Forum: Rework Cultural Medallion, establish proper art archive

Recipient of the 2012 Cultural Medallion for Theatre, Thirunalan Sasitharan.
Recipient of the 2012 Cultural Medallion for Theatre, Thirunalan Sasitharan.PHOTO: NATIONAL ARTS COUNCIL SINGAPORE

I came away more than a little surprised from reading senior culture correspondent Ong Sor Fern's expose on the Cultural Medallion (Too little, too late: Is the prize still relevant?, Oct 15) and the response by the National Arts Council (Award a big boost to S'pore artists, Oct 18).

The most prestigious arts accolade in Singapore does not come with prize money, but access to the Cultural Medallion Fund, which recipients can draw upon to further their art through creation, presentation and documentation.

As such, there are the attendant administrative processes and requisite accountability, which prove a stumbling block to many artists hoping to use the fund.

It is no wonder, then, that in its 40 years of existence, only about half of the 126 Cultural Medallion recipients have managed to tap the fund.

That this awkward statistic has not prompted a review of the award is a bit concerning.

As highlighted by prominent arts educator and previous recipient Thirunalan Sasitharan, the Cultural Medallion is more a boon to the standing of art here than of practical benefit to the recipients.

Just as practical steps are being rolled out to recognise the contributions of the Merdeka Generation in nation building, similar utilitarian measures should be made to honour these stalwarts of the arts scene.

Much has been made of the importance and need to document the work of Cultural Medallion recipients for posterity. Surely the onus to do so is not on these artists, but on society generally and the National Arts Council specifically.

Of course artists can help by contributing materials and oral history, but for them to document their own work is to deprive them of the time and energy to move forward in their practice.

We should perhaps take as a model Hong Kong's Asia Art Archive (AAA), an independent non-profit organisation that collects, documents and shares information and material on contemporary art in Asia.

For years, I have been lugging material on the visual arts in the region to the AAA because of the dearth of such a repository in Singapore.

To ensure the well-being and lasting legacy of our important artists, the National Arts Council should reconsider reworking the Cultural Medallion award and establishing a proper archival agency here.

Colin Lim

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2019, with the headline 'Rework Cultural Medallion, establish proper art archive'. Print Edition | Subscribe