Even with the difficulties and challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has brought upon us this year, the “non-essential” arts have emerged stronger than ever, adapting to the strange new world we’ve found ourselves in, finding new forms, and picking up the pieces to begin the process of healing. One institution continually pushing that as their ethos is National Gallery Singapore (NGS), who celebrates their 5th anniversary this year. Despite being one of the ‘younger’ museums around, over the last half decade, NGS has already hosted close to 8 million visitors through more than 30 exhibitions and numerous interdisciplinary programmes, and firmly established itself as a powerhouse in the global arts scene.
“The Gallery turns five in a year that has proved momentous for Singapore and the world, where the pandemic has surfaced different challenges faced by multiple groups in the community, exposing stresses in mental health and well-being,” says Ms Chong Siak Ching, Chief Executive Officer of National Gallery Singapore. “But as a museum for the people, we stand together with our partners, donors, artists, supporters and audiences, holding space for all to pause and reflect on life through art, and be inspired and to emerge stronger from current challenging times. We want to extend the positive impact of art to diverse communities, to comfort and inspire the nation as we overcome this crisis together, and continue our commitment to inspiring a thoughtful and inclusive society.”
Even when it was unable to open its doors, NGS still persevered and unveiled multiple programmes for Singaporeans and the world, ranging from online art sessions to taking their biennial Children’s Festival online for the very first time to offer families the joy of art from the comfort of home. “After five years, there is still much to be done, to be learnt and to be improved, but we’re very grateful for achievements, made possible with all our support,” Ms Chong continues. “We remain committed to showcasing the important role art can play in the community, and renew out commitment to share the value of art with as many people as possible. As the world and our country continue to evolve, the Gallery as a national institution, needs to keep pace with the changes and advance the role of art in society. We will build on our achievements and renew our commitment to make art inclusive and accessible for everyone, so that as many people as possible can come to appreciate and enjoy the value of art, and continue to enlighten and question existing narratives, uncovering new knowledge and stories through works and artistic practices.”
Art Through Your Eyes
In line with this commitment to continue bringing communities together and fostering a thoughtful, creative and inclusive society, NGS’ fifth anniversary celebrations will feature a diverse range of programmes and initiatives that ensures people from all walks of life are able to access art and its power to heal and provide respite. One such initiative is the brand new Art Through Your Eyes project, which features over 100 additional artwork labels penned by everyday Singaporeans, each offering their own personal interpretations of the art. “The labels have been penned by people from all walks of society, from domestic workers to members of the public with dementia, to young children and seniors, and even our own gallery sitters working here for the last 5 years,” says NGS Content Specialist Patricia Lee. “To see them sit alongside existing artwork labels creates a dialogue in galleries reflecting contemporary society and perspectives.”
Says contributor Bhing Navato: “Having to produce my own artwork label for the Gallery’s 5th anniversary is a dream come true. Especially when I got the chance to work into the artwork of a famous artist in the Philippines, Fernando Amorsolo and label it with my original poem. I felt so proud of myself. For a domestic worker like me, it is an achievement. Because we don’t always get this opportunity.”
In conjunction with its upcoming exhibition, Georgette Chen: At Home in the World (from 27th November), the Gallery will be launching multilingual audio tours on the Gallery Explorer app in English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil providing non-English speaking visitors the opportunity to get up close and personal with the iconic Georgette Chen, a leading artist and educator who played a key role in the development of visual arts in Singapore. The exhibition itself will take visitors through Chen’s life story, and how her experiences shaped her practice and her sensitivity to language, becoming proficient in Malay and having a close relationship with the Malay artistic community through Angkatan Pelukis Aneka Daya.
Not only will the Gallery appeal to those from non-English speaking communities, NGS will also be launching the Access Guide, improving its infrastructure and access to programmes to cater to audiences of different needs to strengthen their sense of belonging in the museum. The Access Guide, which was created with the Disabled People’s Association, states useful information for visitors with different access needs, including visitors with disabilities, mobility difficulties and parents with young children.
Sure to appeal to Singaporeans everywhere is NGS’ Food x Art Podcast: A Story of Food, Art and Singapore, where writer Shamini Flint explores the history of art in Singapore through food, local poetry and works in our National Collection.
Launching on 24th November, look out for a special anniversary edition of the online Words That Count programme allows anyone to build on the works of local writers Pooja Nansi and Gwee Li Sui, and turn them into personal expressions of support, comfort and encouragement for healthcare workers and the wider community amidst the pandemic. Says Dr Gwee: “We need reminding that a main reason we are here is to be there for another. Art is also such a form of presence.”
Also as part of their bid to boost health through art, the Gallery has also launched a series of initiatives that guide participants to harness the power of art by creating a space for self-reflection and connection with others. Programmes such as Slow Art and Somatic Series prompt participants to practise mindfulness through mind and body. The Gallery also collaborated with Singapore Art Museum to develop The Care Collection: Caring through the Arts for Singhealth’s iTHRIVE ARTpreciate art therapy programme.
To further engage members of the public, the Gallery has extended the wildly popular Free Gallery Insider Membership until 31st January 2021. Worth up to $120 in value, membership gives unlimited priority access to all exhibitions, and discounts of up to 15% for shopping and dining.
