Gallery goes headhunting

Should the National Art Gallery look overseas for a new director or pick a Singaporean?

An international headhunt is on for the National Art Gallery, Singapore after news broke yesterday that its current director Kwok Kian Chow will assume a senior adviser post with effect from Oct 1.

But suitable replacements for Mr Kwok, 56, who was named director in 2009 after a year-long international search, could be found right here, say people in the arts community who were interviewed.

Freelance art writer and author Woon Tai Ho, 52, told Life!: “I find it difficult to believe that from circles within the museums and the numerous galleries here, we cannot find a local expert who can develop our art and that of those closest to us, our neighbours.

“If there is a perceived lack of expertise in bringing the National Art Gallery to an international level, I feel an international advisory board or committee can be set up for consultation and advice, but the day-to-day running of the gallery should be entrusted to a Singaporean or to someone who has spent enough time here.”

Gallerist Roberta Dans, who is in her 40s, agreed.

She said: “I think an international search is unnecessary as there are a number of qualified people in the industry here.”

However, others such as artist-film-maker Ho Tzu Nyen felt that the international search, slated to last for six months, might work.

“I think that we should be focused on getting the best person possible, and nationality is inconsequential. Locally, there are many people who would be able to do a great job, but I am not sure if they would be available,” said Ho, 35.

He added the best person for the job is someone who has a commitment to Singaporean and South-east Asian art, but also has a thorough knowledge of international art. 

“While we should not place restrictions of nationality on this position, I should say that there certainly are a number of people here who can be up to this task, for example, Eugene Tan.”

Dr Tan, programme director at the Economic Development Board’s Lifestyle Programme Office, is one of several homegrown curators whose names kept popping up among industry insiders as a possible replacement for Mr Kwok. 

Another popular favourite is Mr Low Sze Wee, 41, a Deputy Director (Heritage) with the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts. He has already been appointed covering director (curatorial and collections) and will oversee the curatorial, collections management and exhibition functions of the gallery.

Given his museum experience, his appointment has been welcomed by artist and curator Jason Wee.

Wee said: “Sze Wee is a capable curator and director, and I hope in the search for a new director, they will seriously consider him for the permanent position. I also think highly of Ahmad Mashadi’s scholarly and curatorial work, and he has had experience directing the NUS Museum.” 

While the search goes on however, members of the arts community have also raised their concern about the interim appointment, which could result in a lack of continuity in terms of curatorial direction and decision-making for the gallery before its official opening in 2015.

Said Woon: “It gives me the impression that it is a move to buy time. What happens if the person who is eventually hired does not like the work of the interim director, then things will be back to square one.

“It also makes me question whether the special adviser’s role is so busy and important that he cannot serve as an interim director? We need greater clarity on these issues.”

Wee added: “I do not know enough about the way the gallery has determined the length of the interregnum. But if the interim directorship is given to Sze Wee as a serious opportunity to not only determine curatorial direction but also strategic relationships with other institutions, fund-raising and building a serious board and pool of advisers, then it could very well be strong proving grounds.”

He estimated the interim director needs to be at the helm for at least a year, otherwise it is like “holding onto the wheel of someone else’s ship”.