Arts festival spat: No publicity is bad

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 The Straits Times’ reporter Clarissa Oon proved strangely prescient last year, in her article profiling the newly-announced heads of Arts Festival Ltd., the company created to run the annual Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA). In her article, Clarissa described SIFA artistic director Ong Keng Sen and CEO Lee Chor Lin as “a match made in heaven”, but briefly wondered about potential personality clashes.

We are now 10 months down the road and the happy couple’s blissful start has decidedly taken a very public turn for the worse. Sparked off by an e-mail sent by Ong to Lee as well as the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, the National Arts Council and members of the press, every new development of the squabble between the two has been charted by the media with an eagerness worthy of any celebrity couple spat.

On Tuesday, avid readers learnt about the breakdown in communication between the two, with Ong complaining about a communication blackout since March 11:

“I’ve sent 20 emails asking for information and there’s nothing coming back. It’s a hijacking of material, and for seven days, they have been refusing to give me anything.”

Speaking about Lee’s alleged refusal to let him vet the brochure and programmes for the festival (which will be held from 12 Aug – 21 Sept this year), Ong added, “The bottom line is the CEO has not encountered any of the artists at all – any of the films and productions I’ve watched. So how can she (come up with the brochures containing) these productions (without consulting me)?”

Lee had her chance to respond, pointing out Ong’s unfamiliarity with design and graphic processes. “I’ll just let this blow over then we pick up and go forward. It’s a very interesting relationship we have.”

Peace in the SIFA household again? Why the need for this airing of dirty laundry in public?

Members of online discussion forum discussSG seem to have hit the nail on the head:

Mirror: ‘Never know the whole story but in term of work, I always get last minutes request too. Get used to it and move on. This also can become news? omg.’

ArcticStar: ‘Making a mountain out of a molehill, or simply because of the positions of parties involved…’

littlehippo: ‘i also not surprised… my company also always come out last minute stunt…’

Apparently it was Phineas T. Barnum, 19th century American owner of what later became known as Ringling Bros. Circus and perfector of the art of self-promotion, who first said that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

In the case of the SIFA spat, what seems like a petty squabble has, courtesy of incredibly thorough media coverage, taken on the vocabulary of a scandal without really having enough substance to warrant it.

It did not start off as a publicity stunt (only the most hardened of cynics would say so); but it took on gossip-worthy proportions that a minor squabble simply did not warrant. And, yes, there is no such thing as bad publicity, right?

Photo credits: Businesstimes