SINGAPORE: Just this week, many readers would have attended the Singapore Art Week.
No doubt a few looked forward to showcases where they can purchase art pieces.
But most went down to soak in the atmosphere, get involved in the activities and check out some street art.
Where a good number of arts festivals have sprung up in Singapore in recent years, cynics are asking whether such events are a fad that will fade from public interest with time.
A few have asked even more pointedly, what’s the point in funding these events?
ART AS CONSUMED EXPERIENCE
Arts festivals are a popular feature in many countries, both in developed economies such as the UK and Denmark and growing cities in Southeast Asia.
Within Singapore, my opinion is that they will stay, and adapt to changes in supply and demand conditions – they are not just a fad.
Given that personal spending on the arts and culture is discretionary, it’s no surprise rising affluence in Singapore has fuelled increased demand for arts and culture.
Furthermore, greater exposure to a range of arts and cultural services through travel, overseas work or study, as well as advances in technology and extensive use of social media may have also boosted demand.
Arts festivals, where art is consumed as an experience viewing exhibits and performances, rather than the purchase of physical works, are just as much an acquired taste in which demand accumulates over time.
Indeed, Singapore’s Population Survey on the Arts show that over the last decade, a larger proportion of its population have attended at least one arts event in the last 12 months.
In 2006, only a third of its population had done so. By 2015, this had risen to eight in 10.
Art has been said to broaden one’s mind and boost our creativity. Other benefits include enhancing one’s quality of life, providing personal enjoyment and promoting community bonding.
While our traditional notion is that art is consumed when works are purchased, research tells us arts festivities are leading to greater access to and increased engagement with the arts – especially when artists shed insight on their works and creative processes.
ART AS EXPORT
Arts festivals also pulls in tourism dollars in enhancing Singapore’s reputation as an arts and cultural hub and peppering the tourism calendar with new diary events.
When early art fairs were small and focused on selling works of art, attendees often include collectors who fly in from all over the world.
It seems early mover organisers were not jumping onto the bandwagon of art fairs, but instead responding to a market opportunity - especially growing demand for affordable art among yuppies and a higher demand for Southeast Asian art among collectors.
Like many other trade fairs, arts festivals started as a way to make art buying easier by bringing all the galleries under one roof. As a model that both helped and disrupted the business of traditional art galleries, it was, at the same time, a timely response to a demand that private galleries have picked up on.
An interesting development is seeing how original arts festivals have responded to competition to offer value-added services.
For instance, the Affordable Art Fair organisers have put in place “activities aimed at children, a variety of talks open to the public, the emphasis on social value (for instance, raising the plight of cataract suffers in the 2017 November edition), the bringing together of local and international artists, and several types of workshops”.
Such an “art fair for everyone” brand of this event is unique and caters to those who don’t necessarily want to purchase art but appreciate the arts for what they are.
Offering additional activities related to the main business of selling art may also help to sustain the art fairs in Singapore against the backdrop of increasing competition in the region.
Similar to Art Stage Singapore, since 2016, Indonesia has its own annual Art Stage event purported to be the bridge between the global arts world and Southeast Asia’s largest contemporary arts scene.
HOW TO MAKE THEM STAY
In order for arts festivals not to fade away, organisers need to evolve and respond to the changing needs of its resident community, visitors, artists and cultural industries.
The survival of Singapore arts festivals will depend on whether they can sufficiently differentiate themselves from those newcomers in Southeast Asia, to build a distinctive Singaporean brand and stand up against competition from around the region.
Government policies in terms of funding and incentives still have a role to play, and the changing demographics, ethnic composition, preferences of the community and the type of tourists Singapore aims to attract are also crucial factors that will shape the landscape of the arts and cultural scene.
It can be tempting to see arts festivals as a sign of Singapore’s arrival as a cultured society. But competition to reap economic value will remain tough.
Art festivals add depth to Singapore’s cultural scene, but they also provide opportunities to local and international artists to showcase their talent and work, enable business and skills development for creative enterprises, and contribute to the economy.
The challenge therefore is to sustain their relevance by ensuring balance in catering to both local and international tastes, and being mindful of having too many art events in a small city such as Singapore.
The latter will lead to commodification and the loss of appeal if cultural events have an overcrowding effect.
Singapore is at the cross roads of taking its place as a culturally vibrant and creative economy. Art festivals can be a catalyst for the economic regeneration of cities such as Singapore.
If managed well, they can also be an effective vehicle for Singapore to progress in its journey towards cultural maturity.
Renuka Mahadevan is an associate professor at the School of Economics at the University of Queensland. She studies the value of culture and tourism in modern societies.