Exterior view of Singapore Art Museum (left) and National Gallery Singapore (right). Courtesy Singapore Art Museum and National Gallery Singapore. 

Double Hatting

In March, news broke that the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) had appointed Eugene Tan as its director—a position that he would hold concurrently with his directorship at the National Gallery Singapore (NGS), making him the leader of the country’s two major public art institutions. The revelation was met with a placid public response, while in private, conversations on the subject exploded.

Shortly after the announcement, I connected with some 15 gallerists, collectors, magazine editors, art fair directors and curators at Art Basel Hong Kong. Without fail, every single one of them asked, “Why the same individual? Is there no one else from Singapore or elsewhere who could do this?” They were all quick to qualify that their reactions had nothing to do with the caliber of SAM’s new director; in fact, they found Tan to be “gentle,” “even-keeled,” and knowledgeable about contemporary art in Asia. But the matter extends beyond the merits of the individual. 

“The appointment of Tan appears to substantiate that there isn’t anybody else within the region who has conveyed confidence and integrity to the decision makers,” as art historian TK Sabapathy pointed out. “Therefore, they asked someone who is a director of a huge establishment—which is just five years old—to take on yet another [institution], which I think is an immense ask of a single human being.” Tan isn’t the first person to simultaneously take on senior roles at two cultural institutions in Singapore. From 2009 to 2013, Benson Puah was CEO of both the National Arts Council and the performing arts complex, Esplanade: Theatres On the Bay. 

Appointments like these suggest a serious talent crunch in cultural fields in Singapore, but it should not come as a surprise. Over the years, as Singapore expanded its museum facilities, little attention has been paid to talent development or educational needs. More than USD 400 million has been poured into the refurbishment of the NGS and SAM, with a further USD 65 million slated for the latter’s facelift. Yet, art history is offered as a minor elective at the Bachelor’s level at the city’s educational institutions; postgraduate degrees have only recently been added. Many individuals who want to pursue an in-depth knowledge in this field today do so at universities abroad.

While education may be part of the picture, it does not explain everything. Many people I spoke to saw Tan’s appointment as a “safe choice,” and thought that decision-makers could have been more open to other professionals in Singapore and the region. After Susie Lingham left the position of SAM’s director in March 2016, a closed search process was initiated and then halted. When I asked about the criteria for the post, Chong Siak Ching, head of the Visual Arts Cluster (VAC), the advisory board overseeing SAM, NGS, and the printing workshop and commercial gallery, STPI, would only say, “Leadership experience in a museum or arts institution is one of the key qualifications.” Coming from the real estate industry, Chong herself wears multiple hats; she is CEO of NGS and a board member at NGS and SAM.

Portrait of Eugene Tan. Courtesy National Gallery Singapore. 

Understandably, to the governance-centered boards of Singapore’s cultural institutions, which are filled mostly by business professionals and civil servants, the streamlining of leadership and corporate functions makes financial and administrative sense. After all, both SAM and NGS are corporatized nonprofit, public entities. “The three VAC entities have already been working on shared functions and communities of practice to facilitate best practices, cost efficiencies and draw synergies from each other,” said Chong, though she emphasized that Tan’s appointment does not constitute a merger. 

“Would it lead to greater and admirable efficiency of administration, of resources? Is that what we want in the running of institutions of art? Do we not want to have variations, differences, alternatives, or do we want everything under one centralized authority and thereby mute them? I fear for this,” Sabapathy stated. His sentiments were echoed by the other art world figures, who cautioned that further centralization would strip away the very ingredient that the Singapore art scene desperately needs: diversity. 

This need is tied to the realities of the country’s cultural ecology. In addition to a couple dozen active galleries and independent art spaces, there are only three public museums for modern and contemporary art in Singapore: SAM, NGS, and the university-linked NUS museum. Thus Tan’s dual directorship effectively gives a single individual influence over two-thirds of the museum arena. 

“This appointment feels like a kind of cultural monopoly,” said Alain Servais, a collector from Brussels and an investment banker by profession, who is knowledgeable about different international art scenes. An art scene thrives on diversity and differences of viewpoints and the active participation of different artistic communities. This appointment signals consolidation. Art consultant Lindy Poh explained that the museums’ corporate accountabilities have a part to play: “The performance metrics for corporatized spaces are rarely concerned with shrinking of space for alternative views, or preserving room for dissent . . . The loss of this space is barely talked about, let alone mourned.”

Several people I spoke to argued that Tan, an experienced curator, should know that his acceptance of both roles would erode “genetic variations” of the Singapore art scene. In his own defense, Tan said: “I can see why people think I am some kind of a megalomaniac. But if you look internationally, you will see it is not uncommon to have a single director to multiple museums. I am the director of the two institutions, but the institutions are not just about me. I encourage curators I work with to come up with new ideas for acquisitions and exhibitions, so it is about me creating an environment for diversity.” 

However, Singapore, being small, does not have the scale that other scenes have and even if a diversity of views could be engineered within an organization, the perceptions of the arts community and their behavioral responses to this centralized power can’t be controlled. “When so much power rests in the hands of one person, he or she tends to be surrounded by sycophants. The critical ones are pushed back,” Servais speculated. Perhaps this explains why 12 out of the 15 respondents that I spoke to asked for anonymity, even though they wanted their opinions to be collectively noted. Their fear was that their employment, business or project prospects would be hurt by outspoken criticism. 

Singapore is the only art scene in Southeast Asia where the government pours generous amounts of public money into its arts infrastructure via grants for artwork production, programming and acquisitions. In 2018 alone, the government distributed around USD 200 million in arts funding, including for NGS and SAM. This creates a highly dependent relationship: the local arts community either works for the government or relies on it for project funding or acquisitions. Furthermore, with institutional acquisitions of contemporary and modern art spanning nine countries in Southeast Asia, museums in Singapore are important clients to gallerists and a significant source of validation for regional artists. Therefore, from the perspective of the stakeholders interviewed, the institutions are “un-offendable.” However, Tan disagreed: “That thinking assumes that I am small-minded.” But such reservations are inevitable in a space with few players. 

In observing the muted public response, Sabapathy lamented, “It is a terrible shame that a greater fuss was not made about this appointment . . . unfortunately, it came out matter-of-factly, and dismissively. Those who made these decisions could have been a little bit more upfront about them. Don’t just say two sentences. Take 20 minutes to talk about this and invite others to express their opinions, their grievances, their disappointments. Is this not what cultural activity is all about? We should be worried that nobody worries about this.” 

We are now in a situation where ownership of the art world is at stake and public response is vital. Yet deliberations remain in the hands of a few; and we wonder why the Singapore art scene cannot be freed from its top-down dependency.

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