SINGAPORE - For four months, a naked cherub gave the middle finger as it stood in the inner courtyard of the Singapore Art Museum. The soap sculpture by Vietnamese artist Vu Hong Ninh was part of the Singapore Biennale that concluded last month.
A street away in the museum's annexe in Queen Street, a video installation by Singapore artist Boo Junfeng, inspired by the biennale's theme, If The World Changed, invited visitors to sing along to an upbeat music video that imagines Singapore as part of Malaysia.
It is in this climate of openness, embracing contemporary art and its proclivity to push boundaries, that the museum itself underwent an administrative metamorphosis. Last November, it was transformed from a government-run institution into an independent visual arts company, a change initiated by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.
The aim - to give the museum, previously under the watch of the National Heritage Board, full autonomy over how it is run, including the management of finances, hiring of staff and the charting of artistic direction.
For the day-to-day running of the museum, this means a fundamental shift in power from the state to the museum. Executive decisions on exhibitions and programmes are now made by the museum's management, led by artist-academic Susie Lingham, with the approval of its board of directors, bypassing the heritage board.
The museum's recently appointed board includes the ministry's director of arts and heritage, Mr Yeo Whee Jim, but he is the only civil servant on the board chaired by Ms Jane Ittogi, a partner at law firm Shook Lin & Bok and the wife of Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
The museum is also part of an autonomous visual arts cluster set up by the ministry, which includes two other independent arts companies, the National Art Gallery, Singapore, which is still under construction, and the Singapore Tyler Print Institute.
Yet while the executive power of the museum has changed hands and rests fully with an independent management, it continues to operate within boundaries beyond its control. For one thing, it does not have the clout to dictate the larger socio-political climate that bears on the kinds of exhibitions shown and programmes run.