Stage set for more great art
Published on Jul 23, 2014 7:58 AM
The reopening of the Victoria Concert Hall and Theatre after extensive remodelling takes Singapore's stock of arts venues to what, musically speaking, is an augmented plane. Topping the scale is the Esplanade - only a decade old but already a byword internationally for its acoustics and design. There are smaller halls suited to recitals and chamber groups. For its size and audience base, Singapore's performing arts infrastructure would compare well with any mid-sized European city. If other cultural spaces like museums, art galleries and playhouses are included, arts consumers and practitioners here should fairly be satiated. Then there is the National Gallery, which will emerge where City Hall and the Supreme Court buildings once stood. It will be a welcome addition to the rich menu of arts options.
How to fill the spaces with performances and art collections worthy of the impressive housing (and its expense) is a constant challenge. Local producers and international promoters based here have to juggle the dual mission of meeting the demands of concert hall habitues while catering to wider community needs. The latter is a social mission of many sides.
The role of sponsorship and philanthropy in promoting culture is well known. Ticket sales barely meet the costs of topline events. When global banks, airlines and oil companies cut sponsorship budgets in lean times, even major orchestras and dance companies miss a beat, figuratively speaking. Japan and now China are attracting stellar performers because sponsors pay top dollar for them to appear as a civic bequest. Market pull matters, of course. The Vienna Philharmonic and the New York Metropolitan Opera are regular visitors to Japan. In Singapore, there are limits to commercial munificence even in good times. Touring acts have been of a high quality, but an arts lover might well wish there were more of these. Yet, it is mainly local events in all the genres that will help the concert halls and theatres make their mission complete. The Victoria Theatre staged 200 productions - local and imported plays, school and community productions - a year before it closed for the restoration. The dependency on amateur troupes was rather striking. It will encourage growth in this sector if hall rental is kept affordable while grants from the National Arts Council (NAC) are kept up.
The last word has to be on cultural flowering. Could arbiters be more nurturing and artists more sensitive to larger community needs? Former NAC chairman Tommy Koh once lamented the gulf between the artistic community and the authorities. Great will be the pity if the growth in artistic expression that society expects lags behind the physical development of grand old and brand new venues.