Record 9.2 million at free arts and cultural events

Crowds pack the free performances at the Singapore Night Festival.
Crowds pack the free performances at the Singapore Night Festival.PHOTO: ST FILE

But fewer went to ticketed events although there were more such events last year

A record number of free arts and cultural events last year meant attendance hit a high of more than 9.2 million - the largest turnout in Singapore in the last five years.

However, attendance for ticketed events dropped 5 per cent, even though there were more of such events last year.

This data from the Singapore Cultural Statistics 2017 report raised the question of whether free events were making it more challenging for arts and cultural groups to raise money through ticket sales.

The statistics were released yesterday at the annual conference of the Culture Academy Singapore, established by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) in 2015 to groom the next generation of cultural leaders in the public sector.

Last year had the highest number of free performing arts activities on record - nearly 6,000, compared with almost 5,000 in 2015 - but attendance stayed the same, at about 2.8 million for both years.

An MCCY spokesman notes that an increase in the number of activities might not result in an increase in attendance, as the events may be held in smaller spaces.

Total attendance at free performances and heritage events in 2015 was 9 million compared with last year's boom. Figures for both years included outreach events by the museums and National Heritage Board such as the annual Singapore Night Festival and Singapore Heritage Festival.

Attendance was also marked at travelling exhibitions and heritage trails, one of which, the 15km Bedok Heritage Trail, was launched only last year.

Also in the report, a record 5.1 million visited national museums and heritage institutions last year, up from 3.8 million visitors reported in 2015. The increase was due to the National Gallery Singapore, which opened in late 2015.

Total giving to the arts decreased last year with government funding at $713 million compared with $937 million in 2015.

An MCCY spokesman says the difference was because funding in 2014 and 2015 included the amounts spent on key development projects, such as the refurbishment of the Victoria Theatre & Victoria Concert Hall, Asian Civilisations Museum, National Museum Singapore, plus the Annexe Studio and children's activity space Pip's Playbox at the Esplanade - Theatres On The Bay. These have been completed.

When it came to ticketed performances, the number of events was 3,430 last year, about 100 more than 2015, but only 1.8 million bought tickets for shows last year, compared with 1.9 million the year before.

MCCY says the fall in ticketed attendance last year was because of fewer big-name shows, compared with 2015 blockbusters such as The LKY Musical and Cats. The spokesman says there was "no evidence at present to suggest a relationship between the number of non-ticketed activities and ticketed attendances".

"Nevertheless, we will work closely with our partners to monitor trends and developments related to both ticketed and non-ticketed activities," adds the spokesman.

However, arts-makers The Straits Times spoke to separately say that the smorgasbord of events year-round leads to increased competition for viewers' time and money.

Theatre-maker Saiful Amri says that Singaporeans are spoilt for choice and strapped for time.

"Someone would rather just spend a couple of hours to watch a free show than spend money and time to watch a ticketed show," says the 39-year-old, who works with Malay theatre groups Hatch Theatrics and Teater Kami.

Earlier this year, he directed a new Malay play Syair Biola for the National Arts Council's Silver Arts Festival, which targets older viewers.

He says that the musical sold only 50 per cent of its $10 tickets, whereas Army Daze 2 - which he acted in - had a nearly sold-out run despite tickets starting at $43 each.

"It's also about how informed the community is about the show," he says. "For something that is quite experimental, you wouldn't get the audience because they don't know the quality."

Professional storyteller Kamini Ramachandran, 48, says non-ticketed events at major festivals can provide much-needed exposure to newer artists. However, major festivals should not only have free performances, but also paid programmes to show that the arts have value, she says.

She questions why Singaporean audiences seem to feel less responsible for supporting the arts compared with audiences in places like Edinburgh, known for its Fringe Festival, or George Town in Penang, known for its month-long celebration of the arts.

She adds that consumers and the audience must buy into the idea of using the arts to revive or enliven a city.

"It can't just be that the organisers and participants are the only stakeholders who believe in the cause or purpose," she says.

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu says at the conference that the positive trend in visitorship and number of free arts and cultural events suggest that Singapore is on the right track to develop a more vibrant scene. She adds that more can be done.

"We can do more in revitalising our city and spaces through place-making. We must continue to engage our stakeholders and to do so more deeply, to build on our existing efforts. We need sustained engagement and purposeful programming to effectively make a place," she says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 08, 2017, with the headline 'Record 9.2 million at free arts and cultural events'. Print Edition | Subscribe