Art here, there and everywhere

The Tropical Leaf work (left) by sculptor Han Sai Por at One Raffles Quay.

Artist Han Sai Por has long fancied showing her nature- themed sculptures, which dot Singapore's urban areas, in lush parks.

The 70-year-old sculptor's dream may soon come true when the Public Art Trust, aimed at transforming Singapore's landscape with works of art, is rolled out.

First announced in Parliament earlier this month by Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong, the trust with a $10-million seed fund will commission, display, promote and maintain new public artworks.

The National Arts Council, which is launching the trust in collaboration with the ministry, will consult the public on features of the trust before finalising the scheme by year's end.

The trust is cheered by art lovers, artists and art observers here. They say the move will bring art closer to the man in the street and has the potential to transform the look of the cityscape.

Among those who welcome the support are artists Ang Song Nian, Elizabeth Lim, Tan Peiling and Kamiliah Bahdar, who participated in a recent art project organised by the Sculpture Square arts centre in Middle Road.

The group researched the role of the public in relation to public sculpture and the fruits of their labour will be shown in an exhibition titled Override at the centre next month.

Ang, 31, speaking on behalf of the group, calls the introduction of the trust "timely, if not almost overdue".

He says: "Much emphasis has been placed on the visual arts in recent years but with most of the action taking place in museums, galleries, art fairs and newly set-up institutions."

By bringing art beyond walls and closer to the masses, the trust has members of the arts community and wider public abuzz with ideas, as well as questions, on the kinds of art that will show up and how they will be commissioned.

The excitement, however, is not fanned by novelty.

The Government has been pushing to transform public spaces with art as early as 1988 when it introduced a public sculpture donation scheme.

Later, the National Heritage Board initiated a public art tax incentive scheme in 2006 to allow organisations and individuals double tax deduction when they donate, commission, display and maintain public art.

From 2005 to 2012, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) ran an art incentive scheme that granted developers of new downtown projects additional gross floor area commensurate with the value of public art they displayed in their developments.

This led to the creation of 36 public artworks including the Rain Oculus at the integrated resort Marina Bay Sands, a 22m-wide bowl-like sculpture by American artist Ned Kahn that channels water into the property's central retail atrium.

The new trust, however, shows that the Government is eager to do more. For one thing, it will not restrict the addition of public art to specific areas as with the URA's downtown scheme.

This is welcomed by Mr Jeffrey Say, 48, programme leader for Lasalle College of the Arts' master's in Asian art histories programme, who says it will go "a long way towards forging a communal cultural identity and making art less elitist".

Artist Tan Wee Lit, 35, notes that with the trust, the Government will take on an active role in commissioning public art, unlike before when "public art was mostly made possible by corporations for their own developments".

Tan, who is a visiting assistant professor at the Singapore Management University's arts and culture management programme, has a public sculpture in Raffles Place Park, commissioned by real estate developer City Developments Limited (CDL) after he won its biennial Singapore Sculpture Award in 2007.

However, the trust also hopes to encourage corporations and individuals to support public art.

Mr Yeo Whee Jim, director of the ministry's arts and heritage division, says the trust, to be set up as an institution of public character, will be able to match private donations to it, dollar-for-dollar under the Government's $200-million Cultural Matching Fund, launched last November. This would mean that even a modest donation can go a long way.

Mr Yeo adds that the trust may also partner private donors and companies that are keen to commission new public art.

Those interested can approach the trust on possible proposals and if they are approved, the trust can match half the cost of the commission using the Cultural Matching Fund as well as help source an appropriate site if necessary.Ms Esther An, head of corporate social responsibility at CDL, which has commissioned and installed six public sculptures by artists here through its sculpture award, believes the trust will be a catalyst in driving public art commissions from private patrons.

She says: "Most arts patrons may find it simpler to make outright contributions towards arts groups or established events rather than dedicate much time and energy to produce a public artwork.

"The formation of the trust will help facilitate the collaborative process involved in public art commissions, from identifying suitable public sites to enabling partnerships between artists and arts patrons."

Support different types of art

Art lovers and artists are seized by the potential of the trust to change the look and feel of the city and the heartland.

Marketing consultant and art lover Jean Tsai, who is in her 50s, hopes to see aesthetically pleasing works that can "morph, grow or transform" over time, as well as allow the public to physically interact with them.

