Lisa Horikawa, Deputy Director of Collections Development at National Gallery Singapore and lead curator for (Re)collect: The making of our art collection, shares background information about the exhibition and the National Collection.
SAGG: National Gallery Singapore was opened in 2015, but the National Collection dates back to 1960. Can you tell us a bit about the history of National Gallery Singapore, as well as the origins of the collection?
Lisa Horikawa: In 2005, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong mentioned in his National Day Rally speech the government’s plan to convert the City Hall and former Supreme Court buildings into a new National Gallery. Ten years were spent in preparation until the Gallery finally opened its doors to the public in November 2015.
The beginnings of the Gallery’s collection can be traced to the donation of over 110 artworks to Singapore, in 1960 and subsequent years, by Dato Loke Wan Tho, an art philanthropist and co-founder of Cathay Organisation. Dato Loke’s donation formed the seeds of the Gallery’s collection.
The national visual arts collection has been uniquely shaped by the changing landscape of arts institutions in Singapore. The Gallery’s collection can be credited to the collecting efforts of and exhibitions held by our predecessors: the National Museum Art Gallery (NMAG), established in 1976, and the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), established in 1996. With the establishment of National Gallery Singapore as an entity in 2015, works of art in Singapore’s National Collection produced before 1990 came under the purview of the Gallery. The Gallery also started collecting works of 19th-20th century art from Singapore and Southeast Asia since 2009.
SAGG: A museum’s collection cannot be exhaustive, and tough decisions must be made about what goes in and what stays out. What sort of considerations go into the decision-making process? What does this process look like? Who is involved, and what are the criteria that they consider?
Lisa Horikawa: The Gallery aims to provide a deep and comprehensive overview of the significant movements in Singapore and Southeast Asian art since the 19th century. All potential acquisitions are rigorously reviewed by the Gallery’s curators and an Acquisition Committee comprising external specialists, to assess a work’s alignment with our acquisition policy and strategy, and its art historical significance, provenance, relationship with existing works in the collection, potential for display/research and proposed price.
SAGG: It is because of the generosity and support of private supporters and artists that the Gallery has been able to grow its collection from the original over 110 artworks donated by Dato Loke Wan Tho to the over 8,000 artworks it has now. Can you tell us the extent of support that has been given and what are the different ways in which support can be given to continue to grow the collection?
Lisa Horikawa: We are grateful for the generous support of artists, artists’ families and private collectors that has been extended over the years. More than 400 individuals and organisations have donated artworks or participated in the Art Adoption and Acquisition (AAA) Programme. The AAA Programme provides an opportunity for art supporters to adopt key artworks from our collection through a cash contribution. In acknowledgement of the support, art adopters are acknowledged alongside the work that they have adopted in perpetuity. The funds from the AAA Programme allow the Gallery to acquire new artworks to strengthen our collection. Direct donation that supports the acquisition of new artworks is another option. All donations, including artworks, are eligible for tax deductions.
SAGG: How has the attitude towards, and the role of, art and culture changed in Singapore since the origins of the National Collection until now?
Lisa Horikawa: Dato Loke made the seedling donation in 1960 before the establishment of Singapore’s first state-run art museum. He was an exceptional collector with the rare gift of foresight. I think Dato Loke would be surprised to see how the collection has developed to encompass more than 8,000 works today and that there is finally a space, an art museum, dedicated to the long-term display of the Collection, which can play a role in raising public awareness and creating an understanding of the art history of Singapore and Southeast Asia. The public infrastructure for art has developed alongside and interconnected with the growth in the private sector and collectorship over the years. There is also increased interest in art from Singapore and Southeast Asia on the wider global platform.
SAGG: During the making of the exhibition, did you make any surprising discoveries or resolve any previously unsolved mysteries surrounding the National Collection?
Lisa Horikawa: Documentation of the collection from the early years was sparse to say the least. The changing landscape of art institutions in Singapore over many decades also led to the documentation being dispersed across different institutions. The research for this exhibition was a process of reconnecting these dots – and the research continues, even after the exhibition. My co-curator, Lim Shujuan, managed to discover some key primary documents recording our collection history, such as the original letters exchanged between Dato Loke and then Minister of Culture, Minister S Rajaratnam, formalising the donation. The details of this donation arrangement had always been a mystery to us. We were also heartened to find photographic records of past exhibitions at NMAG taken by the official photographer of the National Museum, Mr Lee Chee Kheong, at the Heritage Conservation Centre. The images he took documenting Affandi’s Self-Portrait from 1975 are on display in (Re)collect. This information can help other curators’ understanding of the exhibition history of the Collection.
The story of our collection is an ongoing journey. The discoveries made during the making of this exhibition help to solidify the foundation of our understanding of the Collection. Through the research we conducted for this exhibition, I think we now have a better awareness of what needs to be unearthed, and we will continue our forays with this first exhibition on our Collection.
Exhibition: (Re)collect: The making of our art collection
Dates: 11 May – 19 August 2018
Venue: National Gallery Singapore, Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery B & C,
City Hall Wing Level 3