Singapore ker-ching

Scaffolding is a common sight in Singapore but there is one set that really catches the eye. Wrapped around City Hall and the former Supreme Court, it conceals what is likely to become the city-state’s most important visual arts hub. Set to open in 2015, the National Art Gallery Singapore will hold the world’s largest collection of southeast Asian modern and contemporary art.

Singapore has been cultivating a position of cultural authority in the region for some time. The Singapore Art Museum, which opened in 1996, plays a key role in collecting and commissioning contemporary art from southeast Asia, and a number of private and public initiatives have recently reinforced this position. Only last week, the Singapore Art Museum released a shortlist of artists for this year’s biennale, all 52 of whom hail from southeast Asia.

But Singapore has not always had such a lively visual arts landscape, nor welcomed artistic expression. Only two decades ago it was known as a “cultural desert”, a lamentable side effect of its disproportionate emphasis on economic modernisation. The government was intolerant of art that appeared to question established values or policies – its 10-year ban on unscripted performances following a piece by Josef Ng was a case in point. So why this new drive to promote southeast Asian art?

Eugene Tan, who was last month chosen as the gallery’s director, says: “Given that there are relatively few institutions in southeast Asia devoted to the research of art and its histories in the region, the National Art Gallery Singapore presents an invaluable opportunity to study and examine how art and visual culture have developed in one of the most culturally, religiously and linguistically diverse regions in the world.”

Work by Ai Weiwei and Eric So, Art Stage Singapore

Singapore is not a country to want to miss a money-making opportunity, and there is another clear attraction in setting up an art market distinct from its international rivals. The government is using its historic position as a global financial centre to develop art businesses; the Singapore Freeport, for instance, offers climate-controlled storage facilities free of tax and import duties. By focusing on southeast Asia, commercial galleries and fairs such as Art Stage Singapore are able to carve a niche within a fiercely competitive global art market.

But is it all a matter of self-interest? If the main aims are to improve scholarship on southeast Asian art and the region’s market competitiveness, why not aid commercial and institutional development in other southeast Asian countries? One answer could be that Singapore, unlike its neighbours, has the political will and resources to fund such development and the stability necessary to nurture a nascent scene. But some critics point to Singapore’s tendency to draw on the region to boost its own financial and cultural wealth.

Promoting itself as an arts hub also fulfils the country’s search for a distinct cultural identity. In light of its relatively brief history (it gained independence in 1965) and limited talent pool (a population of around 5m) it would be difficult to fill institutions such as the National Art Gallery with home-grown artists alone.

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