New arts chief Kathy who?

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kathy lai

By Tan Bah Bah

kathy-laiThere is a new arts head honcho in town.  Kathy Lai Sou Tien has taken the place of Benson Puah as the National Arts Council Chief Executive Officer.  Kathy who? That would be the natural reaction of the arts community.

If you Google “Kathy Lai”, you would learn that she was IE Singapore Assistant CEO. And if you search further – on Google anyway – for public pronouncements she has made on any subject recently, you would come across just this speech made at a conference held in Sentosa in 2012.  Subject: Developing Singapore as a Coal Trading Hub in Asia. That is as unartistic a topic as you can get.

From pitching for trade investment to overseeing the continuing development of the arts of a global city is an interesting change of pace. In the press conference to announce her appointment, Lai said her first order of action was to get to know the arts scene better and that she was also keen to build up patronage of artists in Singapore: “I don’t think I can champion a community that I don’t know. So the first thing is to connect with the community.”

That is going to be her biggest challenge  – winning over the support of the community, as their most passionate and involved advocate. Can she, as an outsider,  deliver?

Many people may not remember. Benson Puah was also not part of the practising arts industry when he was asked to head The Esplanade.

He said in an interview: “I was 41 when I joined The Esplanade in 2002 and my appointment was a surprise to everyone. It surprised me, too, when I was asked by the government to do the job. I have worked in several different industries, mainly to start up companies or to re-engineer them. So I guess I built for myself a reputation as a builder of organisations and a developer of people.”

Because of his successful stint at the Durians, he grew so much within the community that his subsequent appointment as NAC CEO in 2009 was readily accepted. It was not as if he had been a well-known playwright, sculptor, musician, dancer, writer or art gallery owner.  But he was not an integral part of the community.

Puah also came in with a fresh mind.

His successes have been acknowledged by the overseeing Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth which cited its debt to the ex-CEO:  “He has played a significant role in facilitating the development of the arts in Singapore”.  Among other things, he “championed closer engagement with the arts community, personally hosting a series of dialogues and consultations in relation to major policy reviews”.

Kathy Lai and Chan Heng Chee, as the NAC Chairman, seem like an excellent partnership to orientate our arts industry to be more international in their outlook, to be less parochial in their artistic instinct.

Chan was ambassador to the United States from 1996 to this year. Lai should also be familiar with the arts scene in Washington DC when she was with IE Singapore.  The US is one of our biggest investors and trading partners and a major cultural  influence too.

Both have experienced the high standards of arts and the community’s passion for the arts in major American cities such as New York, Washington and Boston.  They must have much to take away from the exposure from a personal point of view.

But Chan has quickly reassured the arts community that Lai “will bring in good energy to build on what has been done by Benson”.  Meaning, it is business as usual.

Let’s hope so.

We already have in place the theatres, museums, venues and organisational ability to host quality shows and exhibits.  We have a growing ecosystem. Attendance of arts and cultural events has grown from 971,600 in 2003 to 2.14 million in 2011. The total number of arts companies  – various fields including dance, theatres, music and museums  –  has jumped from 302 in 2003 to 856 in 2011.

Do not let this momentum lose its way as we seek to globalise ourselves even in the arts.

Keep the focus on nurturing our homegrown talents and a burgeoning local interest in local arts. The more Ivan Hengs,  Anthony Chens, Dick Lees, Royston Tans, Stephanie Suns, Mavis Hees and Siow Lee Chins we have, the better.

They are part of our core, our artistic identity.  They celebrate the Singaporean’s uniqueness in the world, even as the world is becoming our cultural oyster. The urge to carve out Singapore’s place in the global art scene is irrepressible and has only just begun.

The new NAC CEO will quickly realise much has to do with providing creative leadership and giving everyone the right support and space to grow. May the Force be with Kathy Lai.

Tan Bah Bah is a retired journalist. He was a senior leader/columnist with The Straits Times and managing editor of a local magazine company.