Making Things Happen
Edited by Samantha Yap • Illustration by Denise Nicole Yap
Creative ambition may serve as the initial catalyst but realising exhibitions, events and publications also involve other considerations, ranging from negotiating organisational objectives to operational hiccups. How are arts projects realised independently or within an institution? How do creative practitioners make things happen in the arts?
NTU School of Humanities
Field of study
Linguistics and Multilingual Studies
Place of Work
Singapore Art Museum
Project Management, Curatorial Projects
NTU School of Art, Design, Media
Field of study
Spaces of the Curatorial
Place of Work
NTU School of Humanities
Field of study
Place of Work
Thong Kay Wee
NTU Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information
Field of study
Place of Work
Asian Film Archive
Yap Jia En
NTU School of Art, Design, Media
Field of study
Place of Work
Esplanade (Visual Arts)
At a recent hour-long dialogue session at the NTU Alumni House, alumni practitioners — Andre Wang (HSS, 2015), Patricia Karunungan (HSS, 2017), Thong Kay Wee (WKWSCI, 2013) and Yap Jia En (ADM, 2014) — working independently or with Singapore arts and cultural institutions share their experiences of engaging audiences, converging disciplines, and meeting KPIs.
Kamiliah Bahdar (KB): To start the session, I wanted to go back to what Patricia mentioned earlier about her editorial philosophy and how she approaches her work — “to curate the best balance between the critical and the creative”. As an independent practitioner, you have that leeway to prioritise the writers’ interests and intentions at the fore. But for the rest of you, how do you approach your work in terms of your own philosophies?
Andre Wang (AW): For the Singapore Biennale 2016, at the height of my busiest point, I was managing 14 artists at the same time. I would go to work and there would be 7 artists installing, all asking for me. For me, it’s really about prioritizing. Finding the more important, more urgent problems that I had to solve first and then eventually solving the rest. There are always problems like with delayed production, shipping delays, or artists may not be happy with things. Often, I have to also source for materials for the artist, who may not know where to find them if they are not local. I remember driving all the way to Jalan Bahar to get materials for one of the artists because purchasing it myself was the easiest and most cost-effective way to do so.
Thong Kay Wee (TKW): I think I'm rather lucky because the Asian Film Archive (AFA) is quite small and so I am kind of a one man department. There is a lot of leeway for me to suggest things and when pitching, there is only ever one person I need to pitch to and that’s my boss, the director of the archive. If she’s happy and we both agree on some things then we can set things in motion. In terms of my own personal philosophy, I can actually exercise a lot of that in my work, which I know it’s quite a rare when working in an institution or a larger organisation. Perhaps this might not last but, we take it one step at a time. Before I joined an institution, I also made sure that my own philosophy matched the institution’s philosophy and that is also one of the criteria of me agreeing to join their team. With the AFA, their mission is to improve film literacy and conribute to cinema culture, it’s something that I would love to be a part of. I think it’s fortunate for me to find a place that I’m aligned with and that is also a luxury.
Yap Jia En (YJE): My own philosophy shared among my teammates at the Esplanade as well, is when working with artists, we don’t see them as someone who is just coming by to work with us. It’s not one-off. We work closely with them and get to know them as friends. We remain friends and that connection stays throughout. This is something that I consider important because when you work with an artist and believe in their vision, you’re able to better have them fulfil whatever that they are trying to achieve and that also hopefully aligns with the institution as well. I do share Patricia’s philosophy on balancing the artist’s expectations and that of various stakeholders, which I think we can talk more about later.
Patricia Karunungan (PK): If you don’t mind me jumping in, since I’m a freelancer, I don’t really have a boss to answer to, so I’m wondering how the three of you actually navigate what happens when you find yourself disagreeing with your institution’s interests?
