Lasalle turns 30

As Lasalle College of the Arts marks its 30th anniversary this year, it is looking to the future by introducing eight new courses and increasing the focus on research.

The eight new courses - two undergraduate and six masters programmes - will be introduced over the next four years. They will cover topics such as Asian film studies, art history and curating, medical illustration and interior architecture.

President Steve Dixon says the new degree programmes were developed in close consultation with outside bodies.

"We're doing a lot of work with the National Arts Council, Design Singapore, the Media Development Authority and other government departments, we're doing a lot of consultation to see what's needed for Singapore. We have also done our own research into the business viability of the programmes," he says.

As Lasalle hits the big 3-0, alumni and staff believe that it has carved out a niche in the arts education landscape here.

Its proprietary courses are underpinned by a unique blend of Eastern and Western influences, and the institution has inked partnerships with internationally recognised schools such as Goldsmiths, which is part of the University of London.

Three decades of schooling have produced illustrious alumni. Three out of five of this year's Young Artist Award recipients - dance artist Lee Mun Wai, theatre practitioner Ian Loy and film-maker Jow Zhi Wei - are Lasalle alumni.

Other illustrious alumni members include singer Kit Chan, performance artist Lee Wen and theatre practitioner Natalie Hennedige.

Lasalle has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 1984, when Brother Joseph McNally, who died in 2002, founded the St Patrick's Arts Centre at St Patrick's School in Marine Parade, offering diplomas in painting, ceramics, sculpture and music.

A year later, the school was renamed Lasalle College of the Arts and it expanded to a second campus in Telok Kurau.

Three years later, in 1987, its first cohort of 27 students graduated with diplomas in the creative arts.

Now, the college has about 2,700 students, who are housed in a state-of-the-art, 35,000 sq m campus in McNally Street, next to Sim Lim Square. Earlier this year, it opened a second 5,000 sq m campus in Winstedt Road, about 2km away.

Mr Dixon, the university's sixth president, has angled the prow of the institution towards a more research-focused direction.

"There's always been some key research done at Lasalle, but I broadened that. We're looking to create new knowledge through practice-based research, but also to publish," he said.

He introduced three new funding schemes, which were implemented in January last year. They provide funding of up to $50,000 a project, or $25,000 per annum for staff who wish to undertake research activities or pursue higher education.

As Lasalle is a private, not-for-profit institution, its income comes from programme fees, Ministry of Education subsidies which total about $17,000 for each Singaporean citizen in a diploma programme, and other sources such as bank interest. For the financial year 2012/13, this added up to over $47 million.

The college is also keen to continue working with overseas universities, to strengthen its international standing and to bring multi-cultural influences into the school.

Currently, 39 per cent of the student body is international, and the much-lauded partnership with Goldsmiths produced its first batch of graduates last year.

Ms Barbra Gan, vice-president, strategic developments, says that although the first partnership agreement with Goldsmiths lasts for five years, it is likely to be extended to 10 years.

Lasalle is also looking to expand its physical space. Earlier this year, it opened its Winstedt campus, which houses studios, workshops and photography laboratories.

It hopes to build two blocks above the underground Rochor MRT station, after it is completed in 2016.

The progress of the institution has not always been smooth. In 2007, the college's president and chief executive Robert Ely and his two vice-presidents quit, reportedly over disagreements with the Ministry of Education over how its funds should be used.

Lasalle had marketed its programmes as four-year degree courses and the ministry wanted the college to abide by its guidelines and use the money solely for diploma programmes.

Senior fellow Milenko Prvacki, who has been at Lasalle for 20 years, says: "That was the moment which affected the school in name, in our relationship with the Ministry of Education, the Government, and in the eyes of the public. It wasn't pleasant."

The sudden departure of the trio shook up the institution. Chairman of DBS Group Holdings and DBS Bank Peter Seah was brought in to be the chairman of Lasalle and he led an international hunt for a new president.

The board picked Alastair Pearce, a British arts education stalwart with a doctorate in music analysis.

Mr Seah said: "The job of the new president was to restructure both the academic as well as the administrative aspects of the college and to put it on firm ground."

