Dec 18 2015

Conversation With Low Sze Wee, Curatorial Director of National Gallery Singapore

by Marybeth Stock
Opening celebrations of the National Gallery Singapore on November 24, 2015. Photo by Marybeth Stock  for ArtAsiaPacific.
Opening celebrations of the National Gallery Singapore on November 24, 2015. Photo by Marybeth Stock
for ArtAsiaPacific.

The newly unveiled National Gallery Singapore, which formally opened in late November, is the first public museum in the world dedicated to Southeast Asian modern art. The Gallery focuses on the art histories of Singapore and the region, and, with a total area of approximately 64,000 square meters, is the largest visual arts institution in the city-state.

A literal fusion of two buildings—the former City Hall and the adjacent former Supreme Court—the Gallery has soaring ceilings and meandering, light-filled exhibition halls. Its seemingly endless repository of modern art is founded in the museum’s permanent collection of over 8,000 works, which encompass a vast range of mediums from the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Gallery’s two inaugural shows present extensive overviews of Singaporean and Southeast Asian art history: “Siapa Nama Kamu? (What is Your Name?),” a survey of the art of Singapore; and “Between Declarations & Dreams: Art of Southeast Asia Since the 19th Century.” Two additional, shorter-term exhibitions examine the respective practices of Chinese artist Wu Guangzhong and Singaporean artist Chua Ek Kay.

On the eve of the Gallery’s opening, ArtAsiaPacific spent a few minutes with its curatorial director, Low Sze Wee.

Many Singaporeans may wonder why they need another museum, especially considering the many accomplishments of the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) and the impressive National Museum of Singapore, among others.

SAM’s original remit had always been to show both modern and contemporary Southeast Asia art. When the decision was made in 2005 to convert [the former City Hall and former Supreme Court] into an art museum, it was determined that SAM would not close down to operate these two buildings, but rather that Singapore would have two museums: SAM would retain its own premises, and we would grow a new organization. By looking at examples of other major cities— London, Tokyo and Beijing, for example— most of them have more than one art museum, and they all tend to be specialized. After having grown SAM for some 20 years, it seemed reasonable to envision Singapore as having two art museums. 

Also, for the longest time, the National Museum was the only national public museum here that had enough space to handle large-scale international shows. Art shows from the Musée d’Orsay or from the Louvre, for example, had to be housed at the National Museum. Over time, there was some public confusion, because the National Museum held these [non-Singaporean] exhibitions; but it was for purely practical reasons.

Going forward, we believe public confusion will lessen, because all art exhibitions will either be held here at the National Gallery or at SAM. The National Museum will now focus purely on Singaporean history.

How will the Gallery differentiate itself in relation to the very different, but occasionally overlapping, collections and intentions of these other museums? Do you anticipate any overlap?

There would be some overlap in what we are free to show . . . We can borrow from each other, as needed. Of the over 10,000 works in the entire Singapore national collection, SAM oversees some 2,000 contemporary pieces, while our new Gallery can be said to possess the world’s largest public collection of modern Southeast Asian art—about 8,000 pieces of modern art in all media, including painting, sculpture, prints, photography and video.

How did you select what was to be displayed in the Gallery’s inaugural exhibitions?

Definitely it was a challenge. Our target was to look at the modern art history of both Singapore and Southeast Asia, and we decided our starting point would be the 19th century. This meant we had to find suitable items, not only by looking further back into our own collection, but to external sources as well.

We came to the realization that if we were fixated on showing only painting and sculpture—the so-called fine arts—our story would be an extremely narrow one, and kind of one-dimensional. So going back a bit further in history, and in time, forced us to re-evaluate what we should include.

We started to include things like photographs, maps, illustrations, engravings and books to include in the narrative . . . This has been a very good exercise for us as curators. I think the public will also be pleasantly surprised. We are re-framing how we look at art, realizing that this definition can be broader and more generous.

The Gallery’s two main inaugural exhibitions are “Siapa Nama Kamu? (What is Your Name?),” an overview of art in Singapore since the 19th century, and “Between Declarations & Dreams: Art of Southeast Asia Since the 19th Century.”  Which aspects of these respective narratives were your focus in this initial hang?

