Thursday, December 9, 2010

Cut and thrust of arts funding

Cut and thrust of arts funding
Arts council should not use funding cuts to weed out critical works
By Adeline Chia, Straits Times Arts Correspondent
8 December 2010

THE chief executive of the National Arts Council (NAC), Mr Benson Puah, recently sent chills down the spines of some artists.

In his first full-length interview since taking over the helm of NAC last year, he addressed the controversial decision earlier this year when the council cut the funding for arts group Wild Rice by $20,000 to $170,000.

When the news broke in May, the council had said it would not fund projects 'which are incompatible with the core values promoted by the Government and society or disparage the Government'.

In the interview two weeks ago, Mr Puah elaborated on the reasons for the funding cut. The issue with Wild Rice, known for putting on cheeky plays dealing with political themes, is 'cumulative', he said.

Funding guidelines have always existed and are spelled out in the grant contracts. This time round, the council decided to be upfront about the reasons for the cut - to send, as he put it, a 'gentle reminder' to arts groups that they have to comply with funding guidelines if they want to accept government money.

While he did not spell it out, his message came through loud and clear: Other arts groups may face funding cuts if they put up performances contrary to guidelines not to 'disparage' the Government.

While Mr Puah should be commended for candour, the impact of his words is another matter. After all, he heads the NAC, a statutory board whose twin missions are to nurture artists and make the arts integral to the lives of Singaporeans.

Mr Puah himself has impeccable credentials as an arts administrator: He has been with The Esplanade since 1998 where he is credited with steering the arts centre to its premier position. He remains its chief executive.

As NAC chief, Mr Puah will have oversight of the council's grant-making decisions. He has said he prefers to support artists and new groups, rather than spend NAC funds on high-prestige events that have little impact.

These are laudable objectives consistent with NAC's first aim of nurturing artists - which should include giving artists the space and resources to express themselves. The Singapore arts scene is made up of a myriad of voices. Some are conservative, others are liberal.

Some are critical of the status quo, others are pro-establishment. Unless they are outright defamatory or explicitly fan racial hatred, they deserve to be heard, because they are artistic expressions of Singaporeans and are the product of Singaporean experiences.

The role of the arts council is to nurture a diverse and healthy arts ecosystem. Funding should not be used to weed out critical or non-conformist views.