Drawing the crowds to National Art Gallery

With right leadership and courage, it can be an iconic visual arts hub

THE National Art Gallery, Singapore. 

The name itself is pregnant with portent: The definite article signalling the institution’s particularity, followed by the double whammy of "National" and "Singapore".

Naming the gallery so emphatically pumps up expectations about its role and purpose in the arts scene in Singapore.

As an arts lover, I have no problem with an exciting new institution’s attempt to create hype and generate interest for itself ahead of its opening in 2015. 

After all, the gallery is going to be a unique enterprise by virtue of the resources invested in it. Its new home, more than 60,000 sq m space at the old City Hall and Supreme Court buildings, will cost $530 million. In a country not renowned for its expenditure on the arts, this is something to celebrate. The gallery’s closest equivalent would be the Esplanade, which cost the grand sum of $600 million when it opened 10 years ago. 

The gallery itself has not been shy about its intent either, declaring that its goal is to become “a leading museum destination that attracts up to five million annual visitors”. The seven National Heritage Board museums combined – including the Singapore Art Museum and the National Museum – now attract fewer than three million visitors a year. 

With great expectations, however, comes a greater risk of disappointment. 

And alas, the gallery has had its fair share of stumbles in the past year. 

First was the delay in construction – plans were announced in 2007 but work began only last year. This can be put down to economic factors and a resource crunch in the construction industry.

More worrying are the management glitches. In 2009, Mr Kwok Kian Chow, now 56, was appointed after a year-long global search for a director. He became senior adviser last October. Mr Low Sze Wee, 41, was appointed covering director pending a global headhunt for a new candidate.

It is barely three years since the last global search ended, and it is an open question if the current talent hunt can uncover a new candidate the previous search failed to produce.

Then there is Mr Low, who is already acting director. His name was a hot favourite with people in the arts community as a possible successor for the position. Granted, Mr Low is relatively young. But youth and dynamism can be an advantage in programming.

The gallery has the potential to be an iconic venue, the visual arts equivalent of the Esplanade. In fact, a look back at the years before the Esplanade’s opening is instructive. It faced similar doubts and even more challenging conditions – post 9/11, the Bali bombings and a shrinking economy – when it first opened in 2002. 

Some were worried that it would be a white elephant, fearing that Singaporeans – not known for being arts lovers – might shun the centre, or consider it wasteful.

But the Esplanade defied criticisms. It not just changed the way Singaporeans related to an arts venue, but also helped develop the audience for the performing arts at a staggering pace. 

Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company played at the Esplanade’s opening festival in 2002 to a near-empty hall. Fast forward to 2007 when Batsheva returned to the Esplanade’s da:ns festival: It played to packed houses over two days and earned standing ovations. Batsheva’s artistic director Ohad Naharin told me he was impressed with how the audience had matured in just five short years. 

The Esplanade’s dedication to adventurous programming was key to its success. In its early years, it programmed some truly challenging material, including a 19-hour Kun opera for its first Huayi festival and then-obscure names such as Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour and alternative rock band Tortoise for its Mosaic Music Festival to mixed audience reception. But it stuck to its guns, and today, even unknown names are a draw for its festivals because audiences have come to trust the programmers’ judgment.

The new gallery can draw useful lessons from the Esplanade: Hire the right programmers, trust their abilities and the crowds will come.

One way for the gallery to make a splash would be to open with a well- curated exhibition which dares to surprise. I would dearly love to see, for example, a definitive show on Singapore’s Nanyang school of painters that puts their works next to the Western artists who influenced them. Imagine seeing a Georgette Chen still life next to a Paul Cezanne, or a Liu Kang portrait next to a Paul Gauguin, or a Chen Wen Hsi oil next to a Henri Matisse. 

A show along these lines would be a clear statement of intent that signals to naysayers and industry watchers that the gallery will be more than a mere repository of the national art collection, that it will take part in an active examination of the roots of Singapore art practice and make a stand for Singapore art practitioners. It would, in other words, make everyone sit up and take notice of its vision. 

But of course this kind of programming does not require only curatorial knowledge and discipline. It requires a forward-thinking management that will take that step off the ledge along with the curators.

This is a perennial issue in Singapore, where people are more adept at building the hardware than programming the software. Hardware is easy to build once you have money. But software – the people who will create the heart and soul of an arts institution – is harder to come by. 

A national arts institution stands or falls not only on the shoulders of its director or curator, no matter how learned or aesthetic that person may be. The management – the board and the bean counters – also needs to take a leap of faith in its choice of, and support for, a director.

With the right leadership and courage, the gallery can become the vibrant beating heart of a dynamic arts scene, not just a cold sarcophagus for past glories.