The Govt's artistic experiment

SINGAPORE - Singapore has often been compared to The Republic of Plato, not least because of its mistrust of artists and subjection of them to censorship for, ostensibly, the greater good.

In the ancient Greek philosopher's vision of the well-ordered ideal society, poets and artists must be firmly under the thumb of the state, "lest the taste of our citizens be corrupted".

Lately, however, the winds of change have been blowing through arts institutions set up or run by government agencies, with the consecutive appointments of veteran artists at their helm.

Responding to the arts community's call for many years to have an independently run Singapore Arts Festival, the National Arts Council (NAC) has set up an autonomous company to organise the event, which has seen dwindling attendances. Last month, globe-trotting avant-garde theatre director Ong Keng Sen became the festival director.

This is the first time that an arts practitioner who is not an employee of the council is putting together the annual festival, and it will most likely not be the last. Mr Ong's term is for four years, after which there will be a new festival director every three years to ensure fresh artistic perspectives.

Then earlier this month, the National Heritage Board (NHB) picked visual artist and academic Susie Lingham as the new director of the Singapore Art Museum, a contemporary art institution operated by the board.

Less well-known than Mr Ong, Dr Lingham is a contemporary art pioneer who co-founded the now dormant group 5th Passage, one of the early champions of performance art here.

The oft-misunderstood art form, in which visual artists present themselves and their actions as the art work, was shut out of NAC funding for 10 years after Mr Josef Ng's controversial pubic hair-snipping performance at a 1993 event co-organised by 5th Passage.

Dr Lingham, now an assistant professor at the National Institute of Education, is also an art critic and her own artistic practice combines writing, performance, sound and image.

Selected following an open recruitment process that considered local and foreign candidates for the post, Dr Lingham herself expressed surprise at her appointment, acknowledging that she is "not the traditional sort of administrator".

Her predecessors at the museum - which has in recent years adopted a contemporary art focus - were both old hands at NHB: art historian Kwok Kian Chow and Mr Tan Boon Hui, now the board's group director of programmes.

Dr Lingham felt her appointment signalled that "things are changing" and that the statutory board running Singapore's museums is "prepared for something different, a more personal, engaged kind of vision, of someone who has an art practice at the base of where they are coming from".

What is prompting this new open-door policy to artists at the apex of state or public arts institutions?

One reason, no doubt, is the explosive growth of the arts scene and corresponding surge in expertise among artists who are no longer just locked into their own practice but have their own regional and international networks as well as experience in putting together festivals and devising programmes.

Government agencies no longer have a monopoly on the talent needed to run a world-class arts festival or museum. Audiences as well as the arts community are also more discerning, and with higher artistic and intellectual expectations of these institutions, who better to raise the bar than artists themselves?

There is also some loosening up going on, but this is by no means across the board. Indeed, the split at the end of last year of the former Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (Mica) into two new ministries tells you exactly which sectors the Government is prepared to relax its hold over, and which ones it is determined to hold the line.

The arts, now under the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY), is one area which has traditionally been given more latitude because of its niche audience. The agencies under this ministry, the NAC and NHB, have a history of involving members of the arts community in advisory and consultative roles, so the appointments of Mr Ong and Dr Lingham take that one step further.

Contrast this with how the screws have been tightened on information management, now under the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI), which recently slapped news websites with licensing regulations similar to those long in place for print and broadcast news.

Film, which has a much wider audience than visual and performing arts, also comes under the MCI. The regulatory and watchdog functions of this ministry - which does licensing of arts performances through the Media Development Authority - are distinct from the MCCY's more positivist mandate to promote the arts for cultural buzz and identity. Interestingly, the NAC recently reversed funding cuts to a theatre company, Wild Rice, for staging counter-cultural plays.

What does all this mean for artists in positions of power that are more directly accountable to the state and general public? For them, as with any other leader, it is not all carte blanche - they are still subject to the laws of the land, including maintenance of racial and religious harmony and obscenity laws, as well as the court of public opinion.

The selection of Mr Ong and Dr Lingham is an indication of a broader trust in and respect for their artistic vision. Now, apart from expanding comfort zones and introducing more cutting-edge work, their challenge is to take general audiences along with them for the ride.