Making Room for Art
Associate Librarian Nadia Ramli explores art catalogues to visit art spaces and exhibitions from a different time.
As an associate librarian, among other duties, I provide reference and research services as well as develop our visual arts collection in the National Library.
One of the most enjoyable, rewarding and frustrating experiences of research for me is the various possible paths it can take you. Each morsel of information that you uncover could bring you a step closer to understanding a topic or down a completely different rabbit hole altogether into uncharted surroundings you never knew existed.
Tumbling down one of these rabbit holes was how I began uncovering the history of art spaces in Singapore through the art catalogues in the National Library collection. I had been conducting research on local artists and their exhibition catalogues. Using the “biographic details” in these catalogues, I could find out more about the artist’s career, body of work and even provenance of an artwork. For example, information about an artist’s past exhibitions would often be presented in the following format: year, title of exhibition and venue. After exploring over 50 catalogues published between the 1950s and 1980s, I noticed that some venues were often used as exhibition spaces in the same period, particularly Victoria Memorial Hall, British Council and National Museum Art Gallery. As we most often associate the Victoria Memorial Hall with musical performances and the British Council with English lessons today, I wanted to find more about these multipurpose venues and the role they had played in the development of the arts in Singapore.
Built in 1905, the capacious Victoria Memorial Hall, now known as the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, hosted events ranging from political meetings to musical and stage performances. It was also where several art exhibitions were staged. The Singapore Art Society held its exhibition, Ten Years of Art in Singapore, in 1956, with the space accommodating the display of 120 exhibits. Several large-scale exhibitions such as Pameran Lukisan (1961) and ASEAN Art Exhibition (1972) were similarly held at Victoria Memorial Hall.
The British Council Exhibition Hall was yet another vital space for the arts community and played an active role in the exhibition and promotion of visual arts in the 1950s and 1960s. Established in 1947, the British Council found a home on Stamford Road and opened the doors to its exhibition hall in 1949. The space has staged exhibitions by Malayan and overseas artists, from paintings to photography. The first Open Photographic Exhibition, which marked the beginnings of pictorial photography practice was held in its hall in January 1950. The venue also hosted a series of “Pan-Malayan Photographic Exhibitions” from 1953 to 1957.
The National Museum Art Gallery (NMAG), a more conventional art space, held its inaugural exhibition in 1976. The inaugural exhibition catalogue gives us a sense of the space, with a floor plan and photographs of the gallery rooms. This space was an important milestone in terms of institutional development and marked a concerted effort for the promotion of the arts by a state-level institution. Exhibition catalogues also shone a spotlight on the people behind the spaces, for example, the different units that formed the organisational structure of NMAG at that time included the curatorial unit, exhibition and design unit, education service unit and administration unit.
Art catalogues offer a wealth of information. For example, while they may not be standardised across all art catalogues, information such as the following help to fill gaps in information that may not be available elsewhere:
· Introduction Notes / Forewords
· Curatorial notes and essays
· Photographs of artworks
· Year, medium, price listing
· Provenance of artwork
· Characteristics of the spaces
Other than information about the artists, artwork and venue, the humble exhibition catalogue also provides context into the world they inhabit. Looking at catalogues printed over decades, I was really taken by the changes to the design of the exhibition catalogue and the development of commercial printing and graphic design. Given a chance, I would be perfectly happy to dive into yet another rabbit hole to explore the design and printing of these catalogues.
These exhibition catalogues are available at the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library. You can also find out more from “A Librarian’s World”, a series of talks held by librarians. In this session, titled “Making room for art”, my colleague and I share where these early art spaces are in Singapore and explore their role in developing Singapore’s arts and cultural landscape.
Associate Librarian Nadia Ramli works with the Visual Arts collection at the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library. Her research interests include Singapore literary, visual and performing arts.
 Art display by Malays. (1961, 19 January). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG. Abdul Ghani Hamid. (2002, January 10). Renungan masa silam bantu kita lebih memahami diri kita hari ini. BeritaHarian, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Abdul Ghani Hamid. (1961, May 28.) Kesanggupan pelukis2 Melayu. BeritaHarian, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Pameran seni lukis Melayu S’Pura dapat sambutan besar. (1961, April 27). Berita Harian, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
 Fong, S. C. (1972). “Foreword”. ASEAN Art Exhibition. Singapore: ASEAN art exhibition organising committee. (Call no. RCLOS 709.59 ASE)
 Art display. (1950, June 18). Malaya Tribune, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Mr McKerron praises Malay artists. (1949, April 8). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Art exhibition. (1961, February 16). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Photography in Asia. (1956, April 19). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved in NewspaperSG.
 275 entries in photo exhibition. (1950, 11 January). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Toh, C. (2018). Pictorialism and Modernity in Singapore, 1950–60. Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia 2(2), 9–31. doi:10.1353/sen.2018.0013.
 Thomas, R. (1953, June 28). Exhibition hints. The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Picture is stolen in S’pore exhibition. (1954, June 19). The Singapore Free Press, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Picture show. (1955, June 8). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Ingenious angles are the highlight of photography display. (1956, June 17). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewpaperSG; Giam, S. (1957, July, 23). Singapore’s champion cameramen…The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.