The Face of Defeat

As I was looking out of my window and pondering the deary weather, my scattered thoughts ran across the state of the art community we have here in Singapore today.

A Perspective Of The State Of This Community

I do feel that the different forms of art cannot be quantified to make the bean counters happy about how much their budget is being turned into other sorts of comfortable numbers (like visitorship, as a form of Return on Investment quantifier).

Then again, if the bean counters are so fixated on the RoI, I am pretty sure a lot of institutional places in Singapore would have to close down – we will be culturally bereft and heritage is just a whisper in the wind (just like some of the neglected heritage trails in Singapore).

As the corporate dominance within cultural institutions get stronger everyday, I find that it is a place which is hard to understand or grasp – how is art and their practitioners being respected in Singapore? When corporate decisions and their efforts become widely separate from the creative/curatorial content, the result becomes jarring and shameful for other people in the arts communities or even public audience to see.

When consumerism overtakes art, you
know that something is very wrong.

A “Sans Consumerism” Cultural Experience

I remembered visiting the Hakone Open Air Museum in Japan recently. It is a private museum with wide open spaces, filled with cast sculptures from the Masters as well as a lovely Picasso museum sitting in the most beautifully landscaped part of the museum. There is a lot of emphasis in curatorial content and visitor interaction with the art works… the commercial aspects (the museum shop and eatery) are just a tiny complement to the entire museum. I felt liberated from the overwhelming consumerism in Singapore’s cultural institutions.

Which part of the phrase cultural institution
does consumerism exist? I only see culture.

The Hakone OAM operates as a “public interest incorporated foundation”, which is similar to a non-profit organisation. From my limited understanding, the Hakone OAM is supported by the Fujisankei Communications Group (owner of Fuji TV Group, Pony Canyon Group, Sankei Shimbun Group and so on). I remembered a staff member sharing with me that they do not focus on visitorship numbers but on ensuring the quality of the exhibits, “It is a big place with a few of us here. We don’t need to worry about fundraising but we do worry about the artworks we are looking after. It is for our future generations’ benefit too”.

Besides the fact that Hakone OAM is bankrolled by a financial giant, I really do wonder whether Singapore will be capable of something like that – making the cultural institution a proper cultural experience, with consumerism as smaller aspect of the experience.

Worrying About Our People

Whatever the case maybe, I am aware of how some of the senior creative/curatorial positions feel (in some cultural institutions) – defeatism. I remembered sitting in a few meetings where I could see the defeated looks of such persons. When I meet them in private, the same haunted and defeated grimaces are shouting warnings to me – I fear that we will lose some extremely talented and experienced creative/curatorial people.

You know after you shared that “defeated look” thing with me. I suddenly managed to piece it together what you meant. How did I ever miss that given that I worked with him frequently?
– Friend from the same industry

I once gave an analogy to few friends, “corporate functions within a cultural institution is easily dispensable and replaceable – but to lose creative/curatorial people within the cultural institution would be irreplaceable” – they agreed wholeheartedly.

These same friends (coming from various arts communities and groups) talked about how the balance between corporate and creative sides to be crazily in favour of one side. However, I do get the general opinion that the performance and dance communities have the power of authority leaning more on the creative side. When they question me why some cultural institutions have it the other way around (“I don’t get it. Is it a business or is it art?”), I can only shrug and give my best impression of my fellow defeated friends.

And What Can We Do About It?

I think it is going to be a slow process – we need more people (from the cultural institutions) to understand that the art provides the basis for everything else. If there is no content, there is nothing to show for – it would be fluff and does not bring visitors back. We can do with less people who are focused on gaining personal objectives, and find more comrade-in-arms to work together.

Corporate people do forget easily… the arts community
is a very exclusive, small and tightly-knit community.
You’ll never know whose toes you have just stepped on.

We also need an understanding that too much focus on consumerism brings about the conversion of cultural institutions into retail institutions – it is a terrifying concept for members of the arts community. Be it music, dance, theatre or visual arts, we should be engaging with the arts as the primary objective; the complementary commercialisation aspects are secondary or even tertiary and should never be the forefront of a billing.

This Solution Is Not Mine

Before I end, a guest speaker once shared with me on the ways to change the lopsided authority in various cultural institutions, “find a few of the most respected and annoying artists to write and complain everyday… then we will win! I know it works beautifully. Just read the papers and see the results! Hahaha!”

Maybe we could hire this same respected artist to sit in some of the senior positions on various cultural institutions or groupings? That would be a lot of fun! *grabs popcorn*