Popularising the arts
What goes into the making of the Singapore Arts Festival? Find out from its director Goh Ching Lee
Lending identity Festival director Goh Ching Lee
The Singapore Arts Festival has grown considerably in scope and significance since its birth in 1977. It embraces theatre, music, dance, film and multimedia works from around the world.
The event aims at catapulting Singapore talent on to the world stage, providing a platform for international productions and launching works imbued with a fresh vision from Asia.
The Festival organised by the National Arts Council has proven its ability to draw various strands together and to promote collaboration between local and international artists and companies. The festival aims at promoting Singapore as a global city for the arts.
“Developing and locating Singapore work within the wider regional and international context are at the heart of the festival programme” states Goh Ching Lee, the dynamic and committed Festival Director of the Singapore Arts Festival who has been involved with arts development since 1984.
“Exploring history, memory, the vulnerability of the individual and society… juxtaposing the East and West, the ancient and the modern, crossing forms , borders, time and space — these are the recurrent threads that mark the strengths and identity of the Festival,” she said in her introduction to this year’s festival that concluded recently. Works by artists from 27 countries and regions were showcased in the month long event while there were seven new commissions.
Considering how smoothly the festival is run, it is not surprising that the National Arts Council has a handbook that has systems and processes in place.
“Everything is put down and we learn from others’ mistakes and our own,” says Goh Ching Lee, while you get a few minutes with her during a luncheon interview on the day the collaborative production ‘Awaking’ is staged at the Victoria theatre.
“The number of events has stabilised at 25 productions for the main festival and close to 400 for the individual outreach activities spread out over the city at various venues,” she says.
Goh Ching Lee, a history student with a masters in arts management, and a former singer with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, has been responsible for successfully steering the course of the festival and been credited with giving it an identity with “the contemporary” as the key.
“There is resistance perhaps in seeing something new but we believe in educational experience. If you come with an open mind, you will love it,’ she states.
Asked whether the festival is aimed at young audiences, she replies, “They are relatively young. But we have an audience across the board.”
“And I don’t agree with you that we are perhaps turning away from our culture to the Western,” she says.
“We are drawing a lot from Asian tradition and history; we connect the past and the present. For instance, “awaking” has two forms of traditional music as well as the contemporary.”
As for the visibility provided to women artists, Goh Ching Lee points out, “We had ‘Temple’ directed by Natalie Hennedige, ‘Rhinoceros’ by Zizi Azah and ‘For All the Wrong Reasons’ by Lies Pauwels this year. But the selection is not based on gender. During some years, we do try to focus on women directors.”
Regarding the impediments faced in organising a festival of this kind, she answers, “It is a problem to work with a limited budget”.
Encountering a look of astonishment, she says, “It is only half of the Hong Kong and Australian arts festival budget. Compared to Seoul, of course, we are bigger. But our budget has remained the same for the last few years — there are so many needs in Singapore.”
Asked whether she is burdened by the choices she has to make, she says, “You make the choices and live with the consequences. You can’t move forward if have fear of failure. You need to have faith in what the artists do and what you do. This year, for example, we have been criticised for not bringing in the big names.”
Such as? “The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, for instance. But then they can be brought by other agencies. This is a government sponsored festival, and it’s not box office that counts. One can’t also give everything to everyone. We are able to inspire different groups of people; we try to be evergreen,” she laughs.
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