Helping Hands

Published on 13 September 2016

Why do corporates and individuals give to the arts? We find out what’s in it for everyone.


A gift of S$16 million. This was what the National Gallery Singapore recently received from Ngee Ann Development, a joint venture between the Ngee Ann Kongsi and Takashimaya. Not only is this Ngee Ann’s first-ever donation to a visual arts institution in Singapore, it’s also its largest donation to the arts so far.


“It’s indeed very heartening as this is a testimony of organisations and individuals recognising the value that the arts bring to our society,” says the Gallery’s CEO Chong Siak Ching, adding that the donation will go towards its mission of promoting Southeast Asian art in the region and to the rest of the world, and extending their outreach to the community through engagement.


At the Patron of the Arts Awards in July, 145 organisations and 185 individuals were feted for arts philanthropy in 2015 — a 46 per cent increase from 2014. A total of S$136.1 million (S$128.8 million in cash, and S$7.3 million in-kind) was donated to the arts sector, with corporate donors coming from diverse sectors such as health, hospitality, automotive and technology.


Yet, recognising the value of the arts to society isn’t something widespread as yet. Unlike causes like education and healthcare, the arts are still widely perceived as a luxury reserved for the privileged. Is arts philanthropy really philanthropy? How does it benefit anyone?

HEALTH CHEQUE Ngee Ann Development donated S$16 million to the National Gallery Singapore, its largest donation to the arts thus far.


For corporate sponsor United Overseas Bank Limited (UOB), which has supported the development and appreciation of the arts in Southeast Asia for more than four decades, the motivation is simple. “We recognise that the arts can make a community more vibrant and bring together people of different backgrounds and cultures,” says Lilian Chong UOB’s senior vice-president of group strategic communications and customer advocacy.


This year marks the 12th consecutive year that UOB has received the Distinguished Patron of the Arts Award. “We remain as steadfast in our support as the day we started our first art programme more than 40 years ago because we believe our support has helped us to connect and engage on a more intimate level with our employees, our clients, and the community across the region.”


One of the beneficiaries of UOB’s contribution is The RICE Company, which has been running The Little Arts Academy, an arts training centre for underprivileged children below 12, for eight years. Since 2010, UOB has sponsored their advanced visual arts programme, Mini Monet, which provides a platform for young budding artists to experiment with more advanced techniques and mediums, ranging from charcoal to acrylic, oil and Chinese ink.


The Little Arts Academy is also one of the programmes under The Business Times Budding Artists Fund, managed by RICE. “Through the generosity of key donors such as BNP Paribas, Citibank, Cerebos and UOB, some 14,000 children and youths, aged six to 19, from financially disadvantaged backgrounds have benefited from a conducive environment to receive arts training,” says Aminah Hussein, RICE’s head of arts & community development. “We’re thankful to our donors who share our conviction and enabled us to help level the playing field for these kids.”

TWINKLE, TWINKLE, LITTLE STARS Young ballerinas in The Little Arts Academy’s production A Thousand Cranes (top); and junior performers at its Open House 2015. PHOTO Superlatives Design Studio


A common misconception Singaporeans have is that there is no real need to give to the arts as the government is already providing the support to artists and arts organisations. While this may be true for the provision of essential operating support to arts groups, it is the private sector that delivers the extra boost to build a robust and inspired arts sector.


Janek Schergen, artistic director of the Singapore Dance Theatre, will tell you that while funding is always an issue — “because fine arts is never the same as commercial theatre” — a bigger challenge is overcoming the preconceived notions that anything artistic from Singapore cannot be on par with overseas productions.


“As such, our Ambassadors’ Circle has helped us develop our performance repertoire, bringing in one new ballet each year, with a total of 10 new works sponsored to date,” says a grateful Schergen. “Our annual gala, The Moon and the Stars, has also raised more than S$300,000, which has enabled us to do a full season of performances as well as touring.”


“Given that the best artists create regular work and treat their practice as a life-long vocation, there is a need for us to cultivate a culture of sustainable giving among donors,” says Yeoh Phee Suan, director of corporate communications and marketing services at the National Arts Council (NAC). “We cannot do without private-public partnerships.”


