Arts fest leaders agree to work together after spat

The two leaders of the Singapore International Festival of Arts have agreed to set their differences aside and work together for the success of this year's festival.

After their private disagreements became public last week, the festival company said on Satuday that festival director Ong Keng Sen and chief executive Lee Chor Lin had "reached an amicable agreement to resolve their differences".

In making public his disagreements with Ms Lee, Mr Ong, who is appointed for four terms, had declared that he "will not accept Ms Lee as the CEO for the next three years" beyond the first festival which opens on Aug 12.

On Satuday, the statement from Arts Festival Limited, the independent holding company set up to run the event, said: "With the shared goal of working towards the success of the Festival, Keng Sen will continue to direct the Festival into its fruition, together with Chor Lin leading the Festival company."

Mr Ong and Ms Lee declined to comment when contacted on Satuday.

Before tensions erupted last week, they were seen as the dynamic duo powering the national arts festival to a fresh start and for their work, making it jointly to the annual Power List of movers and shakers in The Straits Times' Life! section in December.

Barely six months into the partnership, they unveiled a stellar line-up for the six-week festival, including famous British composer Michael Nyman's opera Facing Goya as the opening act.

But last Tuesday, Mr Ong sent a strongly worded e-mail to Ms Lee and copied it to the media and key arts policymakers.

In it, he said that she had kept him out of the loop in the production of the main festival guide and a brochure for pre-festival programme O.P.E.N. which will run from June 26 to July 12. The brochures were to be ready for public distribution next month.

"I have been providing material but nothing has come back to me for review. We have consistently asked to see how the artistic information is being presented," Mr Ong wrote in the e-mail, copied to the Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong and arts council chief Kathy Lai.

Nominated Member of Parliament Janice Koh told The Sunday Times that the incident could be an "important learning point" for the council, which used to run the arts festival and turned over the reins to Arts Festival Limited last year.

She said: "Are they prepared to trust an artist to lead a major arts institution like the Singapore International Festival of Arts? The artists are certainly more than ready."

She added that running an arts festival requires collaboration, transparency, mutual respect and "most of all, trust in the artist and in the artistic vision".

"Given that artistic vision and programming is one of the most fundamental aspects of any arts festival, my view is that it is better for the festival director to be the one taking the lead in such an organisation.

"The CEO is there to support and deliver on the creative vision set out by the festival director."

Last week, Ms Lee had sought to downplay the dispute. "There are differences but we're going to sort them out," she said.

She had told Mr Ong that the deadline for the design of the brochure had been extended to take in his input and that there was no more time to make changes.

Film programmer Zhang Wenjie, 40, who worked with Ms Lee at the museum for about six years, said he was glad that the two had resolved things.

He said of Ms Lee: "She's someone who truly cares for and understands the arts. With her, I always knew that even though opinions and ideas might be different, we find ways to work things out."

Impressive experience and connections

Festival director Ong Keng Sen, 50

Mr Ong Keng Sen's international connections and experience curating arts festivals were among the reasons the National Arts Council appointed him festival director last year.

He has created and curated arts festivals in London and Berlin and his creative works have been staged around the world, including Diaspora, a multimedia production about migrant communities, which was in the main programme of the renowned Edinburgh Arts Festival in 2009. His Asian reinterpretations of Shakespearean plays - Lear (1997) and Desdemona (2000) - are widely studied in academic circles.

When the artistic director of Singapore troupe TheatreWorks was appointed last May as festival director for four terms of the Singapore International Festival of Arts, he told The Sunday Times the festival should be an "arts Olympics - the pinnacle of both Singapore and international arts".

Working with a budget of $6.5 million, he said he wanted to move away from giving audiences more entertainment and consumerism and hold a "serious, adult" festival.

This is not the first time that he and Arts Festival Limited chief executive officer Lee Chor Lin are working together.

He curated the National Museum's Night Festival in 2010, when she was the museum's director. The two have also worked together on TheatreWorks productions commissioned by or presented in partnership with the museum. The most recent was a play presented in late 2012 and early last year, in conjunction with an exhibition on the late theatre pioneer Kuo Pao Kun.

A graduate of the National University of Singapore's Faculty of Law, Mr Ong also holds a master's in intercultural performance from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

Much of his career has been invested in regional engagement. He founded Arts Network Asia to encourage collaborations between Asian artists, as well as The Flying Circus Project to bring together traditional and contemporary artists from various countries and disciplines.

Mr Ong is the first Singapore artist to receive both the Young Artist Award (1992) and the Cultural Medallion (2003) from the arts council.

In a Straits Times interview after his appointment as festival director, he said: "The festival is for Singaporeans. I want the arts to be part of daily life."

She drew crowds to the museum

Chief executive officer Lee Chor Lin, 50

After she was made chief executive officer of Arts Festival Limited last May, Ms Lee Chor Lin said in an interview that she saw herself as an "enabler" and an "accountant" to the company's artistic director Ong Keng Sen.

"Keng Sen is very creative, has great ideas and I certainly like his choices. But you can't expect creative people to be like accountants. When we talk budget, they will probably go 'uh'," she said.

"With someone like Keng Sen who is very creative, strong-minded and dedicated to giving us the best festival, my role is to ensure he and his team have all they need to make it happen."

Ms Lee said she needed some persuading before she left a 28-year career in the museum sector to helm the new arts festival company.

She joked: "Most museum directors work till their death."

Last week, 10 months on, she was downplaying the dispute with Mr Ong.

All she would say to The Sunday Times was: "There are differences but we're going to sort it out." She declined to say more.

Ms Lee headed the National Museum of Singapore from 2002 to last year, and her success in redefining the museum experience and drawing in the crowds were among the reasons cited by the National Arts Council for her appointment.

While she was at the museum, it started its popular annual Night Festival featuring spectacular outdoor art and multimedia productions after sundown.

There were also blockbuster exhibitions of art and history to bring in the crowds: A 2012 touring exhibition of art from France's famous Musee d'Orsay drew 143,000 visitors while more than 110,000 went to a 2010 showcase of Egyptian mummies.

The museum's Cinematheque also became well-known for its in-depth retrospectives of important film-makers. In 2012, the museum attracted around 900,000 visitors, three times more than before its revamp in 2006.

Ms Lee began her career as a curator of South-east Asian art at the museum in 1985, after completing a master's in history from the National University of Singapore.

Married with no children, she also played a key role in setting up the Asian Civilisations Museum and managed that museum's China and South-east Asian galleries between 1997 and 2002.

She has said that her wealth of experience in arts management, albeit in the museum sector, would come in handy in her arts festival job.

"I still have to put bums on seats, balance the company and the board's expectations, manage public opinion and raise funds."

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.