Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Why is state funding needed for our arts scene to thrive?

By Olivia Ho, The Straits Times, 24 Jul 2017

It is a universally acknowledged truth that a country in possession of a First World reputation must also have a thriving arts scene.

But when it comes to paying for the arts, people are less quick to reach for the bill. And lately, the dreary economic climate means an increasing reluctance to open wallets.

The arts - which comprise theatre, dance, traditional arts, visual arts, music and literature - in Singapore are mainly funded by the state, unlike in other countries such as the United States, where they are largely supported through private donors and foundations.

In 2015, according to the Singapore Cultural Statistics report, 80 per cent of arts and heritage funding in Singapore, or $595.7 million, was provided by the Government through state agencies such as the National Arts Council (NAC).

This includes $79.4 million under the Cultural Matching Fund, which was set up by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth to match private cash donations to arts and heritage charities and Institutions of Public Character dollar for dollar.

The Government's support for the arts takes various forms, from grants and partnerships to industry facilitation and arts housing.

In the 2015/2016 financial year, for instance, $70.9 million was disbursed through the Grants Framework and $7.4 million through the Arts Housing Scheme, which was implemented in 1985 to provide affordable spaces to arts groups and artists.

An NAC spokesman said investing in the creation and appreciation of the arts "does not only add to the national canon of artwork we can be proud of, it also allows the arts on an individual level to entertain and inspire, and provide an avenue for self-expression, learning and reflection". "On a community and international level, the arts can connect our communities and position Singapore globally," the spokesman added.

The remaining support for arts and culture comes from corporate sponsors and individuals.

Last year, donations in cash and kind to the arts scene fell by half to $64.7 million, down from $136.1 million in 2015.

The gap, said the NAC, was largely due to 2015 being an exceptionally prolific year for arts giving, thanks to Singapore's jubilee celebrations.

While corporate sponsors gave almost two-thirds less, individual contributions - which totalled $19.4 million - were double that of the year before. For the first time last year, contributions in kind, which included artwork loans and donations also peaked at $20.6 million.

Given the number of causes jostling for donors' attention, arts giving tends to fall behind. According to a survey on giving conducted by the NAC last year, 2 per cent of donors in Singapore had given to the arts.

The survey polled 1,035 individuals door to door from January to March last year, and 252 companies which had donated to various causes from October 2015 to April last year.

Most of the individuals surveyed cited low awareness as their reason for not donating, while a quarter said they had no interest in the arts.

Among those who had not donated in the past 12 months, 16 per cent said they would not consider giving to the arts at all, compared with 11 per cent for community and grassroots, and 10 per cent for religious organisations.

As for businesses, large local companies were most likely to support the arts, with 36 per cent preferring them over other causes, compared with 26 per cent for multinational corporations and 16 per cent for small and medium-sized enterprises.

The NAC said that while the state plays a critical role in sustaining the arts, it cannot achieve its mission alone. "The vibrancy in Singapore's arts scene today can be credited to the support of many generous corporate and individual donors who value the impact and role of the arts in all aspects of society."

Greater private patronage and corporate sponsorship is needed, it added - whether financially, in kind through organisational or professional expertise, or even through the provision of spaces for the arts community.

It is difficult for those in the arts industries to turn a profit without funding. Most arts practitioners struggle to cover costs as it is.

As outgoing Singapore International Festival of Arts artistic director Ong Keng Sen said in a 2015 interview, sponsorship is essential to an artist since the arts are not self-sustaining and may never be, given the small market here.

The richest literary prize in Singapore, the Epigram Books Fiction Prize, is privately funded and struggles each year to raise the prize money.

The prize for unpublished manuscripts, which is meant to encourage local writing, awards $25,000 in cash to the winner and $5,000 to three other shortlisted writers. With some major sponsors being less forthcoming this year, Epigram has recently turned to crowdfunding, although so far it is less than halfway to raising the money needed to award the prize at the end of this year.

While founder Edmund Wee says he intends to go ahead with the prize anyway - digging into his own pockets if need be - a lack of long-term sponsorship could mean this year will be its last.

Acquiring funding has become more and more competitive. After the NAC's release of the recipients of its Seed Grant and Major Company scheme in April, some arts groups had to tighten their belts due to funding cuts of less than 10 per cent, following budget reduction across the Government and a number of recipients.

Groups which were dealt cuts or failed to get funding applications approved said they might have to cope by doing fewer shows or outreach, or by cutting their artists' salaries. A total of $16.34 million has been committed to 63 arts groups this year, up from $16.2 million last year for 62 groups.

Arts housing is also becoming more expensive, with rental costs at Goodman Arts Centre having risen since last month, while the NAC has cut subsidies for service charges.

