Forging Ahead – The Arts and Culture in a New World
Speech by Ms Low Yen Ling, Minister Of State, Ministry Of Culture, Community And Youth & Ministry Of Trade And Industry, At Culture Academy Conference on 17 Nov 2022
21 November 2022
Good morning. It is with great delight that I join you today at the Culture Academy’s biennial conference, with the theme, “Forging Ahead – The Arts and Culture in a New World”.
Today, we are privileged to have with us esteemed speakers from Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and the United Kingdom, all leaders in the field of culture, creative economy, and technology. This is an exciting time, we’re talking about arts and culture, but at confluence with technology and the creative economy. Their wealth of experience presents a wonderful opportunity for us to exchange best practices and learn from one another.
I would also like to take this chance to bid a very warm welcome to our audience, who have come from different practices and backgrounds.
Looking back, Going forward
Today, I’d like to take the opportunity to reflect on the growth of our arts and culture sector in Singapore and how it has developed through the years, and what’s ahead for us.
Arts and Culture in the time of a pandemic
The arts and culture scene went through a very difficult two and a half years period. Those were the darkest moments and we know that about one in two arts and culture practitioners is a self-employed person, and that is why MCCY, NAC and NHB worked very closely with the sector, the organisations, as well as our self-employed persons to see how we can strike a good balance between saving livelihoods as well as preserving our capability in our arts and culture scene. Due to safe distancing measures, many performances and cultural events had to be cancelled or put on hold. Arts and culture practitioners, as well as audiences, were very much affected by the disruptions.
Since March this year with the lifting of the ban, it is all coming back. You can see the exuberant array of activities, whether it is musical performances, visual arts etc.
In the last two and a half years, collectively we recognised the challenges and MCCY, NHB, NAC and our galleries and museums, came together and engaged the community and sought to give our arts and culture sector the support that they need to protect livelihoods, persevere and build capabilities such as in digital technology. Hence, we had the Digital Presentation Grant. For example, $75m in funding was quickly released to the arts and culture sector via the Arts and Culture Resilience Package (ACRP). It offered support schemes which were designed to position the sector for a strong recovery. The fund also provided specific grants for self-employed persons, recognising that about one in two practitioners is a freelancer. The ACRP also provided resources for organisation transformation because we really want to use the opportunity to future-proof our arts and cultural organisation as well as practitioners. The ACRP also provided venue hire subsidies to help arts and culture organisations to defray costs, which was their immediate concern. This was in addition to the Jobs Support Scheme for Singapore businesses and organisations.
We saw how the whole sector persevered with solidarity and were greatly heartened by the grit, resilience and determination shown by our arts and culture sector. We saw organisations and practitioners adapting quickly to the situation and adapted digital tools and technology. I remembered the friends at Ding Yi told me that they had to make sure to capture the whole performance so they could share it with the audience at home. It also allowed their performance to travel beyond Singapore, to the region and the world. To do so, they need to curate it like a production and edit it post-production. Despite encountering many challenges in the last two and a half years, our practitioners as well as our arts and culture organisations used the opportunity to innovate and develop new approaches, like using digital platforms to create and showcase their art.
Kudos to them for leveraging the Digital Presentation Grant. It actually allows their performance to continue to travel today. In the past, when we think about a performance, it is only to be enjoyed by the audience who attended [the show], but if we continue to leverage digital technology, it will allow other audiences who can’t travel to also be able to benefit from the performance.
During the pandemic, the arts and culture sector accelerated adoption of digital technologies. For example, on International Friendship Day, in the thick of COVID-19 in July 2020, Singaporean Wong Kah Chun, then-chief conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra, conducted an immersive digital performance entitled Beethoven 360° that brought together musicians from 25 nations to give hope to everyone all over the world. That is the power of arts and culture. It shows us that the arts are essential, to nourish our soul. Indeed, digitalisation has broken down physical barriers and provided unprecedented opportunities for people to create and experience the arts and culture across borders. We can certainly expect this trend to stay, even in the new normal.
Trends in the arts and culture
Our grit and ability to innovate have helped us overcome the disruptive impact of the pandemic years. We have got what it takes to press on with greater strength and courage for the future.
Looking ahead, we know that arts, culture, and heritage will continue to play a role in enriching and enlivening lives. The appreciation and cultivation of the arts, culture and heritage bring people from all kinds of backgrounds together, allow us to interact, connect and express themselves in safe spaces. We can come together to agree to disagree, to experiment, to push the boundary. The arts also support learning and education, and the improvement of society.
In addition, the connections between the arts and culture sphere and other sectors will continue to grow. Which is why we talked about arts together with technology and the creative industry to innovate, and where business agents also come to play. The skills traditionally valued in the arts, such as aesthetics, are increasingly in demand in other sectors such as design and advertising. Arts and cultural content have become a treasure trove for entertainment companies like Netflix, which have successfully turned local stories into wider success for global audiences.
Grey skies and challenges
However, we face an overcast sky as uncertainties loom with the current global economic and geopolitical headwinds. Allow me to share some thoughts on 3 key challenges that we face and how we can work closely together to overcome them. Even though we say it as a challenge, there is always an opportunity in a challenge.
Balance between Professionals and Emerging Artists
The first challenge is the balance we need to strike between professionalising the arts and culture sector, and at the same being keenly supportive of emerging artists.
Increasing professionalism in the arts and culture sector, or more broadly, the creative sector, is critical for the healthy growth and maturity of the industry. Let me elaborate.
As the work of arts and creative practitioners increasingly crosses over to other disciplines and industries, their professional credentials will gain more importance as partners who are new or unfamiliar with the arts will look for some form of indicators to benchmark the artistic skills of practitioners. Design is critical and has a wide application, such that Singapore Design Council now falls under the Economic Development Board.
