State, artists work together to develop arts
published in the The Straits Times, Tuesday December 9, 1999 Pg 42, Forum

KOH PECK HOON Deputy Director (Corporate Communications & Marketing) for Executive Director National Arts Council

In "Give the arts free rein to bloom", (ST, Nov 21), Mr Kuo Pao Kun contended that state domination is a "crucial impeding factor" in the development of the arts in Singapore.

He argued that "the arts, as a dimension functionally distinct from politics and economics, deserves its own autonomous space above institutional politics".

The arts cannot be a sphere unto itself and artists should not arrogate unto themselves the position of sole decision-makers and agenda-setters in the arts.

Artists are but one of the players in shaping and developing the arts scene. The audience, the arts critics, the patrons and sponsors, the tax-payers, the community and the Government are all essential players as well.

In playing its role, the Government consults and interacts with all these players.

Mr Kuo argued that artists should be empowered with authority and national resources to fund projects and confer national recognition.

However, this is the role of the elected Government as the representative of the people and the custodian of state resources.

Would the other essential players agree to the Government surrendering its custodial and national responsibilities to artists?

Would even the artist community agree, considering their diverse and competing interests?

Specifically, Mr Kuo questioned the selection process for the Cultural Medallion which is conferred by the Minister for Information and the Arts.

This is a national award for artists, not unlike National Day honours, as opposed to recognition that is conferred by artists or patrons.

A panel of members from the arts community contributes inputs to the selection process. It plays an advisory role and its recommendations have generally been adopted.

Artists and arts patrons, and other interest-groups for that matter, are free to award recognition to prominent members of their community in whatever way they choose.

Mr Kuo acknowledged the merit of public projects like The Esplanade and the Singapore Art Museum but called for equal support for "people-initiated" projects such as The Substation.

The National Arts Council (NAC) gives an annual grant of about $76,000 to The Substation. The Substation is also one of the beneficiaries of NAC's Arts Housing Scheme, which provides subsidised housing for 56 arts groups, 28 individual artists and two arts institutions.

If The Substation were to be fully funded like a Government project or agency using public funds, it would immediately be subject to full public accountability and lose several degrees of freedom.

We believe there is value in having a diversity and mix of public and private initiatives in developing the arts.

Regarding Performance Art and Forum Theatre, the fact is that these art forms are not banned in Singapore. Artists can seek sponsorship from private sources and practise these art forms with licences from the Public Entertainment Licensing Unit (PELU).

State funding has been withheld from these art forms considering the impact and development of these forms and their potential for abuse by irresponsible people.

Like Mr Kuo, we recognise that the Singapore arts scene has made tremendous strides since the 1989 Report of the Advisory Council for Culture and the Arts. In Mr Kuo's own words, "many new artists asserted their presence; many creative arts groups were founded; commercial galleries mushroomed; art auctions burgeoned; festivals doubled; funding multiplied." These developments are certainly not the Government's sole doing but surely it must have contributed or done something right along the way.

The Government alone will not be able to take our arts and cultural scene to new heights in the next millennium. All the players in the development of the arts in Singapore must work together to help realise the full creative potential of our nation.