SINGAPORE - Earlier this month, DBS Bank made what is the largest single donation by a corporation to the arts, giving $25 million to the National Gallery Singapore.
What is less well-known is that it took a year of negotiations before the champagne could be popped.
That was the case too for another major cash donation - the $12 million given by Keppel Corporation to the gallery, slated to open in November next year after the refurbishment of the historic City Hall and former Supreme Court buildings is completed.
Mr Kola Luu, the gallery's director of business and corporate strategic development, says while corporate sponsors are now coming forward in a bigger way for the visual arts, some challenges remain.
Key among these is the general preference among corporations to first support education, medical and social services.
"There is a sense of urgency to help people in need of medical attention, to educate and mould our children and youth into productive adults, and to bring joy to the less privileged," he says. "Giving to the arts has traditionally been viewed as supporting the privileged few who indulge in art appreciation."
However, the growing visibility of the visual arts here over the last few years has made corporations more predisposed towards it, say art industry insiders.
Mr Luu, 51, a former investment banker who worked in both New York and Hong Kong for 15 years before returning to Singapore in 2005, says the sponsorship climate is changing.
The Singaporean adds: "As Singapore matures, I find there is greater appreciation of our own arts heritage. We want to understand our own art history and contribute to it."
He is confident that the generous donations by DBS and Keppel "will pave the way for more corporates to show support for the arts and add to what already exists".
Mr Lorenzo Rudolf, 54, director of the premier annual contemporary art fair Art Stage Singapore, lauds the donations made by DBS and Keppel.
He says: "As a consequence of this, I hope that more local corporates and companies will support top engagements in building up Singapore to a leading and internationally well respected centre and hub for modern and contemporary art."
For Singapore to compete with Hong Kong, the other regional visual art hub with a rival stable of art fairs, museums and galleries, it "needs both government support as well as the backing of private enterprise", he says.
Art Stage is supported by government agencies such as EDB Singapore and the National Arts Council, but also has a string of corporate partners including its venue partner Marina Bay Sands.
Corporate giving to the arts and culture has fluctuated over the past decade, but the last four years has seen a definite upward trend.
Total contributions by corporations and individuals rose from $38.3 million in 2010 to $45 million in 2012, according to the Singapore Cultural Statistics 2013 report published by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.
The visual arts appears to be a key driver of change, with not only more museums, museum shows and Art Stage Singapore adding to the buzz. Blockbuster exhibitions by prominent artists are popping up even at smaller venues.
In 2012, the Royal Academy of London's travelling show titled Encounter: The Royal Academy In Asia featured 100 artworks worth US$20 million (S$25 million) by 50 artists.
It was the first time that a major Royal Academy exhibition had come to Asia, but it was held not at one of Singapore's art museums but at the smaller locale of the Lasalle College of the Arts' Institute of Contemporary Arts.
The show found its key sponsor in Bank of Singapore, OCBC's private banking arm.
Artists featured included several Western drawcards such as sculptors Antony Gormley and Richard Deacon, presented alongside an impressive selection of prominent artists from across Asia such as Indonesian artist FX Harsono, Chinese painter Liu Xiaodong and home-grown artist and film-maker Ho Tzu Nyen.
In line with this evolution, next month, another banking giant, UBS, presents the Guggenheim Mapping The World (South-east Asia) Series at the Centre for Contemporary Art, an art and research hub by Nanyang Technological University, housed in the Gillman Barracks art cluster.
The Asian show is a landmark event as it will highlight regions under- represented in the international art scene, and seeks to broaden the reach of New York's Guggenheim Museum, which boasts one of the world's top collections of 19th-century Western art to the present.
In another sign of change, corporations are not just sponsoring art exhibitions. As is the case with DBS and Keppel's partnerships with the National Gallery (see other stories), they are donating in a big way to shape the future of arts institutions.
Support currently comes in various forms, ranging from cash donations to building up corporate art collections to creating art prizes that are making an impact in the region.
Property developer City Developments Limited (CDL), for instance, has been a long-standing supporter of the arts.
In the last two decades, the group has contributed about $15 million to various arts initiatives. Since 2011, it has been receiving the National Arts Council's Distinguished Patron of the Arts Award for contributions of $1.5 million and above made in one year.
CDL is a member of the Hong Leong group of companies, and the Hong Leong Foundation donated $5 million for the construction of the new wing at Asian Civilisations Museum in 2009.
CDL also sponsors the biennial CDL Singapore Sculpture Award, contributing close to $2 million since its launch in 2002.
CDL's deputy chairman Kwek Leng Joo, 61, is himself an ardent arts supporter and photographer. He says: "As a developer, we believe that art complements the built environment... It is only through developing a culture with a strong appreciation for the arts that we can truly establish Singapore as a global arts city."
Another long-standing visual arts supporter is the United Overseas Bank which has been sponsoring the UOB Painting of the Year award for over three decades.
Ms Tan Ping Ping, 37, vice-president of UOB Group brand performance and corporate communications head, says the bank has built up a large and significant art collection since the 1970s.
Today, it has more than 1,500 artworks, many by Singapore's pioneer artists such as Cheong Soo Pieng, Georgette Chen and Goh Beng Kwan.
"We started collecting art in the 1970s to support and to encourage local artists," says Ms Tan.
She adds that over the last five years, the bank has expanded its art programmes beyond Singapore, in line with its business expansion. The competition is now held across four countries in South-east Asia and has a regional prize pool of more than US$200,000, making it one of the major art prizes in the region.
Another significant art award is the Signature Art Prize sponsored by the Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation and held at the Singapore Art Museum.
Launched in 2008, it is a 15-year commitment on the part of the foundation, with the prize being awarded once every three years to the most outstanding contemporary artwork produced in competition in the Asia Pacific region.
Since the first edition, the foundation has raised its cash commitment to the art prize from $450,000 in 2008 to $1 million in 2011 to $1.1 million for each of the remaining three editions till 2020. In total, the 20-year-old foundation has so far committed to giving close to $6 million to the arts until 2020, and has donated a large part of this amount.
Mr Roland Pirmez, 54, chairman of the APB Foundation advisory committee and board of trustees, as well as president of Heineken Asia Pacific, tells Life!: "Given the fairly rapid development of the economies in the region in the last five years, we have indeed seen a growing interest in cultural investment taken not only by governments and the non-profit sector but the private sector as well."
There are in place generous tax breaks for contributing to the arts.
Currently, all contributions to the arts organisations that are institutes of public character are entitled to 21/2 times tax deduction. The Government also has in place a one-year-old scheme to match dollar-for-dollar donations to the arts and culture under a $200-million Cultural Donation Matching Fund.
On these schemes, Mr Kwek of CDL says they have enhanced corporate giving to arts and heritage causes.
At the Singapore Tyler Print Institute, major exhibitions with corporate backing include the ongoing BMW Young Asian Artists series, which enables outstanding Asian artists identified by the institute to spend a fortnight in Singapore producing art.
Ms Emi Eu, 43, director of the institute, agrees that the Government's growing support for the visual arts through ventures such as the upcoming National Gallery would "create significant visibility and impact especially for those potential corporate sponsors".
However, she adds that arts causes have to "resonate with the sponsor's philosophy" in order to win sponsorship. The ultimate deal- clincher is still "the sponsor's wish to identify itself with unique and outstanding attributes connected to the event or cause".
This article was published on April 15 in The Straits Times.
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