The decision not to fund a pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale indicates a shift in Singapore’s public art investment priorities.
The Singapore National Arts Council has announced that the nation will not have a pavilion in the 2013 Venice Biennale. The decision has raised the ire of many local artists and art professionals, including Ho Tzu Nyen, Singapore’s representative to the biennale in 2011.
In addition to canceling the Singapore Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, the National Arts Council (NAC) will also reassess its participation in future biennales in accordance with a long-term cultural promotion strategy. As noted in a statement released by the NAC,
Says Mr Khor Kok Wah, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, NAC, ‘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. If so, our aim will be to ensure that our future presentations will contribute more systematically and effectively towards visual arts development in Singapore.
In re-examining out future participation in the Venice Biennale, NAC aims to provide more commissioning and internationalisation opportunities to our artists. In addition, NAC also hopes to involve non-public sector arts organisations to become active stakeholders and partners for Singapore’s participation at international platforms. This will help build a pool of artistic talent, curatorial capabilities and related skills for artists and these supporting organisations.’
NAC officials have also noted the high cost of renting and operating a space at the Venice Biennale, where the competition for visibility limits the potential for Singapore’s artists to gain exposure in the international art world. In 2011, the NAC spent SGD850,000 (USD680,000) on the Singapore Pavilion.
Given the amount spent, the council is evaluating the long-term sustainability of Singapore’s participation in the event. As Pearl Samuel, the NAC’s Deputy Director of Corporate Communications and Marketing Services, told inSing News, “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.”
The decision faces strong criticism from many in Singapore’s contemporary art community, who say that the withdrawal is a major step backwards for Singapore’s burgeoning international art presence. Actress and Nominated Member of Singapore’s Parliament Janice Koh posted a letter protesting the decision to pull out of the Venice Biennale on her Facebook profile, saying,
This decision on the part of NAC not only 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. I have absolutely no issue with creating greater accessibility to the arts – this is an equally important prong in arts development – but is this being done at the expense of nurturing artistic excellence? Are we intending to backtrack on the last ten years of work in profiling our best artists internationally?
Koh is not the only high-profile member of the Singapore arts community to express displeasure at the NAC’s move. Ho Tzy Nyen, who represented Singapore at the 2011 Venice Biennale, spoke to inSing about the importance of the event and Singapore’s withdrawal.
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.
Members of the Singapore arts community have since issued an open letter to Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister of Information, Communications and The Arts in Singapore. They note the consistent increase in sophistication and quality of works on display at the Singapore Pavilion as evidence of its importance as a developmental platform. Participation in the Venice Biennale, they say, also provides a platform for Singapore artists to “connect with the international art world on our terms”. They call on the council to reconsider its decision, as well as offer more transparency as to how the decision was reached. As of 3 September 2012, the letter has over 200 signatories.
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