An artistic pairing made in heaven?

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 11, 2013

She is the impeccably groomed museum doyenne who turned a staid repository of historical artefacts into a buzzing arts and lifestyle destination, trebling visitor numbers in six years.

He, always in top-to-toe black, is the globe-trotting director of two decades of high-concept, glacially beautiful productions that brought together artists from different cultures as much as they divided audiences.

Now, it remains to be seen whether outgoing National Museum director Lee Chor Lin and TheatreWorks artistic director Ong Keng Sen are a match made in heaven at the helm of the Singapore Arts Festival - his artistic vision complementing her ability to put bums on seats - or if the result will be clashes between two equally formidable personalities.

That is one tantalising question on the minds of many in the arts community, even as they welcome the National Arts Council's announcement last week of a new independent company to run the annual festival, on hiatus this year.

Ms Lee, 50, will be the chief executive officer of Arts Festival Limited from July 1, while Ong, 49, will take up his four-year term as festival director from June 16.

Arts insiders have long called for autonomy for the 36-year-old arts council-run festival, and the setting up of an independent company was recommended by a committee of arts veterans tasked to review the festival's raison d'etre.

Once the only game in town, it has faced dwindling attendances in recent years and is in danger of becoming irrelevant in a crowded arts landscape.

Arts Festival Ltd has finally happened at a time when the council under chief executive officer Benson Puah is streamlining its role and divesting its impresario and venue management functions. It is also a logical outcome of a maturing arts scene where larger theatre companies routinely run mini-festivals of their own.

Many arts festivals around the world operate independently of state or local governments while receiving public sector grants.

The company running the Singapore festival is based on the same model as the standalone firm set up by the arts council a decade ago to run the multi-disciplinary arts venue The Arts House.

Like The Old Parliament House Limited, Arts Festival Ltd will get substantial council funding but must find additional income to balance its budget.

With their appointments, Ms Lee and Ong have the immediate, and unenviable, task of mounting a festival in a year's time from scratch, including renting office space, hiring staff and booking performance venues. In previous years, the mid-year festival's two- to three-week whirlwind of performances required two to three years' planning to pull off. Hence the arts council is managing audience expectations by promising a more "modest" festival next year.

Tight deadline aside, the longer-term challenge for the festival is distinguishing itself as a must-see event at a time when audiences have a lavish buffet of choices all year round.

Artistically, the festival's high points over the years may be summed up as a tale of two Medeas.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, the then-biennial Festival Of Arts was a primer for Singaporeans to world-class arts productions of all stripes. This trend climaxed in 1992, when Japan's celebrated Ninagawa Company's pitch-perfect, kabuki take on the ancient Greek revenge tragedy drew seven curtain calls. Then-Life! theatre reviewer Hannah Pandian observed the usually reticent audience at the end "raising an exultant voice, while blinking back furtive tears. It is at such moments when you remember that theatre was once reserved for the gods".

From 2000, the council's then-festival director Goh Ching Lee introduced a contemporary slant to the annual programme, bringing in a string of dance and theatre gems.

In an informal poll I did among a few writers who, like me, reviewed the arts during that period, Japan's Ku Na'uka Theatre's richly textured, play-within-a-play version of Medea in 2002, seamlessly incorporating traditional as well as contemporary devices, emerged as one of those hard to forget.

Ku Na'uka may not be as famous as British theatre guru Peter Brook or German composer-director Heiner Goebbels - Brook's economical yet magical Le Costume and Goebbels' music theatre tapestry Hashirigaki came to the festival in the early 2000s - but these were all productions that showcased the wondrous possibilities of live performance to those who thought they had seen it all.

If history is anything to go by, Arts Festival Ltd has got two things right. One is its mandate of inspiring people through great, diverse artistic experiences. In my 15 years of watching arts performances here and overseas, what has stayed with me are a few individual productions, not the arts festivals as a whole, no matter how well put together they were.

The previous Singapore Arts Festival director from 2010 to 2012, Low Kee Hong had some great ideas for festival themes like nostalgia and myth, but at the end of the day, what audiences buy tickets for is not a festival's overall concept but individual productions, and the smaller, more offbeat works that characterised his tenure were a tough sell.

The other thing the new company has done right is making the festival director a rotating position with a term of a few years. This helps keep the artistic vision fresh. The early part of Goh's 10-year tenure was praised, but by the late noughties, her programming had become more predictable and formulaic.

Can Ms Lee and Ong rise to the challenge? For starters, it would be hard to find two arts insiders with the combined experience and international contacts that they have.

While Ong's brand of theatre has its detractors, his work as a director has always been that of a curator par excellence, collaborating with unique and virtuosic performers with their own stories to tell, from Japanese techno artists to Cambodian court dancers who survived Pol Pot's genocidal regime. South-east Asian artists such as the brilliant Indonesian composer Rahayu Supanggah and Indonesian choreographer Boi Sakti have found a wider audience in part through his intercultural projects.

I would be very interested to see what an entire arts festival programmed by him would look like. To distinguish itself as a leading festival in Asia, it would need to commission more new productions involving international and regional artists - not just Singapore artists - and this is right up the director's alley.

Ms Lee's job will be to stretch the budget. In recent years, the annual festival budget has hovered around $7 million. The arts council has said it will fund the festival around $6.5 million a year.

The company would need to maintain or ramp up the $1.7 million a year the festival currently generates in box-office sales and sponsorship, which means that the programme needs to balance artistic as well as commercial imperatives.

Ong has already given a taste of what is to come when he told The Business Times that the way to get ticket sales up is to bring in the "big and expensive shows", the "bold and visionary" productions - likening his job to that of providing "a three-star Michelin meal" for every Singaporean.

Bring it on. One just hopes that the chef will not fall out with the restaurant manager in the process.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 11, 2013

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