When Mr Pearce left in 2012, he was succeeded by Mr Dixon, who was the pro-vice chancellor (deputy head) of Brunel University in London.

While Lasalle's dream is to become a university one day, that is something which is not yet on the cards.

Lasalle chairman Seah says: "Lasalle will ultimately, if evolved successfully, be an institution which awards its own degrees.

"But that's a long-term vision, it's not something that you say that you're ready, and you're ready."

As the college marks its 30th anniversary with exhibitions, performances and other events starting tomorrow, Mr Dixon says he hopes that Lasalle will put Singapore on the cultural education map.

"All great cities have great arts institutions, such as the Julliard school in New York or the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles. We want that sort of recognition in Singapore for Lasalle."

LASALLE'S ALUMNI

Amanda Heng, 62, artist and curator

Began her studies at Lasalle in 1984 and graduated with a diploma in printmaking at the age of 37. She received the Cultural Medallion in 2010.

"I was part of the first batch. I remember we did casting and all that in a shed at St Patrick's School and there weren't any proper furnaces yet. It was quite simple facilities-wise, but it allowed me to try something that I hadn't done before. Lasalle gave me the chance to figure out what I really wanted to do.

We learnt from all these big names - Han Sai Por, Chong Fah Cheong, Chng Seok Tin and Tang Da Wu.

Although I'd done painting and drawing in school, this was the first time I got to experience casting and marble carving, and learning from the artists themselves, I think that was a very great experience."

Lee Mun Wai, 32, dance artist

Majored in contemporary dance at Lasalle from 2003 to 2006 and is one of the founding members of contemporary dance company T.H.E Dance Company. He received the Young Artist Award this year.

"Lasalle gives you a lot of leeway to be yourself and to just do what you need to do as an artist. I didn't feel like there were any no-go zones or limits at the school. The first day I stepped into the school was the first day I told myself I was finally home.

The fellow weirdos with the orange hair and the too-thick eyeliner, boys who dressed like girls, girls who dressed like boys. Schoolmates who discussed performance art, schoolmates who were finally discussing life, the larger social environment, and not essay grades. Lasalle was wild.

The learning environment was so different from a normal academic school. It was truly about honing your craft and skill. Teachers guided, but never forced anything down my throat. They were there to answer questions, but always took a step back to allow me space to explore."

Yuni Hadi, 38, producer

Obtained her bachelor's degree with honours in arts management in 2005, and her masters in arts and cultural management in 2007. She is the co-producer of Anthony Chen's Cannes Award-winning Ilo Ilo, and is also the executive director of Singapore International Film Festival.

"What I found useful was that at Lasalle, you're exposed not only to the course you're taking, but you can also take classes in other departments. Many of the teachers were industry professionals, who practise in the field, have relevant connections and understand what's going on in current practice."

Boo Junfeng, 30, film-maker

Was part of Lasalle's pioneer batch of students at the Puttnam School of Film in 2007, where he graduated as college valedictorian. His debut feature film Sandcastle (2010) was the first Singaporean film to be invited to the International Critics' Week at Cannes Film Festival.

"I think being a part of the pioneer batch of the film school, we were allowed to set a precedent for the college and the school. That was quite exciting. The lecturers were very encouraging. The mixture of various art disciplines under one roof also made the experience unique and I was able to collaborate with students from the acting and music schools for my film projects.

When my thesis short film, Tanjong Rhu, got into Berlin Film Festival in 2010, the college helped me with the press kits and gave me its full support to make the most of the occasion. That had an impact in my transition from making short films to feature films.

Lasalle and the Puttnam School of Film continue to be very supportive of my work as an alumni and I will always appreciate that."

John Clang, 41, photographer

The New York-based photographer and visual artist, who dropped out of Lasalle in 1990, re-enrolled this year to study for a master of fine arts.

"I first studied at Lasalle in 1990. At that time, Lasalle was still very young and what it was was not enough to fulfil my hunger. So I left after six months. Now, 24 years later, I have a lot of respect for Lasalle, it has a strong international standing and I like the artists it has produced like Amanda Heng. It now has an international faculty and the members are prominent and respected in their own right. I'd like to teach in Lasalle and schools here."

lting@sph.com.sg

This article was first published on Nov 4, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.