This story is one of the six in The Peak Singapore’s Power List. The list is an annual recognition that celebrates and acknowledges individuals who have demonstrated exceptional leadership, influence, and impact within their respective fields and the broader community.
Our theme for this year is Quiet Power, a force that brings about transformative shifts in the lives of ordinary people through strategic collaboration and concerted efforts with like-minded individuals. Quiet leaders are dedicated to creating positive and lasting change within the community, leading to fundamental and permanent shifts in how the community functions on a day-to-day basis.
In the world of the arts, where the spotlight often shines on performers and masterpieces, there exists a unique force that operates behind the scenes, shaping and nurturing the cultural landscape. Yvonne Tham, CEO of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, embodies this stealth influence, steering Singapore’s art scene toward new horizons while ensuring it remains not only relevant but approachable.
Tham’s journey to becoming Esplanade’s lead is a testament to her dedication and vision. The University of Cambridge graduate joined Esplanade in 2014 and assumed the role of CEO in August 2018, taking over the reins from former CEO Benson Puah, who had led the institution for two decades.
Her extensive experience includes serving as the deputy CEO at the National Arts Council, where she played a pivotal role in shaping arts policies, grants, education, and community engagement. Tham’s background also includes a tenure as the director of the arts and heritage division at the former Ministry of Information, Communications, and the Arts, where she contributed to the establishment of the DesignSingapore Council and the National Gallery Singapore.
Esplanade at the core
The 49-year-old’s love for literature spills into her work to position Esplanade as an art centre for everyone. She likens this vision to poetry, where “at the heart of our national pledge, which is not unlike a poem every child learns to recite at school, is the ideals of diversity and equality”.
“Esplanade’s role,” Tham quips, “is to be a shared civic space through the arts. Of the 3,500 performances and activities that we present every year, about 70 per cent are made free for all to enjoy, regardless of your background.”
Additionally, through its community engagement programmes, her colleagues and artists work with the most vulnerable communities to tell their own stories through the arts. In fact, in December 2021, Esplanade became Singapore’s first Dementia-Friendly Arts Venue and a Dementia Go-To Point, with over 90 per cent of its staff having completed the Agency for Integrated Care (AIC)’s Foundation Dementia Awareness Training online.
At the start of the pandemic, in October 2019, Esplanade also made efforts to put in place accelerated digitalisation in the arts scene with the launch of Esplanade Offstage, a one-stop digital resource for performing arts in Asia. The timely launch enabled the arts centre to “continue working with artists to create quality programmes and put them online instead for everyone — from screening archival videos to livestreaming performances at various venues — to enjoy.”
Tham elaborates, “Offstage became Esplanade’s ‘virtual venue’, a space that allowed the centre to keep to our vision of being a performing arts centre for everyone and connect artists and audiences even in those unprecedented times.”
Mentoring the next gen
More than the numerous campaigns and projects scheduled throughout Esplanade’s calendar is the heart of its purpose: the people. When asked how Tham would best describe her work, she offers a sharp, straight response: “People, imagination, creativity, future. And I’ll say it again, it’s all about people.” And admirably so, Esplanade’s outreach and appeal go beyond mass appeal.
Just last year, it was announced that Singapore will have its first government-supported private university of the arts in late-2024, the University of the Arts Singapore (UAS) — meaning degree programmes by Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) and LASALLE College of the Arts will soon be officially awarded by a Singapore university. “As someone whose first job was teaching literature at a junior college, I knew that the transformative power of the arts is most significant in a young person’s journey,” she adds.
This personal belief translated into the launch of Esplanade Academy in August 2020 as the touchpoint for all of the arts centre’s involvement in training and nurturing those keen to build a career in the arts. While Esplanade has already been running training programmes and courses — particularly for the technical aspects of theatre — the academy also actively “provides structured training attachment programmes for over 50 students each year from our polytechnics and arts institutions, as well as training and masterclasses in areas of venue management and community arts”.
Looking ahead, Tham is a strong advocate for the arts to “continue to take down walls”. She expands, “In a world where more walls are being built — knowingly or unwittingly — by our commerce, politics, and ignorance, the role of a performing arts centre as a common civic and cultural space for everyone is ever more urgent. We cannot take Singapore’s social environment for granted.”
For example, she considers Singapore’s ageing population and hopes that in 10 to 15 years’ time, Esplanade will have created even more opportunities for seniors in our midst to continue to lead active, healthier, and fulfilling lives through the arts. In the same timeframe, Tham enthuses that she also hopes “for a new generation of arts leaders to have imagined a more witty, endearing, and authentic expression of how the arts and cultural spaces like Esplanade are part of Singapore’s identity at home and on the world stage”.
When reflecting on Singapore’s art scene today, she describes it as one that is “resilient, one worth championing and fighting for, and the only one we own.” It’s something that justly brings pride — complete with its strengths, its quirks, its contradictions, its beauty, and even its conflicts and tensions. “It makes me feel motivated — to love and care for it, to advocate for it, to criticise it, to protect it, to push it, to challenge it, to support and develop it,” Tham expresses gratefully.
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