AN upcoming gallery plans to spotlight modern art from across Southeast Asia.
BEFORE being vacated five years ago, they stood for more than a century at the colonial heart of Singapore.
Side by side in the civic district, the Supreme Court and City Hall – fronted by a rows of columns and with stately, ornate architecture inside – were sites of significance for the small nation-state. The scenes there told some of the story of a country finding its feet: the Japanese surrender to Lord Mountbatten in 1945, Lee Kuan Yew’s declaration of independence, decades of judicial rulings.
Then, in 2005, the occupants left the buildings, making way for renovations that will cost the Singapore government several hundred million dollars and transform the country’s cultural base.
Construction of the National Art Gallery of Singapore will officially begin early next year. It was initially estimated to cost $S320 million ($272m), a price tag the government now admits was too conservative for a project expected to be completed in 2013.
Those driving the gallery have grand ambitions: they hope the new art space, which will provide a permanent home for the national collection of almost 8000 works, will become one of the most important visual arts institutions in Asia – it will certainly be one of the largest – and build a broader appreciation of Southeast Asian art across the art world. It will also fill a local niche for Singapore’s nascent arts scene.
“Unlike in Europe or Australia, public arts museums are relatively less developed in the region,” gallery director Kwok Kian Chow says. “We feel that we should play a facilitating role in presenting Southeast Asian art in a way that can look at not only the whole region but also how the region relates to the world of art.”
There is little movement inside the two buildings today. Dust gathers in former judges’ chambers, lobbies, meeting halls and dimly lit regal stairways.
Workers stand near the entrances on the ground floor and makeshift offices have sprung up inside to accommodate those overseeing the transition.
The airconditioning is off, too, no longer offering visitors relief from the muggy stillness outside. And the former occupants of the Supreme Court have moved into a futuristic, UFO-style building behind the new gallery space.
French architectural firm Studio Milou, which won the contract to build the gallery, is promising “minimal architectural intervention”.
It says the design will enhance and unite the two heritage buildings, leaving much of the existing space and infrastructure intact.
Construction will be completed in phases, with the Supreme Court area finished by 2013 and the City Hall building two years later.
The gallery has yet to take shape and still feels some way off.
Indeed, when it comes to development in Singapore, much of the recent attention has been on Marina Bay Sands, the ostentatious $US5.5 billion ($6.5bn) hotel and casino backed by Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson that officially opened last month.
But officials behind the gallery, which is a short distance from the casino, have begun to enthusiastically talk up the value it will bring to the country.
Chief executive Michael Koh says the institution will be Singapore’s largest gallery, a “civic and cultural space” for locals.
“The National Art Gallery aims to be an integral and endearing part of the lifestyle of every Singaporean, and a must-see destination for every visitor,” he says.
Chow, the gallery’s director, was brought in to oversee the collection after leaving the top job last August at the respected Singapore Art Museum. In size alone, the new gallery will dwarf that other institution: while the museum has a display space of about 4200sqm, the National Art Gallery will be spread over 6ha, including a gallery display area of about 1.8ha.
Chow wants to position the gallery as Singapore’s most comprehensive art space and an authority on Southeast Asian art. The collection will focus on Southeast Asian art from the 19th and 20th centuries, with an emphasis on works from Singapore.
“I think there are very few if any, really, of what might be called post-colonial modern art museums,” he says.
“There may be national museums presenting national art history but [we are] presenting art history with a regional scope, looking at regional work as part of a larger discussions.
“It is not just another museum that tells a more familiar story of modernity. Rather, we attempt to tell a not-so-familiar story, which is of Southeast Asian modern art.”
Chow says the artworks by significant figures from Singapore and elsewhere in the region, including local artist Liu Kang, Indonesian Hendra Gunawan, Fernando Cueto Amorsolo from The Philippines and Vietnamese painter Le Pho, will be prominently displayed in the gallery.
In the lead-up to 2013, the National Art Gallery is using space at the Singapore Art Museum to hold temporary exhibitions from its collection.
The most recent centred on Yeh Chi Wei, a Chinese-born Singaporean artist who died in 1981. Works by another Singaporean artist, Cheong Soo Pieng, will be shown in September.
“These are very important artists who we will present as very key figures in the entire development of modern art here in the region,” Chow says. “We are doing several of these exhibitions so as to build up the scholarship on art history.” He says the gallery has a “reasonable resource” for acquisitions, and would be looking to fill the gaps in its collection over time. Chow says research will be a priority and the gallery will seek to build connections with other art institutions across the world.
Discussing his plans for the gallery, Chow keeps returning to the theme of building knowledge in Singapore and beyond.
He says the gallery will help boost the profile of artists from Singapore and neighbouring countries who deserve greater exposure to the broader art world. “It’s fair to say there’s a lot more room to do a lot more work on understanding Southeast Asian modern art,” he says.
Ashleigh Wilson travelled to Singapore courtesy of the National Arts Council.