Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Most countries have slashed arts funding over the last decade.
But not pragmatic Singapore.
According to a recent article published last week in the International Herald Tribune (IHT) Singapore doubled its support for the arts from $55.1 million Singapore dollars to $110.3 million Singapore dollars. And that’s only from 2005-2008.
In the last decade, arts funding here has increased tenfold.
Result: In January 2011, Art Stage Singapore will open, organized by Art Basel Switzerland redesigner Lorenzo Rudolph. It will function, as the IHT points out, as a hub for the sizzling Indian, Chinese, and Indonesian arts scenes and the new market for contemporary Asian art.
Compared to when I last lived here in 2003, my cultural life requires quite a bit more navigation. It’s a major research project to coordinate all the activity here: I have a collection of brochures, flyers, websites, arts calendars, Time Out Singapore, and a variety of real and virtual maps to plot my arts adventures.
And that of course does not include the never-ending exploration of the myriad cuisines here, like Putian, Hakka, Hokkien, Peranakan, Malay, Indonesian, Singaporean, South Indian, North Indian and so on. It’s a heady experience--and not what some might expect from a place with a bad rap about gum and cleanliness.
The Esplanade has more concerts—and not just the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, but Branford Marsalis, tango from Argentina, singers from India, indie rock from all over Asia, Europe, Latin America and the US. Yo Yo Ma is coming to perform with his Silk Road Ensemble (I won’t miss this) but so is DJ remixer Karsh Kale and the MIDIval Punditz, billed as the top of India’s electronic a dance scene with synthesized soundscapes layering tabla, bansuri, programmed sounds and live vocals from Papon ( I won’t miss this one either).
In a report released this February 2010, Singapore’s planners in the government’s Economic Strategies Committee (ESC) recommend that Singapore become a “leading cultural capital” and a “distinctive global city.”
Given Singapore’s penchant for marrying high technology with transparency, I found the report online. The ESC Subcommitee Report on Making Singapore a Leading Global City puts the arts, multicultural diversity and international economic development front and center.
The report observes that Singapore’s cosmopolitan identity derives from its multiculturalism (which here means four languages a Chinese, Malay, Tamil, and English and diverse ethnicities). Singapore’s ministers want to leverage its hybridities to become a creative industries pinnacle for international events in sports, culture and cuisine.
In case you are wondering, no, Singapore is not abandoning its prowess in technology, transportation and sustainable urban development to refashion itself as the new 21 century city state version of the MacDowell Colony. And yes, there are still some restrictions on what can be done in the streets and what kinds of films can make it through the censors. Some concerts and arts events here are not exactly buzzing and SRO.
As the ESC report argues in its multiple, concise, bold-highlight bullet points, the New Asia means that the “leading economies of the future will be innovation intensive and ideas-driven.”
As I read the report, I wondered what an arts policy in the United States might look like that had a regional, grounded focus, a clear set of goals for implementation, and a no-nonsense approach to the mixed media ecology possibilities of a hybrid landscape of profit and nonprofit, arts and commercial design, urban revitalization and urban street culture, local/regional artistic expression and a global conversation, arts enclaves and tourism.
One of those only-in-Singapore-everything-must-be-ranked-and quantified- moments happened to me as I read the report: the government report notes that although it is ranked 7th in the world in terms of business and human capital, it is only 37th in the world in terms of cultural experiences. It compared itself to competing arts sectors emerging in Asia, like Hong Kong, Seoul, Abu Dhabi.
I must share, it is hard for me to imagine any US government economic agency worried about its rankings in culture.
Despite the Herculean efforts of non profit organizations with a big, new vision of the linkages between arts, culture and economic recovery like Americans for the Arts, the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, and Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media, the United States has a long way to go before national public policy can produce crystal clear bullet points to implement a creative economies plan. Do you think there is even ANY possibility that Obama will call a press conference and announce he is DOUBLING arts funding?
Last week, we journeyed downtown to the Esplanade (built as part of a previous arts initiative here)and heard an extraordinary, transcendent recital of Korean soprano Jeong Ae Ree and Singaporean pianist Shane Thio that combined Mozart, Weill, Barber, Kim Sung Tae, and folksongs from Xinjiang China.
With the theme "Birds of Paradise," the programming pushed the edge. It was utterly exhilarating and moving. The performances were passionate and engaging—Jeong Ae Ree wore a white gown in the first half and then a red gown (to celebrate, I believe, Chinese New Year, but she also played it out as the western connotation of passion in a rather hybridized twist). She even waltzed with one member of the audience. Her voice was ethereal, complex, and searing.
At the end, I stood up and yelled BRAVA. I was a one person, ang mo (Singaporean term for white person) standing ovation. I was a bit embarrassed, wondering if I was importing my western classical music sensibility honed in Hockett Recital Hall at Ithaca College and Symphony Hall and Ravinia in my native Chicago to a more restrained Asia.
The applause was continuous: the performers did two encores. But the audience was tame and rather sedate. It got me thinking that emotional engagement with performers here has a way to go. It's not yet the New Orleans Jazz Fest or the Morelia International Film Festival in Mexico, both places where arts meets people meets passion.
The ESC subcommittee report had a sentence that leapt out at me like a chilli padi in mee goreng after this recital experience.
Singapore, it states, needs to go beyond the “hard” environmental factors to the “soft” engagement factors working at a deeper social and emotional level. Pragmatic, problem solving, hyper planning Singapore has governmental reports on stimulating engagement and connections with the arts.
Obama, take notice.
Book a non-stop flight from Newark on Singapore Air, Mr. President. Maybe a trip East to this global city in in order. I'd suggest benchmarking how a cogent arts policy stimulates the economy and creates new jobs. Better the arts than the war in Afghanistan, I think.
If you come, I’ll treat you to mee goreng and sambal kang kong at one of the hawker stalls before we catch one of those Indian remix electronica concerts.