AW: I work independently with the artists under my charge. For us, because we work so independently, it’s more about managing the other teams that we work with since expectations will differ vastly across. At the museum, different departments have different interests – something that the marketing team wants may not be something that the curators would want. We have to find a compromise or an alternative and where I come in is to manage the different expectations. At the same time, the artist is actually at the forefront of all these because it’s their work that is being represented. Whatever programming or marketing related things that we do in relation to the artwork has to be aligned to the artist’s intention or they also won’t be happy. So, I wouldn’t say I have to answer to my boss in that sense, but more so to these different expectations.
KW: It’s all about negotiations. Again, I have to acknowledge that I only need to talk to that one person. It’s also fortunate that most of the time, her views often aligns to mine. Although that can also be very dangerous but it’s another thing altogether. I think with any disagreements, at the end of the day, you also need to understand your position as an employee so you have to reconcile that. For me, if there are things that I disagree with, I would still voice them out and try to get an answer in order to understand where she is coming from.
YJE: I think this is inevitable in any job. I guess it’s really how you learn to deal with it. In many sense, when we all started out, this may be our first or second job out from school. A lot of times we learn on the go, like how to deal with various stakeholders’ expectations, like why they take a stance that is opposed to what the artist wants. Trying to find that balance is important. I do agree with what Kay Wee said about knowing your position and where you stand. I think that is how you stay true to yourself at the end.
KB: You mentioned stakeholders, who do you reckon the stakeholders in your project are?
YJE: Various. First and foremost, it would be the artists, then the curators, and management, not forgetting the audience who plays an important role because we program for them and we would have to know what their tastes are. The questions being – who are the people, the audience that we are reaching out to?
Questions from the Floor (F): It seems that for all of you, collaboration is a key aspect in the work that you do. Like with AFA’s programmes, you don’t just exhibit the film, you also bring artists in to reinterpret them and I suppose this cross-disciplinary approach is also not without its own set of challenges. What do you feel are some of the challenges in your work? Do you feel like there are comprises or conflicts when trying to converge disciplines?
TKW: Even for a project that involves the visual arts, like State of Motion (a film history-cum-art exhibition that involves presenting commissioned works in response to specific films and film sites), I don’t think there is a conflict. The film itself, both its history and content, then becomes material. Beyond that, there are actually problems that are not necessarily creative and that’s where I come in. With trying to make things happen, it is also about creating the space for the artist to work and sometimes that is the challenge. For instance, because of the site-specificity of State of Motion and the need to source for specific locations, getting permissions and negotiating with agencies can be quite difficult. I would later have to convey these back to the artist and tell them what bandwidth or limitations that the venues have. It becomes a challenge for the artists then to customise their work to the site.
PK: When you brought up possible challenges, for the book publishing industry, I think the biggest clash right now is money. Not just the reliance on the funding but also the difference between a good book and a book that would sell. As an editor, and also as someone who has very fresh experience in the publishing industry, one thing that really shocked me was that a good book — or at least what I think is a good book based on the 4 years I did in NTU as an English major — can be a bad book by certain publishers’ standards because they don’t think it would sell. Then you have to try and find a way to meet the publisher’s need to make money and still fulfill your own goals of giving talented writers the exposure that they deserve.
F: I’m wondering whether you think an administrator would be influenced by the “inner artist” within them? And, if you think so, then how are there times when this “inner artist” clashes with the administrator role that you have to perform?
TKW: Knowing you are representing the institution and sometimes you have to look beyond your ego. The work of a programmer also involves a great degree of creativity so in that sense, the “inner artist” can be quite satisfied. But, there are also other instances where you have to discount your own creative preferences. Where we look at archiving for instance, where an archive, more often than not, needs to be neutral. In terms of collecting for the archive, even if you personally dislike the film, if there’s value to it, we would still need to collect it. Let’s say, it’s a film about SG50 that so many loved and were exposed to and it’s become an important feature of a collective social memory. Although you don’t really care for it, it is still important to keep it. I suppose that is the part where we need to negotiate our own “inner artist” and the objectives of the institution and what it needs.
