Artists raise questions over S’pore’s exit from Venice Biennale

The news that Singapore will not be taking part in the prestigious Venice Biennale next year has upset and baffled arts practitioners and supporters in Singapore.

It prompted newly elected Nominated Member of Parliament and actress Janice Koh to write a note on Facebook saying she is “appalled and deeply disappointed” by the move. Those who have read her post also voiced their concerns.

Visual artist and filmmaker Ho Tzu Nyen, who took part in the last edition of Venice Biennale in 2011, told inSing News that he found the decision “worrying”.

The National Arts Council (NAC) has announced that as part of its "ongoing review of all platforms", it has decided not to stage a Singapore Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale.

The Venice Biennale, held once every two years, is regarded as the world’s most prestigious international showcase for contemporary visual art.

Next year would have been Singapore’s seventh participation since 2001. In 2009, contemporary artist Ming Wong represented Singapore and received a Special Mention Award.

Mr Khor Kok Wah, NAC's deputy chief executive officer, said: “NAC will review our Venice participation and consult our visual arts advisors and members of the arts community. We will re-examine the relevance of participating in future Venice Biennales, before deciding if we should continue our participation in 2015."

Inconsistent

Ms Janice Koh, who worked at NAC from 1997 to 2002, called the move an “inconsistent” one by the council and the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA), saying that in Parliament “barely a few months ago in July”, the Minister of MICA had recognised the Biennale’s importance in raising the profile of Singapore’s artists.

She wrote that “pulling out of the Biennale is akin to winning the Table Tennis Bronze medal at the London Olympics after years of training, and dropping our team’s participation at the 2016 games in Rio (de Janeiro)”.

Responding to Ms Koh’s post, Facebook user “Charlene Lim” commented: “For a small country like ours, Singapore simply cannot afford to lose its international engagement and relevance. All this, after years of striving to be a global arts city! Terribly shortsighted decision and very damaging for the long run.”

Mr Ho Tzu Nyen, who represented Singapore last year at the Venice Biennale, told inSing News: “It’s really a regrettable step backwards. I don’t really know what it means to ‘take a break’ from participating in this event. Individuals and artists can take a break, but as an institution, you don’t take a break. You need to uphold your presence. Even if you need to restructure or review what you are doing, it does not warrant a suspension.”

Sending Negative Signal

It does not help that the news follows the debate about the subsuming of “the arts” under “culture” with the formation of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY).

Ms Koh wrote: “This decision… demonstrates the huge and sudden swing in government’s cultural policy towards pushing community arts for the masses, it clearly shows the lack of a consistent and robust long-term strategy to develop Singapore artists and the Singapore arts scene in a holistic manner.”

Mr Ho said: “The NAC is sending an extremely negative signal about the function of art in Singapore, where there has been a reorientation of art to be ‘community-building exercises’. In the history of art, you will notice that the really important art works were not blockbusters. So this emphasis on using art as a tool for getting high visitor numbers, or to have works that can be understood widely by the public, is quite worrying.”

He added: “Most of the developed countries have pavilions at the Biennale, and even Indonesia will be having one at next year’s edition.”

NAC said that while the news follows “the formation of MCCY and other investments under the Arts and Culture Strategic Review (ACSR) to bring arts to a wider public”, the decision on the Biennale is not an indication that it is diverting resources away from it to promote arts in the community.

Lack of Funding?

Ms Pearl Samuel, NAC’s deputy director of corporate communications and marketing services, told inSing News:“There comes a point when we need to take stock. How sustainable is our participation? The budget is really quite high and we have to think of ways to make these funds work harder to give a more impactful outcome from Venice – for our artists, curators, arts organisations and audiences back home.”

She added that the bulk of funding goes towards “venue rental and logistics in organising the Singapore Pavilion rather than to the process of art- and exhibition-making directly”.

“The yearly experience there is inconsistent due mainly to the competition for good exhibition sites,” Ms Samuel said. A good exhibition site is critical for high visibility and human traffic. “However, in the past few years, the more accessible and visible areas are highly sought after and increasingly expensive to rent, which adds on significantly to our cost,” she said.

NAC will still support Singapore artists invited by Venice Biennale to take part in its curated sections, which is separate from the national pavilions segment.

Meantime, it has partnered NUS Museum to help groom 16 young curators, and will work with Singapore galleries, museums, and arts centres such as the Substation to nurture young and emerging artists.  

She said the NAC will still push artists internationally and give them more opportunities on major platforms, such as the commissioning of new work by Singapore artists for the opening of Gilman Barracks. It will also provide more opportunities and support towards artist commissions at the Singapore Biennale, which is still on the arts calendar.

Were Artists Consulted?

Last year, the NAC spent S$850,000 on the Venice Biennale.

Mr Ho, whose art work there was partly funded by NAC and by Tokyo's Mori Art Museum, said: “It is not a lot of resources if you think of it on a national scale. It cannot be thought of as resources given to an individual. It has to be compared to resources devoted to other events on a national scale, such as Singapore Day.

“If art is really a community-building exercise, then I would have expected that the first people they discuss this with are the artists and art practitioners.”

In her Facebook note, Ms Koh also wondered if the visual arts sector and the artistic community were consulted on this issue before the pullout.

NAC responded, saying it “received feedback from stakeholders in the public sector and arts community as part of its consultation for the Visual Arts Masterplan”.

Ms Samuel said: “The opinions gathered were both for and against continuing participation. However, in NAC’s assessment, we find that on balance, it was not prudent to proceed with participation in the next edition of the Venice Biennale without first addressing the concerns.”

Irreversible Damage

The disappointment that arts supporters feel comes on the back of NAC's recent announcement that the Singapore Arts Festival would not be held next year pending a review. There has also been talk that the Singapore International Film Festival may not happen this year.

Ms Goh Ching Lee, on reading Ms Koh’s note, commented: “A year without the arts festival, and now the Venice Biennale, puts the arts into sudden reverse gear. I hope this will not lead to a crash that will cause irreversible damage.” Ms Goh was a former director of the Singapore Arts Festival who left NAC in 2009.

Responding to such concerns, Ms Samuel said: “Contrary to how the public feels, we are still deeply invested in the arts. We have budgeted an investment of S$63 million in 2012 to the arts, almost double that in 2007. Of this amount, S$36.5 million is in direct support to artists and arts groups. This is more than double the amount in 2007 (S$15.4 million) and a substantial increase from the last two years (S$19.4 million in 2010 and S$26.2 million in 2011).”

The National Arts Council (NAC) has announced that as part of its “ongoing review of all its platforms”, it has decided not to stage a Singapore Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale.



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