Why is Singapore pulling out of Venice Biennale?

Editor’s Note: Permission has been obtained to edit and repost the following in its entirety. The author, Janice Koh, is a Singaporean Nominated Member of Parliament. She penned the following article originally posted here in response to the recently announced decision by the National Arts Council, that Singapore will not be participating in the 2013 Venice Biennale.

I am appalled and deeply disappointed by the National Arts Council’s (NAC) latest announcement that Singapore will be pulling out of next year’s 2013 Venice Biennale.

The Venice Biennale is one of the most important contemporary art platforms for Singapore’s top artists to showcase their work to an international audience.

Ironically, this fact was mentioned in Parliament barely a few months ago in July, when MICA Minister recognised that the Biennale is one of “the oldest and most prestigious contemporary art platforms”, and that since 2001, it has been a key platform to raise the profile of Singapore’s artists, including the likes of Ho Tzu Nyen and Ming Wong.

It was also highlighted by Minister MICA that Ming Wong had won the Special Mention Award at the 2009 Biennale, which was a first for Singapore. Both artists have since gone on to represent Singapore at many other prestigious festivals and events after their showing in Venice.

For many contemporary artists, presenting their work at the Venice Biennale represents the pinnacle of their artistic aspirations. It has taken many years for Singapore’s artists to gradually build an international following through such events. Pulling out of the Biennale is akin to winning the Table Tennis Bronze medal at the London Olympics after years of training, and dropping our team’s participation at the 2016 games in Rio! It is therefore highly disturbing and inconsistent for NAC and MICA, in a matter of months, to suddenly do an about turn and announce that there is a need to “re-examine the relevance” of Singapore’s participation at this event. At which point did our participation at the Biennale suddenly become irrelevant?

This decision on the part of NAC not only demonstrates the huge and sudden swing in government’s cultural policy towards pushing community arts for the masses, it clearly shows the lack of a consistent and robust long-term strategy to develop Singapore artists and the Singapore arts scene in a holistic manner. I have absolutely no issue with creating greater accessibility to the arts – this is an equally important prong in arts development – but is this being done at the expense of nurturing artistic excellence? Are we intending to backtrack on the last ten years of work in profiling our best artists internationally? Why bother investing millions of dollars in art schools and scholarships to develop artistic talent each year, into encouraging greater arts participation on the ground, if there is no concerted and consistent effort to create a track for our top creative talent to showcase Singapore’s artistic excellence at the most critical platforms? And despite all the rhetoric on wanting to encourage dialogue and engagement, was the visual arts sector and the artistic community consulted at all on this issue before the pull-out?

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