Apollo Magazine

Museum Opening of the Year

National Gallery Singapore

Apollo Awards 2016 - Museum Opening of the Year - National Gallery Singapore

National Gallery Singapore

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One of the key hurdles to developing how people think about modern Asian art has been the lack of heavyweight modern art institutions across the region. Until now, biennials and private museums have plugged the gap to an extent, but art ecosystems need museums to tell the story of modern art, even if that story is then challenged and deconstructed. It is in this context that National Gallery Singapore opened in November 2015. It contains the world’s largest collection of South-East Asian modern and contemporary art, and is spread over two colonial-era buildings, the City Hall and Supreme Court. The story of modern art, seemingly once limited to the contents of Alfred H. Barr’s head, has been further widened. The new use of buildings that were key symbols of British colonial power is significant.

The National Gallery Singapore occupies the former colonial buildings of the Supreme Court (left) and City Hall. Photo: National Gallery Singapore

The museum opened to much fanfare and some predictable critiques. With one wing devoted to Singaporean art and one wing devoted to South-East Asian art the structure implicitly places Singaporean art at the centre of its story. However, this is no different to other museums around the world that narrate modern art from their own perspective (MoMA is one of many). Yoking together a national collection and an international collection is also something that many institutions have had to navigate (think of Tate). There have also been observations that the collection is uneven. Given the ambitious regional remit, it is difficult to see how this could be avoided. Indeed, the fact that the museum’s presence has started these debates about South-East Asian modern art may well be the crucial point. It is the museum’s opening that has enabled South-East Asian modern art to become an object of knowledge to be contested and debated, or as younger curators might say, to become ‘a thing’. For this reason the museum’s emergence is a key moment not just for the region but internationally, developing Barr’s famous diagram in unexpected ways.

Rooftop terrace in the former Supreme Court. Photo: National Gallery Singapore

Niru Ratnam

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