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FLYING THE FLAG

Theatre veteran Gaurav Kripalani has every right to feel jaded. Yet he remains just as enthusiastic as he was when he started over 20 years ago, pushing the boundaries of creativity.

“I find it heartbreaking that literature is no longer a mandatory subject in schools,” Gaurav Kripalani laments. “There are kids today who will grow up with very little exposure to the classics. I have met young adults who don’t even enjoy reading.”

Despite this, the artistic director of the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) forges ahead, unrelenting in his belief that the arts and theatre are integral to a young nation’s cultural landscape. Kripalani was one of the few Singaporeans with a degree in theatre in 1996. When he and his team staged the inaugural edition of Shakespeare in the Park the following year, they had to fly in three-quarters of the actors and creative team.

He is glad to tap into a rich pool of trained talent today. “Ninety per cent of the people we hire for these productions are Singaporeans,” Kripalani shares.

Even so, he knows that Singapore still has more work to do, especially if it wants its art scene to be financially viable. Pandemic-related stress has battered professionals in this arena, and many have had to find alternative employment to survive. Now that the Covidian cloud is lifting, Kripalani hopes they will return or “it will set us back for years”.

However, he sees a silver lining. “There is now a greater appreciation of the arts. People didn’t realise how much they missed going to the shows. It’s impossible to beat the visceral experience of watching a live performance with others,” he says.

Nevertheless, he believes we can do more, beginning with the funding. Interestingly, Kripalani believes SRT’s reliance on public funding (70 per cent comes from ticket sales) hinders artistic expression. “An ideal model would be 40 per cent of revenue from ticket sales, 40 from government support and 30 from donations. This will allow artists to be more daring and push more boundaries,” he says.

Indeed, Kripalani remains enthused despite the pandemic and the public’s increasingly tepid response to the arts and theatre. His four-year tenure as festival director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) shows Singapore’s viability to be a cultural force in the region. In addition, the festival proved to Kripalani that there is still life in this nation as it had to be organised in just a few weeks, as opposed to the usual two years needed to plan a physical festival.

It’s all about being creative. In November, to get around the restriction on outdoor events, the SRT is staging The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) – all 37 plays in 97 minutes! – at the Pasir Panjang Power Station. He’s also committed to holding more Shakespeare in the Park shows even though they are loss- making ventures.

Kripalani says, “I strongly believe Singapore can be the arts capital of Asia. I want to create Singaporean shows that will tour the world and fly the Singapore flag. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every tourist who came here made sure they set aside one night on their itinerary to watch a performance? Better yet, they planned a trip to Singapore just to see a show, and arranged their sightseeing around that.”

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THE ESSENTIAL ARTIST

The veteran diplomat and Sing Jazz founder believes the pandemic will negatively impact the arts, but he plans to reverse it.

Most teenagers would listen to the countercultural music trend of their time, which usually veers between rock and roll and rap. Michael Tay listened to jazz. “My brother gave me my first hi-fi set and he loved jazz, so I did too,” laughs the 62-year-old.

Tay’s musical knowledge expanded as his career grew. His lifelong career as a diplomat brought him into contact with the deep cultural traditions of Korea, Japan, and Russia. Living in these culturally rich countries, he learned that a child who grows up surrounded by music, literature, poetry and plays will develop a creative impulse that will last throughout their lives and contribute to society.

Tay launched the Sing Jazz festival and the non-profit Foundation for the Arts and Social Enterprise when he returned to Singapore. Despite the success of the two since their inception in 2013 and the fact that there is an increase of options now, Tay believes that the country is still grappling with “society’s instinctive deprioritising of the arts”.

This became more evident when musicians started losing their livelihoods from gigs and concerts because of the pandemic. So far, we have not seen any signs of large-scale performances returning.

“Digitalisation won’t be the panacea we hoped for. Fundraising will suffer over time as the urgencies of the pandemic will further orient charitable giving towards social causes. We are at a tipping point now and how we move forward with the arts will determine Singapore’s development as a first-world society,” Tay says.

