Finding hope in the arts in the midst of pandemic

As audiences realise how the arts can bring comfort and enjoyment in difficult times, they must now rally around artists and arts groups struggling to survive

I have fond childhood memories of reading avidly late into the night, huddling under the covers, torch in one hand and my newest book in the other. The stories I read transported me to worlds afar, igniting a curiosity about possibilities beyond the small Malaysian town I grew up in. When I was a little older, a friend shared a cassette tape of Evita, which seeded my love of musicals today, even though I knew little about the history of Argentina then.

When I first assumed the role of chairman of the National Arts Council (NAC) in September last year, I wanted to take time to understand the Singapore arts scene and to meet, engage with and understand the many passionate people dedicated to the arts, who together make the arts scene vibrant, diverse and bursting with creative energy.

Then Covid-19 happened and with it, the lights went off in our museums, theatres and concert halls as performances were cancelled and exhibitions closed.

A worrying thought struck me then: this is a seismic event in the cultural scene. If the pandemic persists, could it wipe out a generation of artists and art companies that have been nurtured over the years? What would a Singapore be like in this alternate reality with no arts and culture?

I cannot imagine what a world that would be, as I reflect on how the arts had nourished me in my childhood and throughout my adult life: How the theatre performances I caught on my work trips provided solace and a welcome reprieve from the stresses of the corporate world; how music and film nourished the soul while providing a window to other worlds I had no knowledge of.

I wonder: Have the arts become so much a part of everyday lives for some of us that we have taken it for granted?

While the best art is universal, its roots are often local. I think of the Islamic Umayyads who established new styles of architecture and new designs on their coins to speak to their newly formed identities; and how Christians in mediaeval Europe created sculptures and images to celebrate their beliefs.

Closer to home, I reflect on how Singapore is home to a potpourri of ethnicities and religions, and how this is expressed through its arts, whether it is the bold blending of traditions in Peranakan objects; or the creation of original Singapore music, theatre and literature. These artistic creations codify and preserve while celebrating the cultural identity of Singapore.

What was remarkable to me was how many of us turned to the arts for comfort and enjoyment during the circuit breaker period. Thousands of people engaged with online content put up by Singapore arts companies and home-grown artists. Two which stood out for me: The renditions of @HOME with jazz musician Jeremy Monteiro at the start of the circuit breaker, and conductor Shui Lan's farewell concert from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's archives.

This was a global phenomenon too. South Korean boy band BTS' online concert was watched by 756,000 fans and generated $25 million in ticket sales. The Art Basel's online viewing rooms launched as a substitute for the cancelled Hong Kong fair drew more than 250,000 visitors.

Cooped-up people everywhere clearly see the arts as a release valve for "cabin fever" pressure. They have a deep instinct to connect with other human beings and are willing to part with money if the work appeals to them.

The adoption of technology has some challenges. While its use has accelerated within the arts sector, not all our artists and arts companies may be equipped or mentally prepared to embrace this new mode of delivery. But I hope everyone can see how the benefits outweigh the challenges - increased audience engagement, more diverse audiences and a broader reach. We all need to better understand technology and NAC must help our artists seize the opportunities that are available even after we emerge from the pandemic.

Jazz Association (Singapore) musicians and guests (clockwise from top left) Joe Lee, Rit Xu, Christy Smith, Alemay Fernandez, Weixiang Tan, Ravee Treesaksesakoon, Bryan De Rozario, Dawn Wong, Tamagoh, Jeremy Monteiro, Sean Hong Wei and Weixiang Tan playing the local classic Singapura at a virtual jam session in April. PHOTO: JAZZ ASSOCIATION (SINGAPORE)

Singaporeans are pragmatic, bottom-line-driven people. However, I hope we can agree that we need to sustain the arts because it gives us all something in return.

Apart from enjoyment, the arts also have utilitarian value for society. There is strong research that shows a correlation between better educational outcomes in schools and involvement in the arts. The more than 112,000 students who participate in arts-related co-curricular activities in our schools should be pleased that their passion has an upside on the academic front.

A more important point in my mind: creative talent must be nurtured from young. If we do not do this, we may not only lose the next generation of home-grown artists; but our young people may also be less able to imagine solutions to tomorrow's complex problems.

There is also robust evidence coming from the health sector which shows how the arts boost well-being outcomes in diverse groups, from prisoners to people with disabilities to seniors battling dementia. Indeed, for many marginalised groups, the arts have become a safe space for self-discovery, positive social interaction and personal growth.

The arts and culture have potential to contribute more - both in building social capital for Singapore and contributing actively to the economy. As Singapore works towards securing its economic strength for the long term, the values associated with the arts - creativity, adaptability and resilience - will surely be assets as we develop new innovations for different industries.

We must create space for our artists - to express themselves, to pursue artistic excellence and to engage with one another and their audiences for fruitful dialogue - even as we grapple with hard economic issues and pandemic safety measures.

More importantly, NAC, together with our friends in the community, need to help more Singaporeans develop a deeper appreciation of the arts, and with that, a broadening of minds and outlooks. As NAC's chair, I would also like the NAC to actively increase access and reach to the arts, to be enjoyed by all regardless of economic or social background.

In Singapore, as it is with our international counterparts, we are all fighting to keep the arts alive.

To the artists who are facing day-to-day challenges and the arts companies reviewing their business plans, I want you to know that we at NAC will work together with you, to ensure the arts community emerges stronger and better. It will take a significant amount of our creative energy, but it will be worthwhile.

The arts are worth fighting for - in times of pandemic or not. The active responsibility to keep the arts alive belongs to all of us - the Government, the private sector and the arts community.

• Goh Swee Chen is chairman of the National Arts Council. She was with Shell from 2003, retiring in January last year as chairman of Shell Companies in Singapore.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 01, 2020, with the headline Finding hope in the arts in the midst of pandemic. Subscribe