 Both exhibitions are organized chronologically, rather than by country. “Siapa Nama Kamu?” involves some 400 works, grouped loosely under six general thematic concepts: “Tropical Tapestry” (1880s–1930s); “Nanyang Reverie” (1930s–1970s); “Real Concerns” (1950s–1970s); “New Languages” (1960s–1980s); “Shifting Grounds” (1980s–present); and “Tradition Unfettered,” which takes a look at the Chinese ink movement from the 1940s onwards.

In “Between Declarations & Dreams,” about 400 works from 10 countries are on view. The four broad narratives [in the exhibition] range from colonial rule to the present and include: “Authority & Anxiety: 19th to Early 20th Century”; “Imagining Country & Self: 1900s–1940s”; “Manifesting the Nation: 1950s–1970s”; and “Re:Defining Art: 1970s and After.”

These [exhibits are] our two permanent galleries, whose storyline will remain stable for five years, after which we will do a major revamp. Additionally, there are another seven galleries that will be used for short-term exhibitions.  

What has been your biggest challenge in starting the Gallery from the ground up? 

One challenge in setting up this museum was that we were really moving into uncharted territory. Our scale is something that had never been done before in Singapore. Our size is the equivalent of all our other national museums added together, and no one in Singapore had ever run a public museum with 200 full-time staff that includes many who had not worked in the arts sector before.

In addition, the government has set us up quite differently [from the other national museums]. We are not a government department or part of the Heritage Board. We’ve been set up as a private limited company, owned wholly by the government, but with a private business structure. We have to run ourselves quite differently, compared to a typical government museum such as SAM, where I used to work. So we knew we had to do things differently, and not follow the old template anymore. Processes, workflows and so on had to be reinvented, which can be very painful when we’re all used to the old way of doing things. I had to tell myself those old ways wouldn’t work here, and start from scratch. 

You received the prestigious Clore Fellowship in 2014, a London-based program that aims to develop and strengthen leadership in cultural and creative sectors worldwide. How did this experience inform your role in the development of the Gallery?

The Clore Leadership Programme is aimed at developing leadership capabilities for individuals. [Under the program] I was attached to the Tate headquarters, which mediates and coordinates issues among their various museums. The experience was helpful; it allowed me the space and time to understand myself better and figure out what kind of leader I am, and what kind I can be. My stint with Tate allowed me to see how they operate— the good, along with the dysfunctional. It was certainly helpful to actually see that we are not so different from Tate, in the sense that we are all struggling with the same challenges. While Tate is much bigger and has a longer history of facing such issues, it was good to learn from their long experience. I think the one thing I took away from the program is that there is no perfect or standard solution to every problem.

Is this connection related to the Gallery’s collaboration with Tate Britain, which will bring one of their current exhibitions, “Artist and Empire,” to Singapore next fall?

While I was [at Tate], it was fortuitous that I had a chance to meet their curators, who mentioned this show [which focuses on art associated with the British Empire]. They asked whether Singapore might be interested, and after some discussion, we decided it was a great opportunity [particularly considering the city-state’s past as a former British colony].

The show will be reconfigured when it comes here next October, with a lot more elements from Southeast Asia. But while our show will be quite different from the one currently on at the Tate, the breadth of the show will be the same. This is what excited us: the exhibition spans from the 16th century to the present, and its geographical reach is quite ambitious, including not only the United Kingdom, but also Africa, India, America and Southeast Asia. These two elements will not change. This overview will be very interesting for us.

However, the current Tate show is limited to works borrowed from UK collections, and this is something we can address when it comes here, by adding a lot more input from throughout Southeast Asia. Within their broader framework, our very specific narrative will be quite different. In our show there will be about 100 to 120 works.

Also, next year we’ll be co-curating a show with the Centre Pompidou, with perhaps about 150 or so works. [Editor’s note: Scheduled for the second quarter of 2016, this exhibit will examine the relationships between art from Singapore, Southeast Asia and other parts of the world.]

Low Sze Wee, Director Curatorial & Collections at the newly opened National Gallery Singapore. Courtesy National Gallery Singapore.