The islands, once victims of industrial pollution, have been revitalised through art in the last two decades. They are home to impressive site-specific art installations as well as art museums designed by award-winning architects such as Tadao Ando, and filled with works by famous artists, including Claude Monet, James Turrell and Walter De Maria.

The winner of the prize will also receive a commission to make a work of art themed around well-being that will be exhibited at Benesse Art Site Naoshima.

The shortlist for the prize was drawn from the more than 60 artists exhibiting at the Singapore Biennale by an international jury that includes the biennale's creative director, Dr Susie Lingham, and Japan's Mori Art Museum director Fumio Nanjo.

The winner will be picked by Benesse Holdings and Fukutake Foundation and announced during Singapore Art Week in January.

Emerging artist Yodmanee, 28, says she is surprised to make the shortlist. For her, being able to take part in the biennale is already a dream come true. This is her first time showing at an art biennale.

For another shortlisted artist Darmawan, 42, the idea of "islands dedicated to art" interests him. "It would be really nice if I had an opportunity to go and make a work there," he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2016, with the headline 'Art prize marries capitalism with culture'. Print Edition | Subscribe