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Hong Kong and Singapore Battle to become Asia’s regional arts hub

Hong Kong and Singapore Battle to become Asia’s regional arts hub
November 11, 2009

As part of a strategy to be recognised as Asia's top city, Hong Kong and Singapore, longtime rivals in trade and finance, are currently vying to become Asia's regional arts hub,

Already the third-largest art-auction market in the world, Hong Kong has picked up the pace by setting aside nearly US $3 billion for a massive development known as West Kowloon Cultural District, a move some people think will ultimately catapult Hong Kong to victory.

Both cities understand that "to build a super-competitive, super-productive society" that "can attract the world's best and brightest" professionals from an array of industries they need a world-class arts and culture scene, says Richard Florida, who studies global competitiveness and urban development at the University of Toronto. "What makes New York and London so robust, even at times of economic crisis, is that anyone in the world wants to go there (to work) and that's what Hong Kong and Singapore are trying to be." Right now, Florida adds, "Hong Kong has the edge."

On one side of the battle is the island-state of Singapore, with a total population of about five million. In the mid-1980s, during a recession, the country looked with envy at Hong Kong's cultural offerings and decided it could do better. Specifically it eyed Hong Kong's annual month-long arts festival that showcases local and international talent from jazz greats like Ornette Coleman to the English National Ballet to performers of Cantonese opera.

A 1989 Singapore government report cited the "importance of culture and the arts" not only as tools for nation-building and to generate revenue for the tourism and entertainment industries, but to "enhance our quality of life."

A decade later, Singapore launched the first phase of its ambitious 'Renaissance City' plan aimed at creating a 'Distinctive Global City of Culture and the Arts'. It invested more than US $1 billion in infrastructure, including several museums and a 4,000-seat complex of theatres, studios and concert halls called the Esplanade, which opened in 2002, and spiced up its arts programming with diversity and a regional flavor.

And Singapore has been cleverly retrofitting colonial-era structures as arts venues. Following a renovation, the circa 1880s National Museum of Singapore reopened in 2006. A school and its chapel built in the 1850s was turned in 1996 into the Singapore Art Museum, a charming cultural space with exhibition galleries of modern and contemporary Southeast Asian art that are on par with the best museums in the world. Down the street in another former school building, an extension called SAM at 8Q, specifically housing contemporary art, opened in August 2008. The National Art Gallery is set to throw open its doors in 2013 at the former Supreme Court and City Hall complexes.

The Singapore Government launched a biennale in 2006 and over the past decade has enhanced its own annual arts festival. According to Singapore's National Arts Council, between 1997 and 2007, the "vibrancy" of the local arts scene, measured by the number of performances and exhibition days, quadruped to more than 26,000. The government has taken steps to attract world-class theatre productions to Singapore, and it has loosened contraints on local productions. Today, mainstream theatres increasingly are allowed to take on political as well as social themes, such as homosexuality, the practice of which is illegal in Singapore.

To groom local talent, the National Arts Council sponsors a program for the performing, visual and literary arts that helps fund Singapore residents to do in-residency stints abroad.

Alexandra Seno


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