To encourage partnerships that sustain the local arts eco-system, Singapore adopts a collaborative approach. In 2013, the Cultural Matching Fund was incepted to match dollar-for-dollar cash donations. To date, over S$140 million from over 80 arts and heritage organisations have been received.


Another misconception people have is that donating cash is the only and best way to give. Besides cash, corporate donors have also supported the arts by providing spaces, professional services and artefact donations or loans.


When The RICE Company was looking for a new space to extend its subsidised arts education to kids aged 12 to 19, Far East Organisation stepped in to convert the 10th floor of the Orchard Central car park into 10 Square, an arts training centre for less-privileged teens. Apart from providing the space, Far East went a step further by paying for the construction of the centre, which features a performance theatre, three music studios, a visual arts room, and a dance studio.

SUE CHER, right, with Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Grace Fu.

Sue Cher, who was conferred the Distinguished Patron of the Arts Award (in-kind) for donating a total of 10 works by Singapore artist Lim Hak Tai, shares her personal motivations. “Seeing Lim Hak Tai’s and his son Lim Yew Kuan’s selfless contributions to the arts firsthand inspired me to do the same. I hope that by giving to the arts, I can also inspire others to do the same.”


The individual donor adds, “Recently, Singapore celebrated the Olympic Gold brought home by swimmer Joseph Schooling. In the artistic arena, we celebrate the achievements of Picasso and Van Gogh, but have none of our own to celebrate. I hope that more people can come to appreciate the arts and push the envelope of the Singapore art scene.”


Sustainable giving among donors is also important because it takes time to incubate and nurture the next generation of artists who will pick up the baton and go the distance.


For the Chan Hampe Galleries (a commercial gallery with a not-for-profit arm, The Visual Arts Development Association), a patrons’ programme named UNTAPPED supports local artists at the crucial early stages in their career. “We’re essentially a developmental gallery. We identify, develop and promote local artists with the intention to create a sustainable career for them,” shares co-owner Benjamin Hampe.“Arts patrons work in tandem with us to realise this vision.”


What sets UNTAPPED apart from other emerging artist programmes is its close collaboration with arts patrons. “Local patrons provide the upfront funding for the project. In return, each patron is able to collect one or more artworks from each exhibition,” explains Hampe. “This means that over a third of the artworks shown by these young artists will automatically be acquired by established art patrons. This goes beyond general exposure and connects artists directly with individuals who are actively supporting the visual arts in Singapore.”


Such creative collaborations can benefit donors and beneficiaries, and build closer ties between both parties, while enriching the arts landscape. In May, 800 Citibank staff collaborated with over 20 of its beneficiaries over two days to paint five murals for Citibank’s offices in Changi Business Park and Asia Square. These visual arts beneficiaries are also currently designing and painting the designs for Citibank’s 2017 calendar and hong baos (red packets).

GIFT OF ART Lim Hak Tai’s painting ‘Fire’ (1961) was donated to the National Gallery Singapore.


Supporting the arts is more than being a patron of spiffy art galleries or struggling artists. If you dig deeper, you’ll find a rich and layered landscape in Singapore where artists are nurturing artists, and the less privileged are given opportunities they would otherwise not have.


“The arts add to the well-being, development and enrichment of our society, not just the artists,” says Yeoh. “Many arts philanthropists also recognise that Singapore’s arts and cultural scene provides an important legacy of our heritage.”


There are countless ways to give to the arts, not just in cash or in-kind. “You can consider volunteering for arts events or offering your professional expertise in accounting, law, marketing or fundraising,” Yeoh suggests. “Everyone can play a part in supporting the arts.”


Hampe agrees. “If you want to see a vibrant arts scene here, go and see everything you find of interest. Buying tickets is as essential as donations. Only when there is a strong and supportive audience, can there be arts groups that will grow and thrive.”


For more on arts philanthropy, visit

LEAPS & BOUNDS Dancers from the Singapore Dance Theatre at a studio rehearsal for Nils Christe’s Symphony in Three Movements — made possible with the support of their Ambassadors’ Circle. Photo Kuang Jing Kai

Scroll Up