Any seasoned fundraiser knows this: When it comes to donations, corporations are more willing to donate to “popular” causes such as health, education and international aid – and less willing to give to the arts.
The arts are still seen in Singapore as a luxury, not a necessity. And in the throes of Covid-19, the arts are being shunted aside for more pressing issues such as jobs, wages and continuing education.
But one initiative is fighting back, in hopes that corporations and individuals realise how critical the arts have been in giving them solace during the pandemic – and even before that. It hopes that some of them would channel their donations towards helping the many art groups struggling to stay afloat right now.
The Sustain The Arts (stART) Fund was recently launched by the National Arts Council in partnership with the private sector. The fund committee is headed by Pierre Lorinet, the ex-CFO of commodities trading giant Trafigura who’s stepped back from his illustrious career to do more philanthropy and advisory work.
As a lifelong lover of the arts, Mr Lorinet is on a mission to help shift prevailing mindsets about the value of the arts. He says: “The arts are often misunderstood as something that is nice to have, a kind of luxury. But throughout human history, people have been creating art since the beginning, depicting themselves in drawings and stories, presenting different views of the world . . . It’s a very essential part of human existence.”
The stART Fund has managed to raise S$4 million so far and helped about 20 small arts organisations. But it wants to raise at least S$10 million by 2023 to help many more.
Mr Lorinet, who is now a non-executive director at Trafigura and a private investor, says: “I realise it’s a challenge for some organisations to give to the arts. Most organisations see value in donating to causes that are directly or better aligned with their company’s missions . . . But the arts can benefit organisations in unexpected ways.
“When you look at creativity and innovation, and the fact that Singapore aspires to be an innovation hub, the arts do a lot in helping everyone here – including business people – to get in touch with their creative sensibilities. Even having paintings along the corridors of the office can stimulate different conversations and emotions . . . We hope corporations can see the profound value of the arts and what it gives to humanity.”
Art scene diminishing
When Covid-19 struck, the government was quick in rolling out support packages, such as the Jobs Support Scheme and Arts & Culture Resilience Package, to help artists and arts organisations tide through the pandemic. The measures include wage subsidies, capacity training and one-off operating grants to help defray operating costs.
In the recent Budget 2021 announcement, the government said it’s extending wage support for the arts and culture sector, with firms getting 10 per cent support for three more months to cover wages paid up to June.
But while the measure is helpful, it far from makes up for the devastating financial losses experienced by arts group over the past 12 months. Certain guidelines continue to cripple the arts, such as the social distancing rules that seem to have been applied more rigorously to the arts sector than, say, the F&B and transport sectors.
Ivan Heng, artistic director of theatre company Wild Rice, recently took to Facebook to lament the guidelines that restrict his company to performing for just 25 per cent of Wild Rice theatre’s capacity. Every show it mounts now is done so at a huge loss.
He wrote: “Whilst public transport, shopping malls, restaurants, hawker centres and markets are crowded with people, the rules in performing arts venues keep performing arts companies from going back to work and back to business . . .
“There’s a real sense of cognitive dissonance walking into our theatre at Funan, and for that matter, any theatre or concert hall in Singapore. We need an audience, and the capacity to provide work. Jobs, livelihoods and an entire industry are at risk.”
Wild Rice, a popular and established company, has managed to turn to its base of donors and supporters for partial relief. But smaller arts companies have generally not been able to do even that.
Mr Lorinet notes that Covid-19 has exacerbated the challenges facing small arts groups “quite significantly”, and there is a danger of seeing them vanish. He says: “Younger artists are very passionate, but they’re very focused on their art and may not have the skills needed to sustain their practice financially in the long term.”
He said that support for arts groups need not be just in monetary terms. “Organisations such as accounting or legal firms can also help to increase capacity by lending time and expertise, so that arts organisations can develop their own governance, structures and capabilities.
And so one of the aims of the stART Fund is to intermediate support in different ways, to create a sort of network between arts groups and the private sector to equip the former for the long term. The ultimate aim is that they can grow and be self-sustaining, raising funds directly from the public” without help from external parties.
“The fact is, larger organisations such as the National Gallery Singapore are more capable of attracting donors. But large arts organisations would not really thrive without a full ecosystem that includes small and mid-size organisations too. Small arts groups are essential in bringing the talent up, giving them an opportunity to experiment and practise at an early stage, so they can eventually move on into different types of organisations.”
His last sentences echo many of the recent arguments made by various artists in the current controversy involving independent art space The Substation losing its current space.
From finance to fine arts
Mr Lorinet has had a successful career in the financial and commodity trading world. Originally from France, he moved to Singapore in 2012 with his Mongolian wife and two sons. A third child, a daughter, was born in Singapore in 2016.
Mr Lorinet’s great-great-grandfather was a painter during the Impressionist era who left behind many artworks that now grace the walls of their family homes. Mr Lorinet grew up loving art and took up photography as a hobby in his youth.
In Singapore, he and his wife have supported various arts organisations such as the Intercultural Theatre Institute, National Gallery Singapore and STPI. They were awarded Friends of the Arts from 2016-2017 and Patron of the Arts from 2018-2019. The couple also run the Lorinet Foundation which does substantial philanthropic work in Mongolia, South-east Asia and France.
Mr Lorinet recognises that art appreciation is not something that happens overnight: “It’s something that you learn in your early years with your parents or through art education in school. It’s something that you need to continuously go back to and cultivate.”
He lauds the efforts by the Ministry of Education, the National Arts Council and various private corporations in exposing children to art at an early stage. “I think that art appreciation will, little by little, seep through from one generation to the next.”
Meanwhile, the one ostensible upside of Covid-19 is it’s compelled some artists to reinvent their art forms in search of an audience online: “Covid-19 has revealed that some arts organisations can use digital tools to create different kinds of art and be more interactive, and also use it to disseminate the art better. This is particularly beneficial for small arts groups, which, for a start, should try to net as big an audience as they can.”
He says that one perennial challenge facing artists here is Singapore’s relatively small market. “If you compare Singapore to large global cities like London, Paris and Tokyo, these cities benefit from a much larger country and tap zone. People can produce their art for the main city and then go around to second-tier cities or other parts of the country. Clearly, you don’t have that here . . . And while digitalisation can help, it is not a panacea, because how do you get paid for the work you put up online? This is one of the avenues we’re exploring at NAC: What is the economic model around digital tools to help Singapore artists effectively get a bigger audience and increase revenues. Personally, I think the benefit of these tools is that you can lower the price point and get a larger paying audience.”
Asked if Singapore artists need to spend some time in the West to build networks there – as some of today’s bestselling artists such as Yayoi Kusama, Yoshitomo Nara and Ai Wei Wei have done – Mr Lorinet replies that he doesn’t think so: “Those artists are from an older generation. The world economy in the 1960s and 1970s was very different from what it is today. Today, it is here in the East where you have the majority of people living, the fastest growth, and the most dynamism. So I don’t think it’s any longer necessary for an artist to base herself in Europe or the US to gain broader appeal.
“I think there’s still a lingering historical bias that, because Western contemporary art as a practice is more developed and commercialised, it still somewhat dominates the art market. But I think that’s shifting slowly. If you were to look at auction results and other art trends, for instance, you can see a gradual shift to the east – like in every other aspect of modern life.
“I guess the challenge for Singapore will be how to position itself in the art market versus Hong Kong, Tokyo, Beijing or Shanghai.”
This article was originally published in The Business Times.