Art What! Arts Interview Singapore

Resilience in the face of fragility: Chihuly’s glass art arrives at Gardens by the Bay

Artwork © Chihuly Studio. All Rights Reserved

Caught in the middle of a pandemic, it can often be difficult to find the hope to carry on and find the beauty amidst the gloom. But that’s where the power of art comes in, where some pieces simply come with enough beauty and intricate craftsmanship to put a smile on anyone’s face. One person capable of doing that is American glass artist Dale Chihuly, whose surreal, showstopping glass art commands attention when placed in the middle of a room. In the case of Dale Chihuly: Glass in Bloom, visitors can expect an entire garden full of his art, with over 100 of Chihuly’s pieces displayed at Gardens by the Bay, in his first ever major garden exhibition in Asia.

Of course the road towards achieving that hasn’t been easy, with the need to negotiate and navigate the difficulties of bringing in international, high-value artworks during the pandemic, and knowing that visitorship will be limited to just Singaporeans. Still, organisers Hustle & Bustle and supporters the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) have continued to press on, with the exhibition finally open and ready to welcome the public to admire this Eden-like world of glass.

Michael Lee, CEO of Hustle & Bustle, Artwork © Chihuly Studio. All Rights Reserved

Speaking to Michael Lee, CEO of organisers Hustle & Bustle, we found out more about the journey the company has had over the last year, in the lead-up to the exhibition’s opening. “When COVID happened, we thought it would be controlled before it hit us. But when it got out of control, it became clear that there were plenty of new limitations we would have to deal with over 2020,” says Michael. “We had quite a few plans for 2020 that had to be cancelled or rescheduled, and now had to come up with new plans and events.”

“It’s been a difficult year for the company, and in fact, the entire events industry, because we weren’t left with a lot of options,” he continues. “The need to downsize, implement pay cuts and let go of people was very real. And then there was the need to think out of the box given our limitations, and how we could continue to sustain the company even during this time. COVID made it a necessity for us to innovate, change our old ways, or risk getting phased out.”

Artwork © Chihuly Studio. All Rights Reserved

“We knew we couldn’t do things in enclosed areas. So we started considering if we could do outdoor events instead, where the limitations on numbers would be less restrictive,” he continues. “So we came across Chihuly as a possibility, and besides the fact it would be held in an outdoor venue, it would also be visually spectacular, and believed it was an exhibition that would resonate with Singaporeans. Even though he does have some pieces displayed in Singapore, a lot of Singaporeans aren’t that familiar with him, and could use this as an opportunity to come together to bond over appreciating art in a garden landscape.”

“Not to mention, we got the support of STB, who believed that this would be an event that, in the long term, would build confidence, as if shouting to the world that Singapore is safe and doing such world class events, and prepare for when leisure travel becomes feasible again.”

Artwork © Chihuly Studio. All Rights Reserved

STB themselves are enthusiastic about supporting the exhibition, and how it is the exhibition will boost our tourism prospects. “STB supported the event organiser with a grant to organise the Chihuly exhibition at Gardens by the Bay. Such funding aims to support world-class, spectacular, “first in Asia” leisure event experiences in Singapore,” says Lim Shoo Ling, Director, Arts & Cultural Precincts, STB. “The Chihuly exhibition is a testament to Singapore’s position as an ideal location to showcase the work of leading global artists, and enhances Singapore’s attractiveness as a vibrant arts and lifestyle destination. It also demonstrates the resilience of our arts and tourism sectors – it is no mean feat to mount an international exhibition of this scale and complexity during these times. We hope that Singapore residents will enjoy this magnificent show and that our international visitors can experience it in time to come.”

Artwork © Chihuly Studio. All Rights Reserved

Much of STB’s thrust over the last year has been surrounding the promotion of local tourism, knowing that the majority of visitors would be Singaporeans. “The SingapoRediscovers campaign is about exploring Singapore in a new light,” says Shoo Ling. “It aims to encourage locals to rediscover Singapore by exploring diverse leisure offerings in our own backyard and supporting local tourism businesses in a time when international travel remains limited.

“The Chihuly exhibition is a great example of such offerings, and also part of our efforts to bring art to new places, including attractions such as Gardens by the Bay which will also allow visitors to rediscover the garden in a new way. We look forward to welcoming all visitors to these shows, including tourists when the time is right.”

