Singapore Arts Festival 2011: Where is the fine balance between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’?

The recently-ended Singapore Arts Fest 2011 drew only 49,000 people, compared to 80,000 last year (click ‘here‘). If you click ‘here‘, you’ll see that the 2009 arts fest entertained 800,000 (its highest attendance ever)! This is a phenomenal shrinking from 800,000 to 49,000 in only three short years!

While CNA kindly reported that in 2011, 5 out of the 35 ticketed-shows were sold out, the fact is that 30 shows not only did not sell-out, but all shows averaged only 50% attendance. Insiders told me that the some shows were so poorly attended, that it was just as well that stage lights would’ve blinded the performers, preventing them from seeing the near empty venues they were playing at.

As if to offer an explanation to why so few attended this year’s fest, the National Arts Council (NAC, the main organiser) said “…they are proud the festival has become a platform for the creation of new works, with an emphasis on works from Asia. This year’s festival had a record 18 commissioned works, of which 13 were from Singapore”.

Yes, the ‘Singapore’ arts fest has done well to feature more local works, but do the poor attendance signal 1) that these local productions are not up to ‘international’ standard, and/or 2) local audiences would like to see a more ‘international’ festival?

Whatever the case is, most of the money for this fest must have been stumped up by the government, and ‘head’s will surely roll in NAC.

But not to be too harsh on the NAC who had commendably pushed the ‘local’ agenda in the outlook of the fest, there must be a fine balance between i) an arts fest that is a sell-out because the shows are all populist and very ‘safe’ artistically, and ii) one where all the shows are so envelop-pushing that arts-critics and aficionados alike huddle after the fest for a euphoric orgy, but yet general attendance can’t even cover the cost of the electricity bills for the productions.

With that last point, any arts fest must be a fine-balance between points i and ii above. It must be popular enough to draw the non-arts-event-goer, yet cutting-edge enough to satisfy the art-snobs. It must make enough money from ticket sales to justify the huge overall outlay, but yet some money must be spent on ‘loss-making’ productions that are nonetheless valuable because they explore the peripheries of ‘art’.

I hope that while some heads are rolling at NAC for this year’s poorly-attended (and harshly poorly-reviewed fest; see Straits Times Life section, 9 June 2011), next year’s fest does not become a populist circus-show-like crowd-pleaser as a form of overcompensation for this year’s shortcomings. After all, what good is an arts fest without controversy? ‘Art’, in parts, is meant to be provocative, no? May the NAC find that nice – but hard to achieve – balance between what we ‘want’ in an arts fest as low-risk-appetite arts-goers, and what we ‘need’ as a cosmopolitan nation trying to make a statement about out artistic-credibility.

P.S. Why then not the simple solution of giving away free tickets, so that shows with poor ticket-sales would still have full-houses to play to? I suppose that it is because of artistic pride; for many of the artists’, giving away free tickets would only imply that their ‘art’ is not good enough and therefore have to be ‘given away’ for free. And these ‘fake’ full houses will do little for the reputation and art-cred of the NAC…

P.P.S I only went for one performance – Crack, by Cambodian dancers – and enjoyed it because there was nothing ‘Cambodian’ about it except for the nationality of the dancers. I liked it because it was not a stereotypical mish-mash of ‘Cambodiana’. I would have gone for more shows, but I was out of town most of the time.

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