State of the Arts, Arts for the State?

Voyageurs Immobiles performing at the Voilah! French Festival Singapore in 2012. (Image credit: Fashion Studio Magazine.)

As a city-state that prides itself in pragmatic policy-making, Singapore’s drive to promote itself to be a ‘global city of the arts’ by government bodies and the Singapore Tourism Board in the late 2000s was deemed an uphill task by many within the arts scene. Seen as a sector that was less ‘economically viable’ and less reputable, the arts was — and to some extent, still is — seen as an area of interest that needed a financial boost from the state in order to help bring in tourism numbers and profits for the nation as a whole.

Several models that describe the state’s relationship with the arts have been put forth, with the ‘welfare model’ taking prime position: according to a 2010 Singapore Tourism Board report, the state recognises that the arts “has ‘moral standing’ that deserves public support to nurture its growth.” This top-down approach and attitude towards the arts that has been prevalent over the last decade, with the underlying goal of cultivating genuine participation and interest from the public towards the arts in order for Singapore to become a ‘global city of the arts’, and this can only be done so over time and through financial support given by the state and other associated bodies. Since the 2000s, a whole array of arts and heritage grants that have varying grant amounts — from S$1,000 to S$150,000 — have become available for many within the arts industry.

While the arts scene has undoubtedly grown more diverse over the last decade, there are still limits to what arts groups can do with the funding that is received from the state and other affiliated bodies. The access of funds has not kept every organisation afloat and many arts groups remain unprofitable, despite achieving more exposure and space to showcase their work to Singapore and the wider world. The amount of grants and funding arts groups ultimately receive is dependent on the scale, objectives and extent of public engagement the arts groups hope to achieve through their projects. Here, censorship rules and ‘OB markers’ that have long been in place often delineate the ‘objectives’ of arts pieces that are put up. Several arts administrators this writer spoke to voiced opinions of how state-supporters of the arts have consistently encouraged arts groups to incorporating messages of ‘nation-building’ and ‘togetherness’ into their pieces. This, in turn, stifles the main missions of several arts groups and there are only so many topics that can be explored and written about in the city-state’s socio-political landscape without being cornered by the authorities.

Over the next decade, Singapore needs to move away from seeing the arts as an industry that ‘deserves’ to grow. The arts have clearly ‘grown’ and what they truly deserve is more genuine space for state to be a viable and sustainable place for the arts. If state censorship remains as a crutch for arts groups, the overall view that the promotion of the arts is driven by profits will continue to prevail.

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