[dropcap size=small]I[/dropcap]n 2015, a National Arts Council publishing grant for cartoonist Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye was withdrawn, due to its “sensitive” local political content.

However, Liew managed to publish the book with the help of local publisher Epigram Books – a gamble that paid off this year when the graphic novel topped the nominations list in the 2017 Eisner Awards, considered the Oscars for graphic novels. It went on to bag three: Best Writer/Artist, Best Publication Design, and Best US Edition of International Material – Asia.

If art is a medium for artists to express thoughtful critiques of  society as Singapore develops, it’s necessary that the creators maintain the artistic freedom to produce their works. However, Ong Keng Sen, Cultural Medallion recipient and outgoing festival director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts, observes that local arts groups who have grown too dependent on government funding are gradually losing their independence.

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Instead, the 54-year-old theatre director says that running the arts industry as a “free economy” is a more sustainable model.

In such a scenario, the Government would offer funding only for such operational aspects as infrastructure and salaries, leaving artists to fund specific artworks themselves. “This way, the Government can be free to fund and also make it clear that the artworks produced don’t necessarily represent the Government’s viewpoint,” he says.

In addition, he believes such a move would benefit arts groups by pushing them to become more entrepreneurial. “Some of the most creative cities such as Buenos Aires and Johannesburg also have the least-funded art ecosystems,” he shares.

At the end of the day, Singapore artists need to break away from a reliance on being “heavily funded”, to allow for more creativity and imagination to kick in, adds Ong.


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