Arts philanthropy yet to take off here, say arts groups

Government funding in the arts sector is still essential as donations from the private sector and individuals are limited

Relying on government funds may not be ideal, but the arts scene here has not matured to a point where it can depend on private patrons alone, say arts groups.

The past couple of weeks have been important for the discussion of arts funding in Singapore.

On July 21, cartoonist Sonny Liew made history by being the first Singaporean to win at the Eisner awards - the comic industry's Oscars - for his graphic novel, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

The book, which portrays a fictionalised history of Singapore, made headlines in 2015 when its themes prompted the National Arts Council to withdraw an $8,000 grant.

Last week, former Nominated Member of Parliament Calvin Cheng argued that the Government should not fund the arts and that the burden should, instead, fall on the private sector.

This, he said, would prevent another tricky situation where funds have to be withdrawn, as in the case of Liew.

Arts organisations The Straits Times spoke to largely dismissed Mr Cheng's proposal, saying the state of arts philanthropy in Singapore is not developed enough to be able to sustain the industry.

"In Singapore, our situation is very different from that in the United States, as well as some other European countries, where there is a longstanding tradition of private philanthropy for the arts," says Ms Melissa Lim, general manager of 30-year-old theatre company The Necessary Stage.

"We also have a relatively limited audience pool willing to spend on arts consumption."

Singapore Dance Theatre's artistic director Janek Schergen says that the income from ticket sales alone never covers the cost of a production.

"Nobody is going to pay the actual cost of the tickets. Our audiences pay at least 50 per cent less than what people pay for a show overseas, but they complain that it is expensive," he says.

Typically, revenue from ticket sales makes up between 5 and 30 per cent of income, according to arts groups here.

Most arts groups rely on a mix of government grants and private funding to cover costs.

Early last month, the arts council revealed that individual donations, in cash and kind, were at an all-time high last year. Totalling $19.4 million, it was double that in 2015.

While the arts council acknowledges that "the state plays a critical role in supporting the arts", it adds that it "cannot achieve its mission alone and we would like to emphasise the importance of private investment", says Ms Charlotte Koh, the council's deputy director for its arts and culture development office.

But the hard numbers show that it will be unrealistic to wean artists off public funding entirely. According to the Singapore Cultural Statistic report, in 2015, the Government provided 80 per cent - or $595.7 million - of all arts and heritage funding in Singapore.

And donors seem heartened by the Government's support for the arts too.


"When the Government supports an arts company, it tells me that the company is financially prudent. It gives me confidence as a donor," says Mr Alvin Lin, 34, a supporter of theatre training school Intercultural Theatre Institute.

There is also the multiplier effect of the Government's Cultural Matching Fund, which matches private funding for the arts dollar for dollar. The fund will soon be topped up by $150 million, says the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

But some arts practitioners do admit that moving away from government funding can be desirable.

Writer Joshua Ip, a director of year-old literary non-profit organisation Sing Lit Station, says that one of the reasons to reduce its dependence on government grants is "because of the conditions placed upon us by accepting government grants".

"Thus far, we've not had any of the more onerous ones invoked upon us, but one never knows," he adds.


Arts patron Ayrin Widjaja, 39, who supports the Singapore Repertory Theatre, notes that there is a "dance" between artists and the Government when it comes to funding.

"The bureaucratic strings can be a bit tight. It can loosen them a bit more - it doesn't have to release them totally - but loosening can be good," she says.

Schergen acknowledges that "all funding comes with conditions". Sharing this sentiment is The Necessary Stage's Ms Lim.

The company has had to forgo funding in the past when it came with requests which "compromised" artistic integrity.

In 1993, when playwright Haresh Sharma refused to change the script of Off Centre, the Ministry of Health withdrew its sponsorship of $30,000 for the play.

Arts companies value their private donors and often have to come up with different ways of courting them.

The 38-year-old Singapore Symphony Orchestra, for example, recently introduced an endowed "musicians' chair" for its concert master Igor Yuzefovich, created in the name of its long-time donor, philanthropist G.K. Goh.

Similar to an endowed professorship in a university, donations go to an endowment fund and a portion of the payouts will be used to support Yuzefovich's salary.

Then there is also the power of crowdfunding - the idea that small amounts of money given by a large group of people can be used to achieve big goals.

Smaller arts groups, such as Sing Lit Station, appeal to its younger demographic through crowdfunding platforms such as Indiegogo and offer tokens of appreciation such as T-shirts and tote bags.

Theatre actor Adrian Pang, co-founder of theatre company Pangdemonium, also finds it meaningful to receive "unsolicited donations" from audience members.

"These gestures mean a great deal to us and go a long way towards helping us run Pangdemonium on a day-to-day basis," he says.

He hopes more people will "realise that supporting Singapore theatre is a valuable and meaningful way to contribute to our community... to tangibly be part of what gives heart and soul to our society".

Ip adds that arts practitioners will have to "keep hustling" to encourage people to open their wallets.

He says: "We need a cultural shift and people willing to put their money where their beliefs are. We're hoping that they are willing to come forward and show that the arts are worth funding, whether by Government, by corporates or by individual Singaporeans."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2017, with the headline 'Arts philanthropy yet to take off'. Print Edition | Subscribe