Here in Singapore, Oscar Wilde’s question of whether “Life imitates Art more than Art imitates life” is open to discussion, as we saw at a recent Singapore Art Week event that explored this question. Given our rich and complex art history, there is no debate about the powerful role art has played in shaping our sense of national identity. As CEO of Singapore’s National Gallery, I am grateful every day for the opportunity to observe this firsthand, and to play my own role in encouraging this.
Around the world, art has traditionally been associated with social elites with leisure time, but Singapore has made art available to all. Our two visual arts museums—Singapore Art Museum (SAM) and the National Gallery Singapore—have allowed every resident to experience the art of Southeast Asia. Through this, we gain an understanding of how our colonial past, our migrant forefathers, and other Eastern and popular culture influences have shaped the artistic directions of local and regional Southeast Asian artists, and beyond that. Their works provide a visual record of the political, social and cultural histories of our region in a way that goes beyond what we learn in history books and brings another dimension to understanding our nation-building journey.
In a world where many schools don’t prioritise art or lack the funds to introduce it, Singapore’s schools have, remarkably, found a way to make art accessible to every student. Every school in Singapore now dedicates significant time and resources to art in their curricula. All primary 4 students visit SAM and the Gallery (online or onsite) each year, and engage in art appreciation sessions, which develop visual literacy and critical thinking. The Keppel Centre for Art Education in the Gallery hosts children from pre-schoolers to young teens. Through these visits, as well as programs such as the Gallery Children’s Biennale, children learn through play and immersive encounters with art, and build confidence in expressing their ideas and reflections in response to themes such as climate change and family.
And with many seeking respite, inspiration, and fulfilment, Singapore’s cultural institutions have stepped up to provide it. Museums across the country have done an outstanding job of providing safe spaces for exploration and discussion of issues and themes that stretch across all life stages and life contexts, regardless of differences and social distinction, as we saw at Singapore Art Week.
I believe that, as we emerge from the pandemic, art will become even more important to our culture. Amidst a challenging world of fracture and uncertainty, many people are looking for answers. I am confident art will be one of the most important forces that allows Singapore to reinvent itself, innovate and redefine life in the new, post-pandemic world—and I am looking forward to seeing what takes shape.