ACM Chairperson Loh Lik Peng on Singapore's museums and arts eco-system

6th Jun 2018

Category: Interview

Singapore’s visual arts scene has undoubtedly been taking a hit over the past year, with unfavourable media reports regarding its major art institutions. However, museum chairperson Loh Lik Peng believes these institutions are on track towards growing the art eco-system.

Recently, CNN Philippines commented that Singapore Art Museum’s Singapore Biennale 2016 was yet another art event that had fallen into the trap of commissioning Instagram worthy works.

In February this year, the National Gallery Singapore was called out on prioritising regional and international exhibitions such as Instagram sensation Yayoi Kusama: Life Is The Heart Of A Rainbow over more local content.

Loh, chairman for the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), disagrees. He said arguably bringing in imported shows should be a museum’s purpose.

Loh believes that blockbuster exhibitions from overseas is one way to bring people into the museums and keep them coming back.

Speaking with ArtHop, the renowned hotelier said, “Look at what Yayoi Kusama’s exhibition did for National Gallery Singapore—there was not a single day when there was no queue.”

The exhibition, which ran from June 6 to Sept 3, reportedly saw more than 235,000 visitors, the highest attendance for a single exhibition since the museum opened in 2015.

“People who visited the exhibition also visited the other (Singapore and Southeast Asian) galleries—so you do get a lift in people viewing other galleries,” Loh added.

Loh, 46, is also a former board member for the National Heritage Board which oversees the bulk of museums in Singapore.

He explained that one of the matrices museums use to measure their success includes international collaborations and how often their objects are referred to in other collections and publications. “This requires (museum) exhibitions to travel and other museums to bring in (overseas) collections,” he said.

Loh said that since the Gallery is still young and developing its own collection, their first few years would be focused more on bringing in works than loaning to other museums.

“If you look at ACM, it puts a lot of works on loan. Will that happen to National Gallery in (the) next twenty years? I’m guessing they will but for now they have to bring in the blockbusters. That’s the way they drive the traffic to put themselves on international standing,” he said.

Loh said he sees an entire arts ecosystem developing around the National Gallery Singapore, with attitudes towards arts changing in the country.

He added that attitudes towards arts will change because for the first time there is a major visual arts museum with a high level of investment.

Since its launch, the Gallery has attracted heavyweight donations from big name corporate entities. Ngee Ann Development donated S$16 million to the museum for its research and curatorial work in 2016. Prior to that, DBS Bank, donated $25 million and 26 artworks from its corporate art collection. The United Overseas Bank Group contributed an undisclosed amount in addition to sharing its art collection of more than 1,500 works. Singtel donated $20 million and Keppel Corporation donated $12 million to the museum's Centre for Art Education.

When asked if the Gallery is taking away investments from on-the-ground initiatives, Loh said the money would not have been there in the first place without the Gallery.

 “There is no way the grounds-up arts scene could attract that level of funding from the government and (corporate donors) such as DBS and Keppel, which put millions into the museum,” he said.

“If you have a large enough investment it creates an eco-system. But admittedly in its first few years the gallery is a sponge that draws a lot of funds that may have otherwise gone to other museums. Over time, it should create an eco-system that allows the arts scene to grow,” Loh added.

For him, this eco-system involves strong school-based art programmes and foreign artists coming into Singapore as well as Singapore-based artists travelling out.

“If you’re a Singaporean artist and you’re not international, you’re dead because our market is too small. For us to have that, we need to have a lot more artists working on a global stage,” he said.

Loh admitted he did not understand why more local artists were not working on such a level. He said that perhaps it had to do with Singapore’s media and cultural references being very specific to the country.

“If you look at Korean pop culture and what they have managed to do, they managed to reach across different cultures," Loh said. 

“We are very specific, maybe the Malaysians will get it (Gurmit Singh and all) but the Koreans will be like ‘what’s this?’ so it’s hard for Singaporeans unless they are able to cross boundaries themselves, in their materials,” he added.

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