Thursday, May 13, 2010

i) Yong Vui Kong result tomorrow, ii) NAC censorship questioned

Yong's appeal trial gets its result out tomorrow. My boyfriend's been working on the case. Full story here at the Online Citizen.

There's a chance that this could overturn the mandatory death penalty law for drug trafficking (not repealing the death bit, but the mandatory bit: i.e. a judge can actually have the chance to make up his/her mind instead of saying go to death row, do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars.)

I'll be super-happy at Pink Dot tomorrow if the law gets repealed; more than a little bummed if it doesn't.

Oh, and ST Life! did a good front page story today on how arts groups are answering back to the whole NAC sponsorship thing. Slightly optimistic. Cut and pasted below (thanks Alf).

May 13, 2010

Don't play play

Arts groups now realise how strict the OB markers are after the National Arts Council cut Wild Rice's funds by $20,000
By adeline chia

A group of artists have asked to meet the National Arts Counil (NAC) to clarify funding guidelines, following news last week that the council had cut funding for theatre group Wild Rice.

The chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Information, Communication and the Arts, Mr Zaqy Mohamad, has said that he is happy to hear Wild Rice out and to explore the possibility of restoring the $20,000 cut.

Government Parliamentary Committees monitor the policies of particular ministries to provide a wider range of views.

Members of the arts community issued a statement yesterday, signed by 23 people from 14 theatre companies, including Wild Rice artistic director Ivan Heng, TheatreWorks artistic director Ong Keng Sen, Singapore Lyric Opera general manager Ng Siew Eng and The Theatre Practice artistic director Kuo Jian Hong.

They were responding to an NAC statement last week that had said Wild Rice's funding was cut because the council would not fund 'projects which are incompatible with the core values promoted by the Government and society or disparage the Government'.

The artists in their statement took issue with the notion of 'core values', which they said was not clearly defined. Instead, they argued that 'the spectrum of 'core values' must include notions such as tolerance, inclusivity and diversity - the very values that are upheld in a multiracial and democratic country such as ours'.

They said that as the council handles public funds, it should put public interest before those of the state. 'As such, a precondition that works should not 'disparage the Government' has no place in its funding guidelines.'

They added: 'NAC's priority should be directed towards developing Singapore's potential as a world-class city for the arts, and not towards developing the potential of a statutory board - entrusted with public money - as an organ of social control.'

Mr Zaqy, an MP for Hong Kah GRC, said he has seen the group's productions, adding: 'I can understand where NAC comes from. It is given public funds and needs to be accountable to the public. 'On the other hand, the arts need space. If there are grounds to look at restoring the cut to Wild Rice, I am open to exploring it. Hopefully we can find a middle ground for both parties.'

Wild Rice artistic director Ivan Heng, 47, said he will write to Mr Zaqy, but adds that the issue is larger than the funding his company gets from the council.

Wild Rice's annual grant was cut to $170,000, down from $190,000 last year. He said: 'We should not look at this on a case-by-case basis. What we are saying is that the guidelines are wrong. It's not just about Wild Rice getting funding re-instated, we are calling for transparency, accountability and a total re-look of the guidelines.'

The council is one of the major arts funding bodies in Singapore. Last year, it gave out $6.79 million in general grants. Government funding is important because it supplements an arts company's other funding streams, namely sponsorship and ticket sales.

The council has pointed out that its conditions are not new and artists are well aware of them. These conditions are spelt out in any grant application form. In an annex on the form, it is clearly stated that 'NAC is obliged to prioritise financial support away from artistic projects which:
a) erode the core moral values of society, including but not limited to the promotion of permissive lifestyles and depictions of obscenity or graphic sexual conduct;
b) denigrate or debase a person, group or class of individuals on the basis of race or religion, or serve to create conflict or misunderstanding in our multicultural and multi-religious society;
c) disparage or demean government bodies, public institutions or national leaders, and/or subvert the nation's security or stability.'

Mr Benson Puah, chief executive of National Arts Council, told Life! yesterday: 'Arts groups will always need financial support to do all that they want to do. As the arts scene in Singapore continues to develop, there will be greater demands on limited public funds.
'We encourage them to nurture additional funding and community support. In the long term, the arts scene will enjoy greater sustainability and diversity with the broader support of the private and people sectors.'

Alvin Tan, 47, artistic director of The Necessary Stage, said the council's clauses are rarely acted on but 'they are problematic because technically, NAC can use them anytime they like'. He was one of those who signed the press statement.

Over the years, Wild Rice has made news for plays that skewer local politics in a cheeky way. These included Eleanor Wong's satire The Campaign To Confer The Public Service Star On JBJ (2006) and Ken Kwek's Apocalypse: Live! (2008), which explored issues of censorship and government surveillance.

Artists interviewed said the funding cut goes against the trend of the opening up of the arts scene in recent years. Regulation of the arts has been done by introducing age restrictions and content advisories to guide audiences in picking what they want to watch.
Slashing funding is a 'softer' kind of censorship, artists said, as it can be used to signal to the arts community what is favoured by the authorities and what is not.

They said it ensures that prickly political and sexual issues are less likely to be represented in productions. As Heng put it: 'It is economic censorship, the oldest tool in the book. They hit you where it hurts.'

Drama Box's artistic director, Kok Heng Leun, 43, who also signed the statement, said that 'NAC should never play a regulatory role through funding'.

'Their job is to nourish the arts,' he said. 'Their responsibility is to make sure that there are enough choices, that there are different kinds of arts activities. It's not for them to say that certain segments of society are not worthy of being represented on stage.'

