All That Glitters Is Not Gold

WRITTEN BY VICTORIA WONG

What does it mean to develop a meaningful programme in today’s arts and cultural landscape? 

When I was first confronted with this question, spectacular displays and eye-catching formats came immediately to mind. This is because, as an arts audience, I tend to often be in awe of the bright, fancy lights and special effects whenever I watch live productions. Yet, the fourteen weeks I spent as a student in ACM214: Arts, Culture Industries and Everyday Life has taught me otherwise. At the end of the day, a programme is nothing if it does not have strong symbolic value or does not enrich any community. 

Here are five key insights I have learnt on my journey of trying to develop a programme for the Singapore Heritage Festival: 

1. In a saturated yet underappreciated arts landscape, how does another cultural programme add value?  

The arts and cultural landscape in Singapore have changed drastically. Today, there is a rich diversity of arts organisations and practitioners. There are also numerous arts events and cultural activities available, with the National Arts Council reporting more than 9,200 performing arts activities in 2018 [1]. This is most evident in how our local arts organisations and practitioners have persisted in producing a vast number of online programmes and content, even with the Covid-19 pandemic. From livestreaming performances to online dance classes, our local arts workers have produced meaningful content to enable connection, comfort, meaning and joy. Yet, as revealed by a recent survey, the arts are perceived as “non-essential” to many. 

In such a landscape, how does one even begin to conceptualise a programme that is able to “cut through the noise,” add value and engage audiences meaningfully? 

2. In today’s attention economy, how do you engage and resonate with audiences without simply relying on technological trends and crowd-pleasers? 

In addition, there are multiple distractions competing for the time and attention of audiences. As Audrey Wong recently stated, “there’s a bit of a swipe right/left mentality especially with so much jostling for one’s attention. In this noisy world, it’s possible that art which requires you to pause, reflect and examine the world or yourself gets lost.” As a result, it is easy to leverage on flashy presentations and adopt the latest popular trends in order to ensure mass appeal and audience reach. 

3. With resource constraints and the need to ensure feasibility, how do you prioritise heartware over hardware? 

When I first started to work on a programme proposal for the Singapore Heritage Festival, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of factors to consider. From logistics to formats to operational costs and target audience groups, it was easy to get distracted and lose sight of the multiple moving parts. 

Admittedly, my group and I spent many initial hours contemplating the possible formats that our programme could take - from an escape room gamification to an AR exhibition and immersive experiences. The possibilities seemed endless. 

However, we soon realised that no matter how fancy our format was, our programme would be an empty shell without a strong compelling story. After intensive research, we finally decided that our programme would celebrate the lesser-known stories of Great World Amusement Park, particularly the shared stories and memories connected to its cinemas.

 

As arts management students, we also wanted to showcase the importance of our local arts heritage, and how the arts have always played a strong role in enabling social bonding and sense of place. 

4. Even when you have well-intentions, how do you not lose sight and ensure that arts programming will serve to build communities? 

Unfortunately, with looming deadlines and other assignments, we soon lost sight again. Just before our deadline, we were asked: why does this story matter to you, as the group developing the programme?

 

It was then I realized, that my group had lost touch with the heart of the project. Although we initially decided to showcase the diverse stories and memories of the people who used to worked and played at Great World Amusement Park, in rushing to complete the proposal, we forgot to search for the actual real stories. Even as we scrambled to rectify this, it was extremely difficult to justify time spent on conducting interviews on-the-ground when there were too many operational aspects of the programme to fix. 

On hindsight, I have come to realise if we had not invested the time to reach out to actual communities and creative practitioners, we would have never been able to develop our programme. Our final programme proposal became a true product of co-creation: we worked with another project group to enable complementary programming, we received generous guidance from a creative studio who assisted us in combining technology and popular trends to devise an interactive experience, and we worked together as a group to ensure that our programme could be a platform for audiences to develop their own shared experiences and memories. In doing so, our process also built a community of new friendships and bonds. 

5. At the end of the day, exemplary arts managers enable. 

Arts programming has the potential to be a platform that enables. However, in order to do so, one needs to seek authentic and unique stories that matter, that have the power to move and touch hearts. Developing programmes that lack this connection and appreciation for its greater significance devaluates not just the art, but also the rich heritage and stories behind it. It is simply making use of resources to create programmes that serve no one and have no symbolic value. 

Instead, arts managers should always be mindful of the potential to create meaning and impact communities. Programming can and should be a platform to respond to social change, to uplift communities and to create new ones.

At the end of the day, this experience was a timely reminder that arts programming should create platforms for voices and stories to be heard. Although I remain a firm believer that experiential formats can enhance the value of the arts and culture, this experience has proven to me that these formats will be insignificant if it does not benefit any actual community. 

While I admit that this is only a small glimpse into the multi-faceted role of an arts manager, this experience has enriched me tremendously. As an aspiring arts manager, I have learnt the importance of self-reflexivity and the need to constantly question your personal biases when making decisions. Finally, this experience has strengthened my belief in the power of the arts to foster and build communities and reminded me of why I aspire to become one in the future – to enable the arts to reach more communities in better conditions. 
 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] National Arts Council. (2019). Singapore Cultural Statistics 2019. Singapore: National Arts Council.

ABOUT victoria wong

Victoria Wong is a second year Arts and Culture Management and Sociology major at Singapore Management University. She has a keen interest in local theatre and jumps at every opportunity to be involved in productions as well as differing ways to play a small role in the arts. She strives towards being an arts manager who enables and betters the conditions for art-making and artists in Singapore.