Parliament: Set up independent body to look into disputes over art in public spaces, says Arts NMP

The "golden staircase" on the 20th floor of Block 103, Jalan Rajah. Ms Dia's work earned her praise from netizens, but the Jalan Besar Town Council pointed out that it was not permissible under the council's by-laws. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Disputes and disagreements over whether art can and should be allowed in public spaces have occurred over the years, from the dismantling of a tower of toys in a Chong Pang void deck because of safety concerns, to the removal of a "golden staircase" in a Housing Board block in Balestier.

To address these concerns, an independent body made up of legal experts, artistic personnel and other stakeholders can be set up to investigate complaints, and facilitate dialogues and conversations between the artists and those who have taken issue with the art work, Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun told Parliament on Monday (Sept 10).

He filed a motion to speak about how artistic expression can be encouraged in everyday spaces such as town squares or MRT trains, and called for more flexibility in allowing for spontaneous performances or displays of art to occur in such public spaces.

Mr Kok, who is also artistic director of theatre troupe Drama Box, noted that spaces like the Esplanade and the National Gallery Singapore have gone the extra mile to reach out to audiences through the design and management of their public spaces.

Events like the Singapore Night Festival have struck a balance between accessibility and security, and Drama Box has also staged forum theatre performances in the heartlands that involve spontaneous public participation without any incident.

However, he said that there is room for forms of artistic expression to be allowed beyond those in spaces that have been prescribed by the Government for public art, as well as for allowing artistic expressions that do not flout the law in public spaces.

For instance, artists have told him they have been stopped by security guards at public art institutions when improvising or demonstrating ideas for performances in discussions with other artists, and told that such activities would disturb other visitors.

"If the city and its public spaces are meant for the public, it should be safe and permissible for everyone to be there, to interact, to exchange information and ideas, as long as the exchange does not incinerate and create disorder. That is a right to the city, a right for everyone," said Mr Kok.

In response, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu said the Government had worked closely with the private and people sectors to provide for a wide range and diversity of visual and performing arts in Singapore's public spaces.

For instance, the Government, through the National Arts Council (NAC), commissions key public art works.

It has also made efforts to involve the arts community in "good public art projects" through its grants, she added. For example, OH! Open House, a recipient of NAC's Major Company Scheme funding, curates art walks that bring art into everyday spaces such as Housing Board flats.

The NAC also brings art closer to the community through initiatives like its Arts In Your Neighbourhood scheme, which sees exhibitions and arts events taking place in the heartlands.

However, she said that a careful balance between artists and stakeholders who own or use public premises needs to be struck, as Singapore's public spaces serve a wide range of needs. There is a need to be sensitive and respectful of the different perspectives, values, and way of life in Singapore's multi-cultural and multi-generational society.

"For example, park users may appreciate the occasional band performance, but prefer to keep the park quiet and serene at other times. Therein lies the need to consult different stakeholders as a matter of respect and basic courtesy - those who own and use the space should also have a say," she said.

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