Why Arts Funding is Important, especially in Singapore

This week, an ex-Nominated Member of Parliament named Calvin Cheng has been triggering the entire Singapore arts community for suggesting that the government (G) cuts funding to the arts completely. In his words, art is a completely subjective exercise, and the state cannot justify spending taxpayers’ monies to fund it.

ST coverage of the article — http://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/arts/former-nmp-calvin-cheng-government-should-stop-funding-the-arts

I think first of all, we need to know that the G is funding the arts in Singapore because it is widely accepted and agreed that having a vibrant and diverse arts (music, film, art, dance, etc) scene is a good thing for Singapore as a whole. Although not everyone participates equally and not all art is “free for everyone”, we all reap the intangible benefits of 1) having a sense of cultural identity and 2) participating in cultural exchanges of the global economy. Since the arts scene is a public good, the state should fund it — it is not just the sensible thing to do, it is good policy! (i.e. Arts scene made up of diverse arts projects, so these projects need funding.)

Calvin Cheng’s point that “since you can’t please everyone, you shouldn’t please anyone at all, and you should get someone else to do it” couldn’t be further away from the truth. The reality of any policy-making is that you can NEVER please everyone no matter what. From a layperson’s view, it has to boil down to (A) what values does society stand for? and (B) what are the necessary trade-offs? Once you adopt this new perspective, you’ll realize how small-minded Cheng’s suggestion is. Just because people complain so you take all the nice things away? How does that even solve the problem at all?

Finally, for people saying “but yes, private sector should fund the arts!!!” — ABSOLUTELY! But let us also be cognizant of some of the following constraints of the art world:

  1. Making art is expensive,
  2. Not all art is commercially viable,
  3. Singapore’s openness forces our cultural products to compete with world-class products.

This relatively underdeveloped ecosystem makes it difficult not just for corporate patronage of CERTAIN arts, but there is also a frequent mismatch between cultural producers’ and consumers’ interests. I’m oversimplifying things by quite a bit, but basically this is a situation of “market failure”. You have arts producers who are unable to do what they do as artists, and you have consumers who are either do not know about these artists or no direct way of accessing or supporting them. That’s why you need G intervention in the form of subsidies (grants), quotas, and initiatives to help with cultural exports.