Honours for 108 heritage heroes

Gallerist, collector and photographer Chua Soo Bin donated a series of 84 photographs to the National Gallery Singapore.

A record number of Singapore heritage heroes were honoured last night, with 108 individuals and corporations receiving the National Heritage Board's (NHB) Patron of Heritage Awards.

The major boost - from 42 last year - came with the introduction of a new award category, Supporter, which aims to broaden the pool of heritage supporters. It honours those who contribute between $10,000 and $49,999 to museums, arts and heritage.

The ceremony held at the National Museum of Singapore recognised cash and in-kind contributions and donations of objects. The total amount received last year was over $20 million, more than twice that in 2012.

Acting Minister for Community, Culture and Youth Lawrence Wong, who gave out the awards, said the donations "have been invaluable in deepening our understanding of who we are, and where we come from".

City Developments Limited (CDL) received the highest honour, the Distinguished Patron of Heritage, for those who give $2 million or more. Last year, it set up the CDL Green Gallery at the Singapore Botanic Gardens Heritage Museum.

Other recipients included Singapore Press Holdings, which received the Partner award for supporting various exhibitions and waiving copyright fees for the use of photographs.

Retired doctor Jon Lim and his wife Doreen, who donated four pieces of intricate jewellery to the Peranakan Museum, were among the 74 who received the Supporter award. The pieces belonged to Dr Lim's late mother, Madam Heah Seok Yeong, who gave the jewellery to Mrs Lim as part of her wedding trousseau.

Said Mrs Lim, 65: "We wanted to celebrate my mother-in-law's story. In the museum, these special family heirlooms would have the place they deserve and be appreciated by generations to come."

NHB's chief executive Rosa Daniel said the increasing number of cultural benefactors shows "a passionate and engaged community which is taking more interest and ownership in the preservation of Singapore's heritage".

Heroes of Heritage

More than 100 heritage champions - the most ever - were honoured last night for their contributions to the National Heritage Board, and they were not all deep-pocketed corporations.

Individuals were also recognised for their donations to state and other museums at the board's annual Patron of Heritage Awards, now into its eighth year.

Forty individuals who donated about $10 million to heritage causes were among those honoured. They showed their generosity through cash donations, parting with rare and special pieces in their collections or donating their own artworks. In total, the corporations and individuals honoured last night gave $20 million.

Among those honoured were gallerist, collector and photographer Chua Soo Bin, who has donated 84 photographic prints to the upcoming National Gallery Singapore. These photographs were first exhibited at the National Museum of Singapore in 1989 and have travelled extensively since. They have been shown in several museums, including the Shanghai Art Museum, the Hong Kong Museum of Art and the Zhejiang Art Museum in Hangzhou.

Another who was recognised was artist Delia Prvacki, who donated two key sculptures which were a significant part of her artistic practice to the National University of Singapore Museum, where they were first shown in 2009.

Cultural philanthropist, collector and long-time museum volunteer Julia Oh also received an award for her cash commitment of $10,000 a year for 10 years to enable the board's staff and conservators to enrol in suitable courses overseas to hone their skills.

The idea behind these awards, which acknowledge contributions both big and small, is to cultivate a pool of supporters for the museums and encourage others to be involved in adding to, treasuring and preserving Singapore's unique heritage.

Chua Soo Bin

Received: Partner award, which is given to patrons whose donations range from $150,000 to under $1 million. Sixteen individuals and corporations received this award.

From 1984 to 1988, gallerist, collector and photographer Chua Soo Bin pursued what he calls his "passion project".

In this entirely self-funded enterprise, the octogenarian travelled to Hong Kong and China to photograph Chinese ink masters and artists based there, as well as those in Singapore.

For one photograph, he got the late Chinese ink master Tang Yun very drunk in his home in Shanghai to get to the very soul of his art.

"It was almost as if he found inspiration when he was drunk," says the affable and energetic Chua in an interview at the Heritage Conservation Centre in Jurong Port Road.

The series of 84 photographs he has donated to the National Gallery Singapore is housed in the temperature- and climate-controlled conservation centre.

He says this series on ink artists "is very close" to his heart. Yet, he decided to part with it as he felt it needed to be in an important collection. By being part of a museum collection, it will get a fresh lease of life, one which he hopes will help re-create "the true stories of the lives of several Chinese ink artists".

He explains: "Each of the artists I met and photographed helped me learn how to be a man, how to stay humble even when one becomes famous."

The idea behind this series was not "to create pictures". It was to understand the lives of Chinese ink masters such as Zhu Qizhan, Ye Qianyu and pioneer Singapore painter Chen Wen Hsi. All photographs were shot on 35mm black-and-white film and in natural light.

Legends: Soo Bin's Portraits Of Chinese Ink Masters debuted at the National Museum of Singapore in 1989 and travelled extensively in China and Hong Kong from 1989 to 1992.

