Benson Puah steps down as NAC head

SINGAPORE - After four years at the helm, Mr Benson Puah, 56, is stepping down as head of the National Arts Council (NAC).

His tenure with the council ends this week, and it marks the end of his stint double-hatting as head of two of the largest arts institutions in Singapore, the NAC and the Esplanade.

The influential arts administrator, who battled lymphoma last year, will remain chief executive of the Esplanade, a position he has held since the arts centre opened in 2002.

Ms Yvonne Tham, 39, currently the NAC's deputy chief executive, will be appointed covering chief while the hunt goes on for a new CEO.

The Straits Times understands that Mr Puah will be going on leave for two weeks - his first extended break since taking on the role as arts council chief.

When contacted, he declined to be interviewed.

Under Mr Puah's leadership, the council made changes to its grants framework, which saw boosts in funding to traditional art forms, as well as a new seed grant for emerging arts groups that disbursed $640,000 this year.

The council also initiated several new arts housing schemes, such as the Goodman Arts Centre and the Aliwal Arts Centre, and promoted a more consultative approach in rolling out new plans and policies.

Last week, for instance, marked the third instalment of Let's Talk, where artists, administrators and the wider arts community gathered to discuss sustainability in the arts, the Performing Arts Master Plan and audience development at the council's premises.

Arts practitioners The Straits Times spoke to generally felt that Mr Puah had made inroads in overhauling the council's image as a champion of the arts rather than a regulatory board.

Mr Chong Tze Chien, 37, company director of home-grown theatre group The Finger Players, felt that this dialogue with artists had been the most prominent change at the council, "a sincere attempt at trying to bridge the gap between the artists and the NAC".

Mr Noor Effendy Ibrahim, 40, artistic director of the arts space The Substation, agreed with this view: "What I appreciate is the sense that they are not only a stakeholder but a key part of the community and not just a statutory board, although sometimes the lines do blur."

There were some detracting views, however.

The incoming festival director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts, Mr Ong Keng Sen, 49, felt that the arts council's dialogue sessions only gave the statutory board a veneer of transparency and exchange while decisions had already been made from the top down. He did agree, however, that the council struck a hopeful note in its process of revamping the Singapore Arts Festival, noting that it had an ear to the ground with the creation of a review committee and public feedback sessions.

He said: "I think the focus of Benson's tenure has been about enabling with money and enabling with space, but strangely enough, it's become even more business-like. I would like the new person (in charge) to be more enabling with an openness of the heart.

"This sensitivity, this openness to the practice, is something which is still a big challenge for the arts council. Now they are opening to listening - but in the end the decision is made anyway."

The Finger Players' Mr Chong also felt that four years was too short a span of time for policies and plans to take a concrete form and direction.

He added: "If you roll out anything at policy level, you need about 10 years for it to materialise... I hope the new CEO will take the trajectory that Benson has set. That's very important, if not the last four years will go down the drain."

Mr Kok Heng Leun, 47, artistic director of Chinese- language theatre group Drama Box, agreed.

He noted that there had been a healthy focus on training and developing artists over the past few years, "however, while the artists are starting to grow, the challenge is then finding a space for them - after learning and growing - to create. That will take more than just four years of his work to realise, to see what the impact will be".

He added: "Benson did a lot in terms of trying to make changes. Now it's time for us to see what these changes mean."

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