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Meeting with the Public Art Trust

Singapore_blog

Meeting with the Public Art Trust

Maija Kovari

From tax incentives for developers, to creating moments for young local artists to shine - a look into the public art practices of Singapore with the Public Art Trust, an initiative by the National Arts Council.

Singapore is known for its many architectural marvels that line the streets of the city center and decorate the first pages of Google Image search on Singapore (try it). What everyone doesn’t know, however, is that at street level exists an abundance of public art between these extraordinary buildings. My aim on this research trip was to find out a bit more about the latter. What policies and practices have led to Singapore becoming such a hub for public art? What is the art here like and what are the current developments in the field? AND: Is there something that Finland could learn from here?

I was very excited to meet up with the Public Art Trust, an initiative by the National Arts Council (NAC) in Singapore to exchange ideas about the public art in Singapore and about the future of the field here and internationally. This is a short look into what I find we in Finland could especially learn from them - more information will be available on their website.

Founded in 2014 the Public Art Trust (PAT) is a fairly new initiative, with the aim of promoting and facilitating the presence of art in the urban areas of Singapore. As well as helping more local and young talents get opportunities to work in the big scale only public space can provide, the idea is to, in general, broaden the field of urban art to include not only permanent statues and murals - of which there are a lot, especially in the central areas of the city - but also to include sound art, ephemeral art, and other new and even temporary forms of art, and to make art a more prominent feature also in the less central areas of the city.

The first three commissions by PAT were designed by local artists chosen through an open call, for the celebration of Singapore's 50 years of independence, and situated along the Civic District and Marina Bay area. One of them is "24 Hours in Singapore" by Baet Yeok Kuan (pictured below) an inviting installation that celebrates the everyday in a playful yet earnest manner. 

"24 Hours in Singapore is an interactive audio sculpture installation that acts as an audio time capsule capturing sounds of Singapore. With the passage of time, this sculpture will serve as a remembrance of the rich intangible heritage of our daily lives in Singapore circa 2015. The installation's audio recordings feature familiar sounds of everyday people, places and scenes, from the sounds of traffic in suburban heartlands and MRT trains to the daily chatter in wet markets and coffee shops." - Public Art Trust  (1) 

The photograph above (by Maija Kovari) only shows part of the work spanning the lawn in front of the Asian Civilisations Museum. (A great video interview here.)

I could talk all day about the specific works, but to concentrate on the things that came up in our discussion concerning the field in general, let's move forward. First, let me disappoint you: Singapore has pretty much the same challenges in the public art field, as we have in Finland. There are the questions of:

  1. How could more young artists get involved in the field?
  2. How could artists learn the basics of urban planning and design, to be better prepared to work in these surroundings that very much differ from working in the context of a gallery?
  3. How to work with the fact that a seemingly continuous area can in fact be managed by three different administrative departments (these differ locally, but to give an example from in Finland, streets can belong to either the city or the state, and parks and plazas can be either part of a private land property, or belong to one or another part of the city administration - and we're not even starting about buildings)
  4. How should the artworks be curated, in relation to the space and each other?
  5. How to create well working incentives for private businesses and developers to participate in the funding of public art?

Many public artworks in Singapore are situated on the premises of the companies that own them, such as this sculpture, La Rencontre, by Etienne, in front of the Capital Green building. Due to the density of the cityscape, these areas are however very close to or even part of public walkways, making the artworks easily approachable to the public.

Many public artworks in Singapore are situated on the premises of the companies that own them, such as this sculpture, La Rencontre, by Etienne, in front of the Capital Green building. Due to the density of the cityscape, these areas are however very close to or even part of public walkways, making the artworks easily approachable to the public.

Unfortunately, in our two-hour discussion over coffee, we were not able to solve all these questions that are asked by professionals worldwide. Nonetheless, there have been some local practices that are worth mentioning as examples.

To the last question on the list, Singapore has, in the past, had two different schemes that have created incentives to developers in adopting public artworks. These schemes were in practice before the Public Art Trust was established, and were governed by two different authorities. No longer in operation, they can, in my opinion, still work as examples of methods that we could, in Finland, adapt in one form or another.