Some might argue that the "survival of the fittest" approach should be applied to the arts as well - that it should be left to the free market to determine which arts groups thrive based on the quality of their output.

Certainly, funding needs to be tied to merit to keep standards high. "Art for art's sake" should not mean people are expected to sustain mediocrity simply because it has been tagged as art. But a natural selection approach also overlooks how the arts are needed to experiment, provoke and break boundaries. Relying on the free market would push artists towards populism and commercial production in order to survive.

Singaporeans, with their reputation for utilitarianism, are also not exactly given to spending liberally on the arts to begin with, whatever their quality.

It is also crucial that outreach continues to be a growing aspect of the local arts scene. Arts and culture cannot be the preserve of the elite if they are to enrich a nation.

Low-income groups, children and those with special needs need more avenues through which they can be exposed to the arts.

State funding makes it possible for Singaporeans to go to museums for free and for events such as the biannual Arts In Your Neighbourhood, which takes experiences such as playground theatre and music walks to the heartland to reach wider audiences around the island.

But for financially strapped independent arts groups to not just survive, but also make their offerings affordable for the masses, greater support is needed not just from the public but also the private sphere.

The Singapore Perspective

Government arts funding comes with rules attached
By Olivia Ho, The Straits Times, 24 Jul 2017

The Government is the common source of funding for the arts in Singapore, but an ongoing concern is the way in which state funding comes with strings attached.

Arts practitioners have decried the denial or withdrawal of funds for works that challenge the establishment as an instrument of censorship. The Government, however, has argued that taxpayers' money should not be used to support works that go against perceived national values.

There have been numerous high-profile cases of arts groups or artists losing funding due to an unwillingness to compromise on artistic expression.

In 2011, theatre company Wild Rice had its funding under the National Arts Council (NAC) Major Grant scheme slashed due to its Singapore Theatre Festival, known for its local plays with a tongue-in-cheek take on political themes. Wild Rice went on to land sponsorship for that year's festival from international fund manager Man Investments.

In 2015, the NAC withdrew an $8,000 grant for artist Sonny Liew's satirical graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, because its content "potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy" of the Government. The public attention garnered by the grant withdrawal worked in the book's favour - it went on to become a bestseller.

Arts practitioners have called for the funding of the arts to be insulated from social or political pressures. During a parliamentary exchange last year, Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun argued that the arts have intrinsic worth, and should not be viewed only in terms of the political purpose they serve.

Minister of Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu responded that there remains a need for "rules of engagement to safeguard the social harmony that we cherish".

This is the eleventh of 12 primers on current affairs issues that are part of the outreach programme for The Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz

Crowdfunding a way for artists to stay autonomous
Look to small donors and a larger community for funds
By Akshita Nanda, Arts Correspondent, The Straits Times, 1 Aug 2017

When the state is the largest sponsor of the arts, as is the case in Singapore, it is a double-edged sword for both donor and recipient. Reaching out to larger pools of small donors may be one way for artists to pursue autonomy.

Last month, Sonny Liew made history as the first Singaporean to win top prizes at the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards.

This was followed by an online backlash against the National Arts Council, which in 2015 withdrew a grant meant to fund the publication of the winning graphic novel, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

The council cited "sensitive content" which "potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy of the Government and its public institutions". Epigram Books went on to publish the graphic novel anyway.

Liew still benefits in various ways from state patronage. He occupies a subsidised studio at Goodman Arts Centre. His first theatrical production, Becoming Graphic, is part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts this month, which is commissioned by the arts council. So he is supported - just not unconditionally.

This is a situation typical in Singapore, where artists overwhelmingly look to the state for funding and naturally worry about attendant restrictions on their art. Currently, private donations are only a fraction of what the Government spends on arts.

Former Nominated Member of Parliament Calvin Cheng said online last week that the state should not be expected to fund the arts. The authorities should promote donations through the private sector to avoid being placed in an "impossible situation".

The problem with this argument is that governments around the world have a vested interest in funding the arts. Lauded arts companies are symbolic of a country's cultural capital - think the Mariinsky Theatre of Russia or Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company. Artist exchanges are used to promote international goodwill. Musical exchanges between Russia and the United States were signs the Cold War was thawing.

The arts have been and will continue to be used by governments to influence the population towards what are considered to be the best interests of the nation.

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Zhou Long set political announcements to tunes for the radio during the Cultural Revolution in China, before he moved to the US.

In the 1970s, guitar maestro Alex Abisheganaden was asked by Dr Goh Keng Swee, then head of the Ministry of Education, to develop a programme to teach music on television. He told The Straits Times in 2011 that this was to offer a wholesome alternative to young adults "just wasting their time" in Orchard Road and Selegie Road.