Professionalism is also necessary for Singapore to compete on the same level as other global culture powerhouses like New York and London, which are supported by strong and sophisticated value chains.
Over the years, Singapore has invested heavily in raising the professional capability of our artists and creatives, for example through scholarships. I was very happy to meet the recent cohort of scholars. Over the last two years, we continued to invest in capability, developing our bench strength. NAC has supported our arts and culture practitioners in taking up more than 6,000 training and skills development opportunities, including workshops, masterclasses, short term courses, and scholarships, and conferences like today.
While there is a need to increase the professionalism of the sector, we also want to avoid erecting high barriers to entry which may inadvertently shut out young and talented arts practitioners. We want to make sure we continue a pipeline of young talents. We do not wish for them to have to jump through hoops or chase certificates to prove their skills when their portfolios should speak for themselves. In addition, we want to ensure that our emerging and young artists without any professional qualifications can also participate fully in the arts and culture scene.
This is very important because of the social value of the arts and culture. We have longstanding efforts in Singapore to make sure that the arts and culture sector is widely accessible - so that Singaporeans regardless of the background or financial situation at home – have the opportunity to pick up the arts, not just as an audience, from a young age and be able to enjoy the arts with friends and family. I am particularly proud of our Singapore Youth Festival (SYF), where more than 20,000 students participate and showcase their artistic talents every year.
MCCY is deeply committed to maintaining and improving standards of professionalism in the creative sector, and while doing so, we will seek to keep the doors always open, for emerging artists and new entrants. This is a delicate, but necessary balance that all of us as practitioners, as management of arts and cultural organisations, must continue to strike.
The second challenge is about how the arts and culture sector can adopt new approaches to revenue models and financial sustainability. We are also mindful that our arts and culture scene comprises both non-profit and for-profit elements.
More and more arts groups and practitioners are recognising the importance of devising sustainable financial models for their work. They are looking at new models of earning and raising revenue and monetising creative content. We are diversifying funding support in addition to existing Government grants and philanthropy. For instance, theatre companies like The Theatre Practice and Sight Lines Entertainment pivoted to offering online interactive murder mystery games during the pandemic, which proved to be popular with audiences. There is space for us to testbed markets all these new ideas which will have an audience, locally and globally.
As we know, Singapore’s small local population may not provide a large enough audience to form a long-term revenue base for our local arts groups. Arts companies that decide to appeal to international audiences often have to differentiate their value proposition as well as the need to ensure that what they produce is accessible and attractive to the wider audience in the region and the global market.
This challenge is not unique only to the arts sector but is also one faced by Singapore SMEs. For example, the arts and culture sector could benefit from a strategy that our SMEs are familiar with, called “hunting as a pack” – which means complementing our skills, our strengths, our competencies, our networks and resources so that we can come together as a group, flying the Singapore flag, to explore and penetrate new markets more easily. Likewise, our Singaporean arts groups could band together and work with each other or with Singapore companies from other sectors to enter a new market.
Upgrading and Training
Last but not least, it is about the people. The future is also about helping our creative practitioners upgrade and stay relevant and future-ready. All of us have to scale up, and we can resort to webinars, conferences and bite-sized mobile learning. Increasingly, arts and cultural practitioners, especially freelancers and those in smaller companies, it helps to have a multidisciplinary skillset which helps in today’s digital world. Today, the world demands that practitioners not just have technical and creative skills, but also perform the tasks of marketing, managing social media and technology, as well as the functions of human resources and finance. In addition, practitioners are expected to know about intellectual property rights protection and education pedagogy too!
Skills development, beyond just creative skills, has become the order of the day. Hence, with the help of industry professionals, we established the Arts Resource Hub to provide resources for self-employed artists to learn more about issues such as written contracts, to protect themselves better, and intellectual property rights.
Practitioners seeking to upskill can also benefit from a strong suite of programmes at our different Institutions of Higher Learning. Today, we have LASALLE and NAFA. Very soon, we will have the University of the Arts Singapore (UAS) - Singapore’s first private arts university, which will welcome its first intake of degree students in 2024. They are hard at work sprinting to curate a holistic curriculum to welcome our first intake at UAS. Apart from enhancing tertiary arts education pathways, the university will contribute towards the building of the arts ecosystem through collaborations with industry, arts practitioners and researchers.
Besides training, having more international exchanges where creatives from all around the world converge to tap on and learn from each other can enhance and enrich our knowledge base. Such exchanges can take place virtually or in person – such as at this conference. Through such events, practitioners can deepen our skillset and horizons, and also build connections with like-minded professionals.
The three challenges can be opportunities. We will continue to professionalise our sector but at the same time be very welcoming of our young and emerging artists. Two, new approaches to new business model to sustain business opportunity. Three, continue to upskill and future-proof ourselves in this new normal.
I know that we have the gumption, resolve and creative energy to overcome these challenges. In fact, to turn them into differentiating opportunities right here in Singapore. I want to assure youthat MCCY, the Singapore National Arts Council and National Heritage Board will stand alongside arts and culture practitioners. We are working on the next iteration of the Our SG Arts Plan and Our SG Heritage Plan. We work very closely with the stakeholders to curate this, keeping our eyes and ears on the ground, we take in your inputs and suggestions. With your support, we will lay out the key priorities and strategies for growing the arts and heritage sectors for the next five years. We look forward to identifying and seizing more opportunities ahead.
On that note, I would like to thank all of you for spending your day at this conference. It is a great platform for us to learn, exchange ideas, and build networks and forge partnership. There is much that we can learn from each other. I hope that there will be many more opportunities to come together to shape and spur the arts, culture and heritage sector to greater heights.
I wish all of you a fruitful and productive conference. Thank you.