YJE: I think we face that a lot because most of the works that we exhibit are all commissioned and produced by the artist from scratch. So we work closely with artists to realise them and during that process, we also have our own personal ideas and opinions. The administrator role is to see the bigger picture, to understand why we’re trying to do this, where the institution stands, where are we coming from, and then to find ways to align. If the artist’s expectations or works are not aligned with whatever that we’re trying to do, then we have conversations to better convey where we’re coming from and how we can better position ourselves. I believe if we were to share an eventual outcome, an idea that we want to present a good show together, then that’s something that we would drive towards.
F: On the topic of trying to better align works, I wonder how then do all of you conceive or select the themes for your projects? And from there, how do find your audience?
PK: I feel that because I’m working with the medium of books, I’m permitted to be more niche. I don’t have to draw a very large audience, in the way that the others are expected to because of the “venue” of a book. The question of theme and audience is also quite intertwined in my case.
For the anthology, this is how you walk on the moon, that I worked with co-editors Samuel Caleb Wee and Wong Wen Pu, how we came to the theme of anti-realist fiction was largely because we were already part of the audience themselves. It goes back to asking yourself, why are you an arts practitioner in the first place? Because I do think you are first part of the audience, in the same way that all writers were readers first. For me, as an avid reader, I knew what kind of books I liked and what kind of books were lacking in Singapore fiction, and through my love for reading, I also got to connect with others who were hungry for the same kind of fiction.
As for finding the audience, already being part of that audience who are hungry for certain types of work also made it very easy to identify who we were appealing to. In the case of this book, we were appealing to those who were tired of Singapore literature that followed the usual tropes — the kampung, stories about the HDB and narratives centred on post-colonial angst.
Actually, on Goodreads (a book review site), I sometimes go there to look at reviews for the anthology and I’ve read ridiculous reviews that go like, “I don’t like this anthology because I don’t care about most of the writers in it” but one of the points of an anthology is to also give voice to emerging writers. That also becomes another way of identifying our audience – those who might be interested in hearing new voices and those who are tired of the same names that keep getting published in Singapore literature.
TKW: I think those are the two golden questions that are recurrent for every other programmer — coming up with the program theme and then later finding our audience. From the point of view of the institution, because the archive is a subsidiary of the National Library and the budget that we receive are taxpayers’ money, my stakeholders are ideally everyone, so we do try to reach out to everyone. That is also a challenge that relates to programming because we try to complement where cinema culture is lacking in certain sectors of society because my job is to share and explore Asian cinema.
How do we reach out to them? The first level is exposure, and then later digging deeper and creating engagements. Most of the time, I think a lot of places and events only reach the first level and are fortunate to even accomplish that.
For example, with State of Motion, we presented it under the larger umbrella of Singapore Art Week, a nationwide event that also possessed a big marketing arm. Then, I think it’s also coming up with a concept that would combine various elements like old films that bring with it a sense of heritage and historicity, and coupling that with the visual arts. With this multidisciplinary approach, it could perhaps also allow for a confluence of audiences, enabling also a kind of cross-exposure for audiences to different but related fields. I think themes should not be chosen to just placate the audience. You think of something to trigger consideration on some of the issues, content or subject matter raised. We do want to make them think.
AW: For the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), the curators are the ones who come up with the exhibition's theme. With the Singapore Biennale, the SAM curators — 5 of them — worked with 4 other associate curators from the region to conceive of the theme collectively. There is a lot of workshopping and time spent thinking about a theme that is broad enough to also encompass a diverse range of works. Like with SAM, also being representative of Singapore in some way, we have to cater to the average Singaporean, that is also a struggle that the museum recognises. A lot of young people come to take Instagram photos definitely but what else can we do for them? Apart from that, are our theme(s) relevant to them? Are we able to elicit some thought or reflection on the themes, and how they relate to the artwork?
