The tough balancing act of arts funding

The recent spotlight on the arts, with the Cultural Medallion and Young Artist Award ceremony, and an extensive radio interview with artist and festival director Ong Keng Sen, has generated much buzz within the community on the role of the arts in society and how it is funded in Singapore.

Open and candid discussion is good, especially as Singaporeans warm up to the arts.

What has been thrown up in the current exchange of views has focused on funding guidelines, censorship and the need to support artists unconditionally, as echoed by playwright Haresh Sharma.

An image from Revolutionary Model Play 2.0 that was part of the 2015 Singapore International Festival of Arts. The writer says Singaporean arts already play a role to help us "grow in humanity's rich soil". PHOTO: LASALLE COLLEGE OF THE ARTS

The call for more space in the arts and less regulation is not new. To some artists, the situation is far from ideal, and perhaps their standards of artistic freedom are too absolute for our society. Nonetheless, we appreciate that some artists are compelled to test the boundaries and challenge our ways of looking at the world. It is part of their DNA and, indeed, some might argue that pushing the envelope is necessary for civilisation's progress.

However, are things so egregious that artists are routinely denied their right to make art? I think most Singaporeans would say no. A look at our lively theatre scene - from satirical comedies to challenging experimental plays - suggests these protests are overstated.

Similarly, the marketplace has never seen a more diverse range of Singaporean-authored and published books than today - from the reverential and celebratory to all manner of contrarian narratives.

Indeed, Singapore has come a long way in embracing the arts, and societal norms have evolved.

What was unacceptable a generation ago may, given the benefit of time, reconsideration and dialogue, become accepted, even lauded, today. Conversely, what was deemed harmless a generation ago might become problematic in today's context. Some regulations remain, and these have a role to play in maintaining and signalling the importance of our country's social harmony.

On the National Arts Council's (NAC's) part, we try our best not to administer our grants and projects in a bureaucratic and cumbersome way that causes undue stress to artists. We hope artists understand that public servants have due processes to follow, and there is a distinction between what is permissible by regulatory agencies and what NAC can champion or fund.

Arts funding does come with guidelines - this is no different from many other countries which also stipulate priority areas and eligibility criteria. Guidelines are publicly communicated and we do our judicious best to support a diversity of art forms and aesthetic expressions. These are taxpayers' monies and we, as custodians, need to balance rigorous processes with aesthetic sensibility to determine how they are to be utilised. We will have difficulty funding art with public funds if such works merely feed a desire for self-expression, without any consideration of their impact on the public and whether they truly enrich their lives.

Those who advocate "art for art's sake" and lament the arts are being "instrumentalised" could reflect on whether it is such an ill if the arts are "used" for the greater good of society.

If the arts make people see the potential of beauty in their lives; if they bring a smile or a moment of empathy, why should we begrudge it, and why should state coffers not be used to make that happen?

Throughout history, patrons have always had their own perspectives of the art they commissioned. But from Shakespeare to Ming dynasty porcelain artisans, the tension between artistic licence and the constraints of patronage has not stymied the creation of amazing and timeless artworks. Is a National Day song of lesser artistic merit because it is commissioned for a special occasion?

It also bears reminding that the arts are not always about sharp critique, provocative ideas and visceral images. Many art forms - equally valid and no less deserving of support - are less about polemical possibilities but more about aesthetic expression, whether in form or rhythm, in symmetry or repeated patterns. And indeed the Government amply supports these rich artistic expressions - through grants awarded to companies and individuals, or in the creation of meaningful infrastructure like the soon-to-be-opened National Gallery.

Another important consideration is the recognition of the heterogeneity of our populace. We appreciate that some of our arts lovers are well-travelled, deeply engaged and want art that stimulate, provoke and disturb. But we also know there are others who want the arts to uplift them, to be simple expressions of joy and beauty. The one thing we won't - and must not - do is to be patronising or even insulting to audiences and potential audiences on their choices.

Hence the large-scale festivals that the NAC supports - for example, Singapore Biennale, the Singapore Writers Festival and the Singapore International Festival of Arts - typically have programming that appeals to all arts audiences, as well as to families and newcomers that may prefer friendly, accessible art.

There remains the dissonant rumble that art for art's sake is not supported. Frankly, we disagree and we already do that to a fair extent - from subsidised arts housing spaces for contemporary artists who make challenging video art, to grants for theatrical works which focus more on process than an actual staged end-product.

Perhaps we can do more. We continue to invite ideas from our artists, many of whom are in regular conversation with my colleagues at NAC. We may not always agree but we are prepared to listen and even allow ourselves a smidgen of doubt, as no one is always right.

What I think we can all agree on is that we must cherish our Singapore artists more. They indeed hold a mirror to our lives, help us think about what it means to be a Singaporean, a citizen of the world in the 21st century, a human being. A few artists may want to see changes overnight, and want to push the envelope further. That is their choice, as long as they remain within the law of the land, and we respect that.

Perhaps in a more mature arts landscape, private patrons and paying audiences can step up where the state cannot support with funding. But even today, it is undeniable that Singaporean arts already play a role to help us "grow in humanity's rich soil" with the "careful tending of the human heart". (Lee Tzu Pheng, My Country And My People).

• The writer is the chief executive officer of the National Arts Council.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 07, 2015, with the headline The tough balancing act of arts funding. Subscribe