Chua, who has three grown-up children, feels it is important for collectors like him to give back to the arts.

He says: "My work is not just portraits. These photographs are life stories which took me a long time to develop. I feel that as Singaporeans, we should help and support to build our own collections."

He also feels that at his age, 82, it is important to give back.

"I collect a lot of things such as cameras. There are many other collectors like me who collect interesting things. I think, at some point, we need to start sharing these things to add to our own art and culture."

Looking a lot younger than his age, Chua says he has no plans to retire or slow down anytime soon. He is still spotted at art events in town and makes it a point to attend regional art auctions. He continues to travel to places as far as the United States to unearth new art.

When asked why he still wants to go the distance for art, he says with a smile: "Art makes me young, art makes me move."

Delia Prvacki

Received: Supporter award, a new category honouring donors who have made contributions of $10,000 to $49,999 in cash or in kind. She is one of 74 recipients.

For the first-time museum donor and artist, the decision to donate two sculptures she is very attached to was simple.

Delia Prvacki, a Singaporean, calls both of her pieces - Necklace and Rosary - works which "embody a significant period" in her artistic life.

In an e-mail response, the sculptor and installation artist, who is now in Santa Monica in the United States for a five-week art residency, says the sculptures represent a crucial moment in her artistic practice. In 2009, they were selected for a group show, titled Constructed Landscape, at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Museum.

Prvacki, 63, recalls being impressed with "the very professional approach of the museum".

That is what got her thinking about donating some of her key pieces made between 2004 and 2007 to a cultural institution which has a keen analytical and research interest in recording and archiving artistic activity. The NUS Museum fits the bill.

The two handmade and glazed stoneware slab sculptures deal with issues of the past and connections with one's surrounding landscape. They also mark a phase when she started making her own slabs of clay, printed and painted with the precise intent of denying them what she calls "decorative content".

She says she strongly believes that artists should donate only if they feel like having their artworks kept in a place which is relevant to them.

"It has to be voluntary. Each artist has a specific or particular way of sharing his work. I personally think artworks must find a home and museums are the right place for such creations."

She has done a number of commissioned and public works which can be seen around Singapore, including sculptures for the Marine Parade Library and Woodlands Regional Library.

Prvacki, who was born in Romania, moved here in 1992 with her artist-academic husband, Milenko.

Singapore has proved to be a safe haven for the couple, who escaped inter-ethnic war in the former Yugoslavia by coming here in the early 1990s. Their only daughter Ana, 38, is also a practising artist. They took up citizenship in 2002.

On receiving the Supporter award, Prvacki says she feels "honoured".

"It gives me a great sense of belonging. Ever since we moved to Singapore, and from the time I became a citizen, I have been seeking this sense of belonging to a cultural space."

Julia Oh

Received: Supporter award, which honours donors who have made contributions of $10,000 to $49,999 in cash or in kind.

The charming Mrs Oh, a long-time museum volunteer and past president of Friends Of The Museums Singapore, has been associated with the arts here for more than 20 years.

In 2007, she pledged $10,000 a year for 10 years to help two National Heritage Board (NHB) staff do short-term courses overseas annually.

The idea behind her cash donation was simple, she says. "I felt the museums would be so much richer if I could start something which could help some of the younger staff study or be attached to museums overseas."

The Britain-born Mrs Oh, who is in her 60s, is married to cardiologist Winston Oh. The couple have three grown-up daughters and seven grandchildren.

Both Dr and Mrs Oh are active supporters of the arts. The Winston Oh Travel Award, initiated by Dr Oh in 2000, is an annual grant given to promising young local artists at the Lasalle College of the Arts, allowing them to travel abroad to broaden their artistic experience. Prominent emerging painter Ruben Pang was among the recipients.

Mrs Oh feels such grants are important as "travel opens our minds to other possibilities". Attachments with other museums, she feels, also help in contact building as well as learning from others.

A permanent resident here, she says it is "important for people to take ownership of the arts. I feel very strongly that we should contribute to whichever society we are a part of. Even though I have volunteered for many years, I wanted to do something more to add to the great diversity of our museums".

Now doing her master's in art therapy at the Lasalle College of the Arts, she feels learning never stops. Nor does sharing. Mrs Oh plans to continue contributing to the arts to strengthen what she calls "competencies within museums".

Since 2008, when the Julia Oh-NHB International Continuing Education Grant was implemented, it has funded the overseas professional attachments of curators, conservators and museum educators. These have included stints with reputed international museums such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.

Ms Karen Chin, 38, an assistant director of education with the board, was the first recipient of the grant.

She tells Life! that her six-week attachment with the Victoria and Albert Museum was invaluable to her career as it "offered new perspectives and possibilities of museum education".

deepikas@sph.com.sg

This article was published on April 26 in The Straits Times.Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.