The first was called the Public Art Tax Incentive Scheme (PATIS). The Public Art Tax Incentive Scheme (PATIS) was administered by the National Heritage Board with the support of an appraisal committee, encouraging more private organisations and individuals to participate in the areas of donating, commissioning, displaying and maintaining public art by allowing a claim of double tax deduction for the price of the artwork that was given to the public space. 

Art Incentive Scheme (AIS), on the other hand, was managed by Urban Redevelopment Authority, allowing developers and building owners to apply for additional Gross Floor Area (GFA) in return for the inclusion and retention of artworks within their developments. If both integrated and free-standing artworks were installed, the builder would be eligible to apply for a total of additional 1.5% GFA of the prescribed Gross Plot Ratio.

Regardless of our similarities, considering the differences in population density between Finland and Singapore, some things will inevitably need to be worked out differently

To me, these seem like practices that would be worth testing in Finland - adjusted to our local policies of course. There's no doubt, that the interest in public art in the eyes of Finnish developers would grow, were they allowed to deduct double the costs of the artworks in their taxes. As the world around develops, so will the policies around public art. Today, the Public Art Trust is exploring new ways to partner private donors and corporates who see the value in creating new public art, to bring more exciting commissions to life.

Regardless of our similarities, considering the differences in population density between Finland and Singapore, some things will inevitably need to be worked out differently, also when it comes to creating incentives to commissioning public art. If it is the state that provides a tax reduction in order to get art more available to Finnish people in general, the scheme, adapted to Finland, should take into account the number of people that would potentially see the work on the location in question. Then there are the questions of the state equally valuing the citizens’ access to art, regardless of their hometown. (Singapore, as we all know, is a city-state, and thus will not face these questions of dividing responsibility between state and different cities.)

What could Singapore then adopt from Finnish policies? Well, possibly the idea of rather than guiding developers to get art in their premises, to instead gather money in accordance to the gross floor areas of the building projects, to form a fund. Of this fund it is then possible to curate artworks around the whole area in question - say a new residential area, for example - to create a more harmonious whole, where the artworks interact and compliment each other.

Asuttaja is a public art proposal by Lotta Mattila for the developing area of Kalasatama, Helsinki.

Asuttaja is a public art proposal by Lotta Mattila for the developing area of Kalasatama, Helsinki.

One example of this practice is the recent development of Kalasatama (Fishing Harbour) area in Helsinki, where the budget for the public art in the new residential and business area was created by collecting a payment of 10 euros (approx 15 S$) / for every sqm of the gross floor area being built, from the developers interested in building on the site. One notable benefit of this approach is also, that using the fund created from these payments, it will be possible to also organize events and build temporary works of art. This can be especially important for the residents of the area during the years that their surroundings are still largely under construction. In Kalasatama, public art funded by the collected payments will consist of both permanent (70 %), and temporary artworks (15 %) as well as different cultural events (15 %). (2)

The grab, according to Mattila, is bit like the people of Helsinki - adapting to surrounding living conditions.

One of the newly elected winning proposals for the Kalasatama area is called Asuttaja (roughly translated as "The Habitant" - picture of the scale model above), by a young Finnish artist Lotta Mattila. The work depicts a huge hermit grab living in a shipping container. The grab, according to Mattila, is bit like the people of Helsinki - adapting to surrounding living conditions. Mattila looks for subjects for her works in the world of animals and their behavior. ”It often has similarities to human endeavors”, she says in an interview by Helsingin Sanomat. ”A hermit grab does not have a shell of its own, but instead, it usually makes home in empty seashells. If it can’t find one, then it will use another small space, even tin cans or other foreign objects found in the sea. The shipping container here works as a link to the history of this area.”, Mattila describes. (3)

So, although facing challenges - mostly very similar in their content - both countries are also imagining new solutions to create more spaces for art in urban areas. These efforts are sure to have an affect to the amount and quality of art in the public spaces of both countries in the future - at least I have great faith in this. 

Next, I met with people from some of the most established and successful companies that work in the field of landscape architecture, urban planning and design in Singapore - read on here for thoughts on art as it is seen trough the eyes of the designer!



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(1)  http://www.publicarttrust.sg/

(2)  http://www.uuttahelsinkia.fi/kalasataman-ymparistotaide

(3)  http://www.hs.fi/kaupunki/a1475718851025, translated from the news article by Maija Kovari