"Most public art in Singapore is quite static. Such new works, rather than simply beautify the landscape, will draw people to look at them, think about them and have more fun," she says.

Publisher Peter Schoppert, 52, who runs the website which allows online visitors to document and discuss public art in Singapore, similarly supports the commissioning of different types of art, including sound art.

He adds: "We should look also at street artists. The best of them are very thoughtful and open-minded in their observation of how people react to their surroundings. Perhaps the best contribution public art can make is to help the public feel a sense of ownership and involvement with places around them."

Members of the Sculpture Square's public sculpture research project suggest that the trust also considers commissioning temporary public works.

Artist Ang says: "Where large amounts of money are concerned, there seems to be a need to justify it by ensuring that it is grand, gets attention and, importantly, that it lasts.

"But public art need not be any of that - it can be temporary or even transient. In a city that's constantly redeveloping and changing, why should our public art not be the same?"

Sculptor Chua Boon Kee, 61, who has more than 20 works of public art displayed around Singapore, including a stainless-steel piece titled Water Bubbles outside Clementi Mall, concurs with the group's observation.

He points out that works which are temporary may not require long-lasting materials such as expensive high-quality bronze or incur costly maintenance fees.

"This would mean that the fund gets shared among more artists and there are more opportunities to create and show public art," he says.

Others are keen to have the new works champion artistic excellence rather than function as utilitarian tools for community building.

Sculptor and painter Sun Yu-li, 66, who has no fewer than 10 public artworks on display here, including the large bronze ring Abundance III outside the convention and exhibition centre at Suntec City, says: "The public art that this fund supports should be in the spirit of fine art, which has no utilitarian criteria to meet."He adds that other forms of art such as community art have alternative funds to support their work.

Expressing a similar sentiment, artist Yeo Chee Kiong, 44, who recently gave a talk on public art with fellow artist Han at their alma mater Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa), says: "Artists should have the freedom to create instead of being dictated to by the commissioning body on what to do."

So far, the ministry has a broad and overarching vision for the type of art that the trust will fund.

Mr Yeo Whee Jim says it aims to commission "impactful and meaningful public art in high traffic public areas" that will make the city and the heartland vibrant, and in turn "develop a stronger appreciation for the visual arts among Singaporeans".

He adds that the trust will likely commission international and Singaporean artists, either directly or via open calls. An advisory panel, comprising experts in art, design and urban planning, will advise on the open calls, assessments and commissions.

Many of those interviewed support the decision to have an advisory panel and advocate a rigorous process to commission public works.

Mr Chiew Sien Kuan, 49, deputy head of Nafa's department of fine art, says proper planning is crucial to ensure that works are not forced into "ill-fitting spaces", especially given Singapore's land constraints.

"Visual pollution can result from trying to pack too many things together when they are not planned properly."

Mr Schoppert, who also supports having an advisory panel, says: "It's hard to guarantee that any piece of public art will ever really work.

"It's very hard to predict how people will react to a work... But at least you can define what a good thorough process is and put your faith in that."

He adds that the process, besides consultations with various art and architecture experts, should also include conversations with people living and working in the area where the work will be installed.

Artist and senior fellow at Lasalle, Milenko Prvacki, 63, who is likewise in favour of having an advisory panel, says the panel's members should be willing to stand firm and not compromise on artistic excellence.

He suggests that the trust also look into the maintenance and preservation of public art because some artists here, including his wife, sculptor Delia Prvacki, have had their public works destroyed in the past by those who commissioned them to make way for new developments.

Prvacki, a Serbian-born Singaporean, says: "Because they own the works, they do what they want, including destroying the works when they can be stored or relocated.

"Only in revolutions do people destroy public sculptures. The artist's creative copyright should be respected."

The arts council's director of visual arts development Paul Tan says the trust's guidelines on best practices for commissioning public art "will help guide both commissioner and artist to ensure a win-win outcome" and cover "issues of intellectual property and long-term maintenance".

Artist Han, who raised a similar point on protecting public art at the recent talk she gave at Nafa, says: "It is not possible to absolutely prevent vandalism and poor maintenance of public art when some see it as junk.

"But with education, people can learn to like and respect art that was created to enhance the city, and not damage it."

View it


Where: Chapel Gallery, Sculpture Square, 155 Middle Road

When: April 1 to 6, 11am to 7pm daily

Admission: Free

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