JE: For the Esplanade, I find that we do have incidental audiences walking into our midst. Then, the works that we present in these very public spaces have to be accessible to the public. Which is not to say that we “dumb down” the works but it has to be something that can be read more easily instead of something that may be too abstract or opaque and might turn them away.
KB: To add on, in terms of the works in the Jendela and the Tunnel — the audience as you mentioned are very incidental and there is the process of trying to communicate these works to the audience. Is that a process that your team works closely with the artist on or do you let the artist take the lead in how the work should be communicated?
YJE: I think in a way that this is a collaborative process because we understand our spaces the best. For instance, the Tunnel, from where do you start? From this end or the other end? Is the work supposed to only be read from one way or can it go both both ways? So, together with the artist, we make plans on what works and what doesn’t work. For instance, the exhibition with Mary Bernadette Lee (Mrydette), we presented 2 animation pieces at both ends and they would create two different entry points that would ‘establish’ the narrative for them as people come by.
F: My question is specifically for Patricia. Garnering National Arts Council (NAC) funding for the anthology also requires you to justify its necessity, so I’m wondering, how did you do it? What did you say that you managed to convince them?
PK: With the NAC, they are very interested in supporting young writers. And not just young writers, but specifically, Singaporean writers. The 25 authors we have in the anthology are mostly Singaporean, but we do have a sizable amount of different nationalities. With the proposal, we did frame it in a way that emphasised the local writers and how most of them are also very young and being published for the first time. We were counting on the talent of the writers and how they had promise and had important voices and that seemed to convince them. It’s not as though we lied, we really do believe that.
F: I’m curious also, what did you end up spending the most money on?
PK: We spent the most money on the honorarium. We offered each of our contributors an honorarium. It’s not usually what anthologies in Singapore usually do, because money can be quite unpredictable so, sometimes, all that editors and publishers can offer the contributors is, say, a free copy of the book. For the anthology, Ethos Books was very kind in offering a very decent honorarium.
F: Thank you so much for sharing candidly about your experience. My last question is that many of you come from institutions, and when it comes to measures of success, Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are usually very cold and clinical. But I wanted to ask you personally, how do you know when your program has done well?
PK: When it comes to KPIs for books, it is straightforward – how many copies can you sell. But I think longevity is also very interesting to consider as well for books. Because, it’s more or less a self-contained universe. And you think that the conversation might be over after you turn the last page, but luckily for us, based on the kind of engagements we’ve been invited to, even sharing at a dialogue session like this, it goes to show that this project is still giving us returns through its mileage.
AW: Coming fresh out of Imaginarium, when the children are enjoying themselves, I think we’ve done well. That’s my personal KPI. If I see children curious and interacting — not just having fun– with parents guiding and teaching them, it’s rewarding. For this year’s Imaginarium, we also focused on museum etiquette, which was something lacking in the previous editions. When the families enter, there were a lot of signages and instructions to educate parents and their children. When I see parents really telling their children, “Oh, be gentle with the artwork”, that also makes me happy.
TKW: Survey forms. When they rate 5 out 5, that’s pretty clear. People can come up to me and say, “you’ve done a good job” but sometimes they’re friends or acquaintances. I’m never sure until I get my pile of survey forms and review those and that is the most objective way to evaluate the program. But sometimes it’s also looking at the reactions and that’s what we want. When people walk out of the cinema, and the fact that they made the effort to turn up in the first place, I’m also happy.
YJE: I think this is also a very practical question because a lot of the things we do here is not that quantifiable, yet we have to also answer back to the funds that we are using. It used to be that for our KPIs, we would measure how many people would come for the programs. But now, to be a lot stricter, we have to count the number of engaged audience instead of a passerby who is just passing through. But when measuring success of a program, there are also a lot of other ways. Like, how the audience reacts to the work, then how it benefits the artists and the curators who had a vision that they wanted to put across as well as what the program or work conveys about the institution.
This transcription has been condensed and edited. Thanks to Gloria Sun for transcribing the session.