Friday, 18 April, 2014

Published May 03, 2013
Arts fest to be like 'three-Michelin star meal'
As the Singapore Arts Festival goes independent, stalwarts of the local arts scene are set to shake things up, reports HELMI YUSOF
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Renaissance men and women: Mr Ong (above) and Ms Lee will revamp the Singapore Arts Festival as festival director and CEO of newly-established Arts Festival Ltd, respectively. Ms Teo aims to make the National Museum buzz with weekend programming all year round, and Mr Tan will spearhead activities related to preserving our heritage and identity. - FILE PHOTO

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THE guessing game is over. Ong Keng Sen, arguably Singapore's most acclaimed and outspoken theatre director, has been named the new festival director of the Singapore Arts Festival - three months after the government announced it would hand over the festival's reins to an independent body.

And it seems the iconoclast - known for his avant-garde productions such as Lear and Desdemona - can't wait to shake up the 36-year-old festival, which has seen falling ticket sales in recent years amid a more competitive arts landscape.

The Theatreworks artistic director says: "I think the way to get ticket sales up is to bring the big and expensive shows which Singaporeans don't get a chance to see. I think everyone, including the sponsors, want something bold and visionary.

"I love home-cooked food. But maybe once a year, I can go and enjoy a three-star Michelin meal. This should not be the privilege of just the rich. It will be my mission as festival director to provide this for every Singaporean."

Mr Ong, 49, will lead the festival together with Lee Chor Lin, who will leave her current position as the National Museum of Singapore director and take on the post of CEO of Arts Festival Ltd. This newly-established arts company will organise and manage the festival independently, said the National Arts Council (NAC) in its announcement yesterday.

Says Ms Lee, 50: "It will be challenging to tackle the issue of falling ticket sales. But these are challenges one should expect when an arts festival of 36 years comes of age . . . What I can say is that the Singapore arts community is a small community, but it is quite tight-knit and supportive. So I look forward to working with everybody to see how we can improve ticket sales."

With Ms Lee leaving her museum post, the National Heritage Board (NHB) also announced changes in its management. Angelita Teo, 41, currently director of NHB's Festivals and Precinct Development Division, has been named incoming director of the National Museum.

Meanwhile, Tan Boon Hui, 44, currently director of the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), will take on a newly-created role as group director of programmes at NHB. He will oversee the implementation of NHB's exhibitions, programming and outreach activities. His replacement at SAM has yet to be announced.

The newly independent status of the Singapore Arts Festival is a significant milestone in the festival's history. It started life as a government initiative to bring more arts and culture to the local landscape through a festival that boasted some of the best in local and international acts.

But over the years, as the arts scene matured and local practitioners began to make their mark in the international scene, many felt that the festival could be led by the industry instead of the government.

In recent years, the festival strived to be more inclusive in its programming following criticism that it was too elite. Hence, it incorporated more outreach programmes and put up free shows in the heartland.

But Mr Ong feels differently about the approach. "The recent festivals have been diffused. My approach will be to cut down and distill, achieving clarity." Since the 1980s, he has played a huge role in making local theatre commercially viable. His 1980s productions like Beauty World and Army Daze were the first to attract English-speaking Singaporeans to the theatre, and his subsequent entry into avant-garde theatre earned him global acclaim.

Meanwhile, Ms Lee has served the Singapore museum for the past 28 years. She is well regarded as an arts manager with a deep passion for the cause and a genuine understanding of the arts community.

The duo admit, though, that funding will be a challenge for the new festival company. Currently, 75 per cent of the festival's $8 million budget comes from the government and 25 per cent from sponsors and donors.

Government funding for future festivals will continue at $6 million a year, with an additional $500,000 for the first year. However, the new company will not be able to tap NAC's resources such as its finance and HR departments that previous government- led festivals naturally had access to.

But Ms Lee is optimistic, saying: "There are always creative ways of working the budget."

Meanwhile, the incoming director of the National Museum plans to firm up its reputation as the people's museum. Says Ms Teo: "I would like the museum to be even more audience- centric, and make it buzz with weekend programming all year round - so it becomes top-of-the-mind for families wanting to spend an interesting day out."

And Mr Tan says his new role will allow him to reach out to new audiences: "From schools and interest groups to passionate individuals, there is a palpable interest in discovering and preserving our heritage and identity. We want to embrace and nurture this process of discovering our identity as Singaporeans."