The cultural heavyweight believes that the best way forward is to integrate Singapore into the global arts landscape and export local talent to different markets. The Foundation has pursued this mission since its founding and it is one of its key pillars.

Unlike many other institutions, the Foundation approaches fundraising from a venture capital lens. If an artist has a project he or she is keen to develop, Tay and his team will work to commercialise and export it. One of its latest and biggest initiatives to date is the 10-Year Music Commissioning Series, which the Foundation launched last month.

Each year, one Singapore-based music composer will be commissioned to compose a major work of at least 30 minutes. The first is Cultural Medallion recipient Kelly Tang, who will be working on an orchestral piece inspired by artworks from the National Gallery of Singapore.

In the years to come, Tay hopes to pursue other musical works, “including Chinese orchestral music, jazz compositions, a musical and even a rock opera!”

He continues: “We want to encourage the creation of new original music by staging concerts in Singapore, and then exporting it overseas. The objective is to create a canon of Singapore contemporary music. Getting corporations as patrons of the works would also enable us to build a patronage system for Singapore.”

Art, in its various forms, is an essential part of Tay’s life. “We are already artists when we are born. Before becoming engineers, accountants or whatever career we choose, we are artists. Growth and development should include the arts. I would love to shift the paradigm so that the arts are recognised as a critical part of being human.”

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WEAVING INTO THE FABRIC OF EVERYDAY LIFE

Jackie Yoong, senior curator at Asian Civilisations Museum, believes capturing the attention of young people is the key to cultural longevity.

Jackie Yoong recalls how no one went to local museums when she was in school. They were regarded as old, dusty and irrelevant. It was different overseas. Parents would make a day of visiting age- old institutions like the MoMA or the Musee d’Orsay with their children.

Thankfully, Yoong is happy to report that 12 years after she joined Asian Civilisations Museum, that notion is finally beginning to change. “We have to resonate with the local audience,” the senior curator tells us. “We are engaging with young people more and have worked closely with the Ministry of Education on programming. More students now know that museums are accessible and have fascinating things.”

The pandemic has also made museums more digitally savvy, allowing them to stay on top of cultural trends. Yoong is currently working with her counterparts at the Royal Ontario Museum to contribute face masks and other relevant knowledge for an online exhibition about the most popular clothing item since the pandemic. Set to open in November, it aims to contextualise the pandemic by highlighting the important role played by face masks.

In the past decade, Yoong has also witnessed new museums sprouting up and older ones going through much-needed renovations. Internally, museum staff have also worked tirelessly to capture the public’s attention. From cutting long bits of information into bite-sized snippets that can be easily digested on social media to making museums Instagrammable, Yoong and many of her peers understand that keeping the young interested is the key to Singapore’s cultural longevity.

The art and culture scene today is also undoubtedly more vibrant, dynamic and international, thanks to initiatives such as the Singapore Night Festival.

However, she sounds a word of caution. “Youths tend to focus on the present, while museums emphasise the past. Even though we are innovating to meet them in the middle, we must not lose sight of our vision.”

As a result, Yoong genuinely hopes that the arts and culture scene in Singapore can be given the recognition it deserves by the public. Most museums and places of cultural interest here are currently government-funded. Yoong believes that museums will only remain sustainable if more individuals donate or become patrons.

In her travels for work, Yoong has seen how fundraising can help museums overseas integrate into the fabric of society and become part of everyday life. She believes that the same can be achieved in Singapore.

In June last year, The Sunday Times surveyed 1,000 participants and asked them to rank jobs based on whether they were essential to society. Unfortunately, 71 per cent considered the artist as the most non-essential occupation. Yoong understandably disagrees with this opinion. “Museums do not add to the bottom line. However, we do a lot more than that. We help you answer the basic question of who you are as an individual through our work. Museums are also fundamental to our everyday lives, and I hope people in Singapore will be able to appreciate that.”

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