81-year-old art collector donates Yayoi Kusama sculpture to Gardens by the Bay

Ms Lee Tuan and the Yayoi Kusama sculpture, Kei-Chan, which she donated to the Flower Dome at Gardens By The Bay, on Feb 26, 2021. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - Even amid the colourful flora of the Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay, a sculpture of a girl in a red and pink polka-dot dress catches one's eye instantly.

Kei-Chan, a 2.6m-tall sculpture by renowned Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, was donated by art collector Lee Tuan and will be unveiled on Monday (March 1).

Ms Lee, 81, has traversed the globe in search of creativity in her lifetime and amassed more than 300 items in her collection.

She has also quietly donated about 100 works of art and contemporary jewellery since 2015 to art institutions overseas such as the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Royal Academy of Arts in London.

She said she believes in sharing her art during her lifetime instead of bequeathing it posthumously.

"The earlier you give it out, the more people can enjoy it. As an art lover, I want to share the art I appreciate with others so they can enjoy it too," she said.

Along with the Kei-Chan sculpture, which is Ms Lee's first legacy gift in Singapore, she has also pledged $10,000 every year to Gardens by the Bay in her lifetime, beginning in December 2019, and $2 million to be distributed to the Gardens across 20 years.

Ms Lee, whose family used to own the Thye Hong Biscuit & Confectionery Factory, is particularly well-known in art circles abroad for her collection of artistic jewellery pieces.

Her collection, which features items with bold structures and brilliant pops of colours, mirrors her bubbly personality.

"I am a very happy and positive person by nature, and I believe art should be the same - rather than leaving the viewer with negativity, it would be great if it could spark joy and wonder."

For her interview with The Straits Times, she wore a necklace comprising a cluster of bright red firecracker motifs in honour of Chinese New Year - and recalled a comical encounter a few days earlier. She said: "I met a man at Maxwell market who said, 'Why are you wearing that? Someone may strike a match and throw it!'"

Ms Lee realised her passion for art in the late 1970s, marking her foray into collecting. She also studied history of modern art in London to gain knowledge about the field.

"I realised that art was what made me happy and keeps me going. I always get excited when I am out in search of the next piece," she said.

Beyond art, Ms Lee also has a penchant for gardening, at one point even growing 200 plants at her home.

Her donation to the Gardens hits both sweet spots.

And while an act of art philanthropy locally seems like a long time coming, it was not for the lack of trying, she said.

"The Gardens were the first to appreciate my items. I have tried to donate in the past in Singapore, but I do hear that my art is too modern for people's taste," she said.

Gardens by the Bay's senior direct of programming and events, Ms Chua Yen Ling, said: "The colourful Kei-Chan sculpture brings cheer to visitors in Flower Dome as well as makes art accessible to one and all, while her continuing contributions to Gardens by the Bay will go a long way to allow people to enjoy the beauty of nature for years to come."

The Garden's signature Sakura floral display will also return on Monday. The display will be launched by Japan's Ambassador to Singapore Jun Yamazaki and Ambassador-at-Large Professor Tommy Koh, who will also attend the unveiling of the Kei-Chan sculpture.

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