Year of women power and titans

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 17, 2013

This has been a busy and good year for the arts.

As 2013 draws to a close, it is a good time to look back on the year that has been. All too often, both as an arts reporter and an arts consumer, I am too caught up by the daily hurly burly of the arts scene to appreciate how complex it has become and how diverse its offerings have grown.

This year has been remarkable both in terms of developments in the infrastructure as well as in the quality of arts events across the board, from the performing arts to the literary scene to the visual arts.

On the larger canvas, the one thing that stood out this year was the wave of new appointments to the biggest arts institutions in the land. What was also remarkable was the fact that they were all women.

Professor Chan Heng Chee and Ms Kathy Lai became the National Arts Council's first female chairman and chief respectively. A practising artist, Dr Susie Lingham, was also called to take on the role of director at the Singapore Art Museum.

Over at the National Art Gallery, Ms Chong Siak Ching assumed the post of chief executive as well as head of the new visual arts cluster which also includes Singapore Art Museum and the Singapore Tyler Print Institute.

Mrs Rosa Daniel stepped up as chief executive officer at the National Heritage Board while Ms Angelita Teo took over the reins at the National Museum of Singapore.

In the arts, the power positions have traditionally been held by men.

In fact, only Ms Teo was stepping into another woman's shoes - the former head of the National Museum was Ms Lee Chor Lin, who has moved on to become chief executive of Arts Festival Limited, the company that will run the revamped Singapore International Festival of Arts.

It is remarkable to see this contingent of women sweeping into the arts scene.

It might be politically incorrect to talk about their gender but to dismiss it is equivalent to ignoring the elephant in the room. I, for one, see cause for celebration in these appointments precisely because they so squarely redress the glaring gender imbalance in the top tier of arts administration here.

Whether they will all deliver on the job is, of course, another issue entirely unrelated to their gender and wholly dependent on their individual skills. But it was heartening to see a smashing of glass ceilings in arts administration and in such a barnstorming fashion too.

Another notable appointment this year was Dr Eugene Tan, who was named director of the National Art Gallery in May after a second international headhunt to fill the position. Mr Kwok Kian Chow had stepped aside from the post to become senior advisor.

It will be interesting to see what Dr Tan, who helped develop Gillman Barracks in his former job as programme director of special projects at the Economic Development Board, can bring to the National Art Gallery.

It is a high-profile post loaded with expectations from the arts community, and Dr Tan will have much to do, given the institution's fast looming official opening date in 2015.

Equally notable were the twin appointments of arts veterans Lee and TheatreWorks' artistic director Ong Keng Sen to the newly formed Arts Festival Limited. Their long experience in the arts industry have already paid off in terms of how fast they have hit the ground running.

Since their appointment in May, they have set up a new company as well as announced the opening and closing acts for the festival, which returns next August. Ong will direct a Michael Nyman opera, Facing Goya, to open the festival, while the celebrated Wooster Group will close it with a radical take on Shakespeare's Troilus And Cressida.

With these teaser announcements of the programme for next year's arts festival, I am already blocking out time to catch shows as well as the very intriguing O.P.E.N. programme, a new event which aims to stage lectures and workshops tied to the arts festival's programme as an educational bridge for audiences.

I have to confess I barely felt the lack of the arts festival this year, which took a much-needed hiatus to reconsider its direction. The crowded arts calendar threw up so many options that I was kept busy running hither and thither.

Among the highlights for me were the Affordable Art Fair, the Singapore Writers Festival, the 3 Titans Of Theatre series which brought in productions by theatre legends Simon McBurney, Yukio Ninagawa and Peter Brook, as well as the Singapore Biennale.

The Affordable Art Fair attracted a record 17,800 visitors and notched up more than $4 million in sales. In just four years, the fair has come a long way from 2010, when its debut drew 9,500 visitors and recorded $1.75 million in sales.

It is a reflection of how the audience, and the market, for the visual arts has burgeoned in Singapore. The fair is just the buzziest indicator of a growing hunger, as well as a budding confidence on the part of young consumers who have no cultural cringe barriers when it comes to buying home-grown works.

Healthy sales reports from galleries supporting young Singaporean artists with solo shows reflect this notable trend this year. Hopefully, this lays down a strong foundation for the future of Singapore art.

The Singapore Writers Festival also recorded encouraging figures with more than 19,000 visitors, sales of more than 3,060 passes as well as healthy attendances for ticketed events such as author lectures and literary dinners.

While these sales figures might seem modest, I regard it as yet another encouraging sign that Singaporeans are now more willing to pay for the arts.

Judging from the long queues at the festival bookshop for local as well as foreign books, I would hazard a guess that Singapore writing too is reaching a wider audience here.

On the international stage, Singapore writers made a memorable splash this year. Kevin Kwan's pulpy bestseller Crazy Rich Asians caused a stir in no less a publishing capital than New York. On a smaller scale, there is Ovidia Yu's entertaining detective story Aunty Lee's Delights and Suchen Christine Lim's lushly epic The River's Song, both of which were picked up by international publishers.

Home-grown publisher Edmund Wee declared his aim to get a Singapore book onto the Man Booker Prize longlist in the next five years. And I believe it is not such a pipe dream as some might think. After all, film director Anthony Chen's Ilo Ilo has stormed the international film stage in grand style this year.

While there are plenty of reasons to celebrate local achievements, I also welcomed the chance to watch international theatre legends on my own doorstep. The 3 Titans series was utterly memorable, with three very different theatre offerings that ran the gamut from darkly romantic, to wisely joyous, to dainty cameo.

Similarly, the Singapore Biennale's new South-east Asian focus was a breath of fresh air. I appreciated the opportunity to see cutting-edge works from artists in neighbouring countries, the chance to delve into different languages of contemporary art besides the very international lingo spoken by Singapore's young artists.

There is often a regional vacuum in the mindset of Singaporeans, who tend to look beyond South-east Asia for influences and inspiration, and the Singapore Biennale was a vibrant reminder of the riches that lie just on our doorstep.

With all the changes this year has wrought, I cannot wait to see what 2014 has in store for art lovers.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 17, 2013

To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to