Artwork © Chihuly Studio. All Rights Reserved

And Glass In Bloom is significant as an exhibition, being the his first ever major garden exhibition in Asia. “We’re the second country behind the UK that will be hosting a garden exhibition on such a large scale,” says Michael. “Maybe I’m a little competitive, but I wanted to say that we were the company behind this being the first Chihuly garden exhibition in Asia, and to do it well too.”

Artwork © Chihuly Studio. All Rights Reserved

One might think that there is some controversy to having such a large scale event of an international artist, as opposed to the pure #supportlocal thrust one might expect in a time like this. “Singapore is home to a significant breadth and depth of arts and cultural experiences. Works by Singapore artists feature widely across various settings, alongside their international counterparts,” explains Shoo Ling. “In line with our efforts to enhance Singapore’s destination attractiveness, STB continues to support a variety of experiences that contribute to Singapore’s leisure offerings, including those by local and international artists. Apart from the Chihuly exhibition, other projects such as the upcoming Hall of Fame (HOF) @ Kampong Gelam which features works by 17 local street artists, and the Singapore International Festival of Arts in May, will showcase works by both local and international talents.”

Looking towards the future, STB is confident that things can only pick up from here. “The recovery for international tourism and traveller confidence will take time. In the meantime, Singapore is pushing ahead to present new offerings that add to our destination vibrancy and attractiveness. The Chihuly exhibition is part of a line-up of new events and openings later this year, including the Museum of Ice Cream (MOIC), Slingshot in Clarke Quay, La Clique at Marina Bay Sands, and others that are still in the works,” adds Shoo Ling. “We remain confident in the long-term prospects of Singapore’s tourism sector, as the fundamentals that make Singapore an attractive place for leisure, MICE experiences, and a key business hub remain unchanged.”

Artwork © Chihuly Studio. All Rights Reserved

All of that bodes well for the future of tourism, and STB remains hopeful that things will keep improving for the better. “In this current climate, we expect consumer behaviour and the norms for travel to change for good. As mass leisure travel is unlikely to recover quickly, our tourism and lifestyle businesses will need to explore ways to allow consumers to experience Singapore from afar, stay top-of-mind, and build demand for when the market recovers,” says Shoo Ling.

“To thrive, it is crucial for our businesses to use this time to reimagine their products, refashion business models, and retrain and reskill their workers. That’s why they must be armed with the right data, insights and ability to test and scale new products fast. It is also crucial for the tourism sector to use this time to build our tech capabilities to support overall recovery efforts. This includes being able to market and sell their services digitally, and to do it well. While many Singapore companies have already started on their digital transformation journey, we need to accelerate our efforts.”

Artwork © Chihuly Studio. All Rights Reserved

“STB will continue to work closely with our industry partners to develop and implement new solutions. For example, they can apply for funding support to adopt these solutions through relevant grant schemes from STB and Enterprise Singapore,” she concludes.

“STB also supports tourism businesses through schemes such as the Training Industry Professionals in Tourism (TIP-iT) fund to support employee upgrading, and talent and leadership development. This will expand their skill sets and boost their employability. The grant covers up to 90% of training course fees and training fees, and also provides funding for absentee payroll. Our stakeholders can also tap the Business Improvement Fund (BIF) to facilitate efforts to transform business models and processes. We will continue to review our various initiatives to help transform tourism businesses and step up our support where necessary.”

Artwork © Chihuly Studio. All Rights Reserved

Coming back to Glass In Bloom, Michael explains the magic of attending the exhibition. “Whether you’re a nature or art enthusiast, you’ll probably be able to take away something positive from this exhibition,” he enthuses. “In a regular gallery, you know how many pieces there are in the room, but with this, there’s the element of surprise as you explore the grounds. Maybe you’ll find a sculpture behind a tree, and it’s been arranged such that it rewards those who really take the time to explore.”

“If we do not test the boundaries, then we will not know what the possibilities are,” he concludes. “Thinking about Chihuly’s exhibition, I reflected on how his works seem to represent resilience in spite of fragility, where these magnificent works were created when the material was pushed to its limits. In the same way, we wanted the company to take up the challenge, and push at our own limits even during these difficult times.”

Dale Chihuly: Glass In Bloom runs from 1st May to 1st August 2021 at Gardens By The Bay. Tickets and more information available here

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