The Gallery will also be launching their Adopt Now public crowdfunding initiative, giving anyone and everyone a chance to ‘own’ a piece of art from as little as S$50. Jointly developed with Accenture on the Gallery Explorer app, this initiative hopes to cultivate a long-term culture of giving to the arts, while allowing current and future generations of Singaporeans to develop a deeper understanding of the region’s art, culture, heritage and history. Meanwhile, the Gallery will also be launching a public engagement initiative to facilitate dialogue with the wider community, allowing members of the public to give feedback and suggestions to inform the future direction of the Gallery. Members of the public will also be able to purchase limited-edition anniversary merchandise such as face masks, postcards, EZ-link cards and tote bags at The Gallery Store at a later date.
Looking into the future, the Gallery will also be launching Y-Lab, a unique Art x Tech convergence innovation lab that provides an opportunity to evolve an organisation’s existing products with the Gallery, to either create experiences that make art more accessible, or inspire useful technology with artistic sensibilities. The Gallery’s new and improved free Gallery Explorer App will also allow visitors to perform Safe Entry, collect membership points and more to stay engaged with art both in and outside of the Gallery.
Light to Night Festival 2020
Come 2021, visitors can expect more programmes and initiatives, such as the return of the annual Light to Night festival in January (in a hybrid physical/digital form), the biennial Children’s Biennale in May, and new exhibition Something New Must Turn Up: Six Singaporean Artists after Merdeka, also in May, featuring Chng Seok Tin, Goh Beng Kwan, Jaafar Latiff, Lin Hsin Hsin, Mohammad Din Mohammad, and Eng Tow – who represent the diversity of artistic practice in Singapore from that period.
“The Gallery has launched a range of initiatives over the circuit breaker, with the #GalleryAnywhere portal consolidating most of these one easy-to-access place, allowing people to still consume content despite not being able to physically be present,” says NGS Chief Marketing Officer Chris Lee. “Even though it’s not high tech like VR, we’ve received good feedback from families just being able to download physical activity kits for the kids to colour at home. Since re-opening, we’ve also been moving towards initiatives to get people to get back into the museum, and it’s great to see more locals coming in and exploring their own backyard. The free membership has seen over 160,000 signups online, with 50,000 activations so far, and plenty of new faces here at the gallery for the first time. For the first few weekends of An Exercise of Meaning In A Glitch Season, we even saw full capacity for a while, with plenty of people coming in.”
“We rely quite a lot on user-generated content to offer a candid view of what we’re doing, and focus a lot on engaging through education, as opposed to a hard-sell approach,” Chris continues. “And so much of the time, it’s about personalising the experience and making it relevant to each audience member, like how the Art Through Your Eyes project showcases so many different voices and represents what others see in the art. It’s never about what’s right or wrong, but about different interpretations, and this constant exchange of ideas going back and forth.”
Kin Chui’s Station 13010, from ongoing exhibition An Exercise of Meaning in a Glitch Season
“Over five years, it feels like our greatest milestones are with increasing art history education on Southeast Asian art, and establishing ourselves as a museum globally, thanks to our key exhibitions,” says Chris, reflecting on the Gallery’s achievements over the last five years. “Our engagement with programmes like festivals have also gone down well, with the Light to Night Festival now a marquee event seeing hundreds of thousands of people experiencing art for the first time. To keep it up, we’ll need to go beyond just presenting our collections, to continue contextualising these works to allow audiences to realise how relevant they are to our daily lives, and be able to use art as a vehicle to facilitate public conversations, and understand what artists are trying to represent.”
Clara Lim’s 3 GHz, from ongoing exhibition An Exercise of Meaning in a Glitch Season
In speaking about the challenges of marketing for the Gallery, Chris explains how the process has become increasingly collaborative, rather than competitive in recent years, and especially in the challenging environment the pandemic has presented. “We’re always deepening our relationships with our partner museums, going beyond loans and exhibitions into research and programming, and extending our reach and partnerships,” he says. “We’ve been gaining a lot of attention for programming like the Children’s Biennale, and developing a lot of interest from the region as a result.”
“As for other museums in the scene, while they all have their own mission, we’re becoming much more open, even before the collaborative Proposals For New Ways of Being,” he continues. “The Light to Night Festival, for example, is a collaboration on a precinct level with the Civic District, while we’ve been doing more interdisciplinary programmes, like with the Singapore Writers Festival, or with the Esplanade and Singapore Repertory Theatre. There’s been a lot of different offerings, and we’re looking forward to exploring more of it in the years to come. It’s no longer a competition, but a concerted effort to cooperate in providing relevant offerings for our visitors to further their appreciation of art.”
“Honestly, making the career change to work for the Gallery has been everything I’d hoped for. It’s given me new perspective on the impact and power on art, and really enables you to pause and reflect. Artists just challenge you to see the world differently,” says Chris. “And in our tagline ‘Let Art Embrace You’, it really is an invitation to let art do whatever it will do with you, and take you on a personal journey with art. And the Gallery is here to continue spread the power of art to more people in the years to come.”