NATIONAL GALLERY SINGAPORE OPENING

National Gallery Singapore opens today (Nov 24)

See 360-degree panoramas of National Gallery's foyers and rooms. Go to str.sg/ZR4S
See 360-degree panoramas of National Gallery's foyers and rooms. Go to str.sg/ZR4S

South-east Asian art finally gets a permanent home at the National Gallery Singapore; the museum's opening signals the island's ambition to be a major art destination

Management executive Berlinda Cheong does not consider herself an art enthusiast, but she is excited about the National Gallery Singapore, which opens in the former Supreme Court and City Hall buildings today.

The 25-year-old cannot wait to "get a taste of history" as she roams the landmark monuments once closed to the public and, yes, appreciates the art within.

The launch of the museum in the breathtakingly restored buildings is indeed history-making. It is the first museum of such scale in the world that is dedicated to the art of Singapore and South-east Asia. At 64,000 sq m, the $532-million museum is larger than London's Tate Modern (34,500 sq m) and the Museum of Modern Art in New York (58,529 sq m).

Its permanent galleries alone - the DBS Singapore Gallery and UOB Southeast Asia Gallery - display about 800 works of art from the 19th century through to the modern day. These include paintings by pioneer Singapore artists Cheong Soo Pieng and Chen Wen Hsi and forerunners of modern art in the region such as Indonesia's Raden Saleh and the Philippines' Hernando R. Ocampo.

 
 
 

Two other exhibitions will open on Thursday - a historical survey of the career of renowned Singapore artist Chua Ek Kay and a show of more than 80 paintings by famed Chinese artist Wu Guanzhong, who donated 113 works to Singapore's national collection in 2008.

The decade-long dream for a museum that will cement Singapore's bid to become a global art powerhouse is finally a reality.

Now, all eyes are on the museum and what it will mean for the country, its people and the art world.

For a start, many people, including Dr Nora Taylor, professor of South and South-east Asian art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, are simply thrilled. The art historian, who has been studying the field for more than 20 years, says: "Masterpieces of South-east Asian modern art were scattered around Asia and rarely seen. To assemble them in one museum is remarkable and long overdue."

While the collection on display is by no means exhaustive, it has "filled a major gap in our visual and cultural history", says Singapore artist Milenko Prvacki, a senior fellow at the Lasalle College of the Arts. "A country without a national gallery is like a country without history," he says. "And it has been very difficult to teach art without a national gallery."

The Singapore Art Museum has been around since 1996, but it has never held extensive, permanent exhibitions that trace the historical development of art in Singapore and South-east Asia. Its focus is now on contemporary art of Singapore and the region.

Ms Ute Meta Bauer, founding director of the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, sees the National Gallery as a chance for the public to "celebrate the art and artists and their capacity to reflect, witness, translate and interpret life".

It is fitting then that the museum opens in the year Singapore celebrates its Golden Jubilee.

It was expected to launch in 2010 when plans for it were first announced in 2005. Its opening, however, was delayed over the years due to factors such as a construction crunch caused by the building of the two integrated resorts.

Its launch now is nonetheless timely, as international and regional interest in the art of South-east Asia continues to grow, fuelled by a burgeoning art market and the opening of other museums such as the upcoming Museum Macan, a museum of modern and contemporary art in Indonesia. Its director Thomas Berghuis says he hopes the National Gallery Singapore can work with museums in the region to grow interest in South-east Asian art.

Echoing a similar view, Indonesian art critic Carla Bianpoen says she hopes the museum will provide "much needed information on the art in South-east Asia".

Dr Eugene Tan, the museum's director, acknowledges that the art histories of Singapore and South- east Asia are "still relatively under- researched" and he sees its permanent galleries as a starting point for further scholarship. He adds that the museum's special exhibitions, co-curated with international art institutions such as Centre Pompidou and Tate Britain, will help to place the art histories of Singapore and the region in a global context.

Also at stake for the museum: the country's bid to position itself as an international arts hub and boost its attractiveness as a tourist stop.

Of this, Dr Taylor is hopeful the museum will deliver - not because it is a shiny, new mega-museum, but because of its focus on promoting art history as a field of knowledge and helping Singaporeans take pride in their artistic heritage.

She says: "There was a time when Singapore's cultural economy was built on bringing international artists and dealers to Singapore to build art institutions. The National Gallery will change that and showcase local art to the world."

The museum's chief executive Chong Siak Ching sees its efforts over the years - "be it curating comprehensive exhibitions or building a unique visitor experience" - as being motivated by the aim to be a "people's museum".

This sentiment resonates with artist Ho Ho Ying, 80, a pioneer of Singapore's modern art movement.

He says in Mandarin: "The museum's opening shows that the country is attaching importance to art. I hope this encourages artists and inspires them to greater heights, knowing that they have a country and people to share and appreciate their work."

  • See 360-degree panoramas of National Gallery's foyers and rooms. Go to str.sg/ZR4S
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 24, 2015, with the headline 'New chapter in history'. Print Edition | Subscribe