Around the world, the arts has been and will be co-opted to suggest or promote ideas in keeping with the biggest patron's purposes and tastes. Much of Shakespeare's writing was produced for his royal patron Queen Elizabeth I, also known as the Virgin Queen. This may explain his many strong female heroines and does explain the compliments paid to a "fair vestal" (virgin) in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The best way to defuse the power dynamic between sponsor and artist, then, is to diffuse it. Crowdfunding platforms such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter make it possible for arts groups to reach out to a larger community of people, who may have only small amounts to give, but are whole-hearted supporters of the artist.

This route makes for a project-based income, which can be unreliable. Or maybe it just requires more planning and a different sort of budgeting mindset.

A survey conducted by the arts council last year noted that only 2 per cent of donors in Singapore had donated to the arts.

The chief reason for not donating was low awareness of the arts. The biggest reason to donate was to support a specific event. Donations were tied to event tickets - the very model crowdfunding operates on.

In Singapore, comedy revue Chestnuts has relied on crowdfunding to put on shows at the Drama Centre Theatre.

Directors Danny Yeo and Li Xie last year raised more than $12,000 on Kickstarter (via fewer than 50 donors) to fund Body X - The Rehearsal, an immersive Mandarin theatre whodunit. The first version of Body X was commissioned for the Singapore Writers Festival in 2014 and was performed in English and Mandarin. Body X - The Rehearsal was created to respond to demand from the directors' Mandarin-speaking followers. The money raised through Kickstarter paid 20 per cent of the creators' costs.

Crowdfunding allows artists to respond directly to demand and to create a sense of community that will hopefully bring donors back to sponsor future projects.

Arts groups already know that forging a personal connection with the audience is the best way to loosen the purse strings. The Esplanade and Singapore Symphony Orchestra have membership programmes where members get to meet the featured artists. Most theatre companies have sponsorship tiers where those who give are entitled to perks from discounted tickets to dinners with the artists.

Moving forward, more artists in Singapore are going to have to turn to this type of funding model if they want to decrease their reliance on the state as major donor. It may take more time for a work to reach completion, but at least it will be funded without pre-conditions.

In the US, producers of the musical Allegiance raised close to US$160,000 over four years to fund the production about internment camps for Japanese in the US during World War II. Key to the success of the fund-raising was the backing of Allegiance actor and Internet personality George Takei.

He played Sulu on Star Trek: The Original Series on television and is a vocal champion of minority rights. Allegiance is based on his own memory of being a child in the internment camps.

He used social media aggressively to court donations for Allegiance. He offered gifts and merchandise to those who donated.

Allegiance was a huge hit and the screening of the live production brought in US$1 million in ticket sales in about 600 theatres, the LA Times reported.

Takei often cites Allegiance to counter anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric from the current US administration.

This is a good example of how crowdfunding puts the power back with the people. Social media and small donors let artists tell the story they want told.

Politics in play in funding

I refer to the articles that have been published regarding my comments that the arts in Singapore would be stronger if the Government stopped funding it, and if the arts community sought private funding instead.

It is fair to say that a vocal segment of the arts community has rejected my suggestion.

One objection that has emerged is that local arts philanthropy is too undeveloped to replace Government funding. This is a self-defeating argument.

Arts patronage and philanthropy will never develop if the arts community does not engage actively with corporate and private patrons.

In other developed countries where private funding of the arts outweigh government funding, artists group together to form non-profit groups that then raise funds from private entities and corporations.

In Singapore, I have suggested that the Government can also aid in this in the beginning. I am glad local outfits such as SingLit Station have done exactly this, rather than passively waiting for Government handouts. 

Another objection is that private funding would mean that some art forms and content that appeal only to a niche audience would not get funding. This does not hold water. If a niche audience is passionate enough about it, it should support the artist with its wallet. If the art form or artist cannot even obtain this, then public money should not fund it.

Regardless, if the arts community rejects my suggestions, then it should not object if the Government evaluates its projects via a political prism.

A government is made up of a political party that was elected based on its political platform and values. These values, which the majority voted for, will permeate every decision the Government makes in its term of office.

One cannot reasonably expect the Government to use public funds to fund projects that are at odds with the very political values and narrative it was democratically elected for. This holds true even if, one day, a liberal party in Singapore is elected into office based on a political platform of "diversity of views".

As can be seen in the West, such liberal parties tolerate all views except views they deem anathema to "liberal values". These views they then deem as "hate speech".

In such a situation, one would expect that artists who engage in content deemed as "hate speech" will be denied funding by such a liberal party in Government.

At the end of the day, one cannot divorce politics from how public funds are used. It is the very reason any political party is elected into power.

Calvin Cheng
Former Nominated Member of Parliament
The Straits Times, 5 Aug 2017

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