As for works which disparage the Government, he said: 'If you cannot criticise the Government, then you are saying that the Government is right. Then where is democracy?'

Wild Rice is not the first theatre company which had its funding cut over content. In 2000, the council pulled $8,000 from Drama Box's The VaginaLogue because Kok refused to take down a projected image of a vagina that was used as a backdrop.

After the council pulled out, he could not make enough from ticket sales and the company lost money on the production.

But artists have to accept that some taxpayers prefer to see public monies being directed elsewhere.

Assistant finance manager Nancy Lim, 40, who said that she is 'not in favour of the gay movement', added: 'If we support shows with homosexual content, it is a signal to the general public that we are in favour of this kind of lifestyle.

'In the arts, there is a wide range of topics. We don't have to go into the grey areas.'

There are also taxpayers who think that the arts companies are being disingenuous in thinking that the Government should continue funding companies which put up productions that criticise the authorities.

Arts councils overseas contacted by Life! said their funding is based on artistic and not political considerations.

Mr Graham Berry, who was the chief executive of the Scottish Arts Council, said the primary consideration for the Scottish body when it comes to funding is 'the quality of the work'.

The Scotsman is a Singapore permanent resident and married to MP Irene Ng (Tampines GRC). He said that there are no restrictions on content, but 'people have to stay within the law'.

'If they produce something abusive and offensive, we won't support it. Controversy is part and parcel of the arts. Artists are funded to produce art of distinction and quality, and sometimes that runs contrary to public opinion.'

The arts community here also asks if the council applies its guidelines consistently. Wild Rice, which turns 10 this year, is not the only company to touch on politically sensitive topics in its productions.

The Necessary Stage has also created works with political themes. For example, Haresh Sharma's Gemuk Girls (2008) grappled with the painful effects of political detention on a family.

Theatergoer and civil servant Pan Xuequn, 27, said that The Necessary Stage's plays are not so 'outwardly subversive'.

She said: 'Some of the plays are non-linear and not so easy to interpret, and most of their works are staged in their black box theatre space at Marine Parade.

'Wild Rice is coming under fire because it stages mainstream, well-made plays that are very popular.'

The Necessary Stage's artistic director Tan said: 'Our works don't polarise issues into us and the Government. For us, 'alternative' does not mean 'oppositional' only.'

Theatre companies who choose to operate outside the government funding structure can opt to do commerical theatre.

Dream Academy Productions, owned by lawyer-turned-performer Selena Tan, stages popular musical revues such as the Dim Sum Dollies and Broadway Beng franchises and does not receive funding from the Government.

Tan said: 'It was always at the back of my mind whether I wanted to be reliant on arts funding. Then I will take on certain social responsibilities, such as making sure that my works advance the theatre scene here.'

She chose instead to see 'if it was economically viable to put entertainment out there'. The Finger Players' artistic director Chong Tze Chien, 34, said that alternatives to government funding include staging works outside a theatre so that rental is cheaper, and working with companies overseas to share costs.

'I don't put all my eggs in one basket,' he said.

chiahta@sph.com.sg

Funding based on merit

Many arts councils in the world practise arm's length funding, in which funding decisions are made by the council without government interference.

These include organisations such as the National Endowment For The Arts in the United States, the Canada Council For The Arts, Arts Council England, Hong Kong Arts Development Council and the Australia Council For The Arts.

These are all funding bodies that give artists and arts organisations money to create artworks and activities in disciplines such as theatre, dance, visual arts and music. The main consideration when it comes to assessing whether an artist or arts group deserves a grant is artistic merit.

An Arts Council England spokesman tells Life!: 'There is no clear advice that states that if an activity is overtly political that it is or is not eligible.

'However, if the activity is a promotional tool for a political party, it could be ineligible under the following criteria: applications for self-promotional activities that do not provide public benefit, either immediately or in the longer term, or where the applicant does not have an artistic track record.'

The council awarded £67 million (S$138 million) in grants last year. For the Canada Council For The Arts, criteria for multi-year grants to theatre companies are given clear weights. Seventy per cent is placed on a pattern of positive artistic assessments and 30 per cent given to artistic and administrative stability and sound financial management.

The council awarded C$158 million (S$212 million) in grants to individuals and arts organisations last year.

A spokesman says: 'The council is an arm's length agency and makes decisions about funding using a peer assessment process. At no time is the Minister of Canadian Heritage, who is responsible for the council, involved in the granting decision process.'

In Hong Kong, the arts council 'assesses all applications mainly based on artistic merits and it is in the council's ordinance that it would uphold the principle of, and encourage, freedom of artistic expression', says a spokesman.

It gave out HK$49.3 million (S$8.7 million) in grants last year. There have been a few high-profile cases overseas where the public questioned councils for supporting certain controversial works and complained about misapplied funds.

A famous case was the National Endowment For The Arts in the United States, which came under fire in 1989. The federal agency granted money to museums featuring Piss Christ by Andre Serrano, an image of a crucifix submerged in the artist's urine, and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's Retrospective, The Perfect Moment, a showcase of homoerotic images.

Some members of the US Congress found the Mapplethorpe pictures pornographic and Serrano's work was condemned for being blasphemous and offensive to Christians. When considering the agency's budget 1990, Congress reacted to the controversy surrounding the Mapplethorpe and Serrano photographs by cutting US$45,000 from the agency's budget, the precise amount contributed to the two exhibits.

A spokesman for the agency, which awarded US$128 million (S$177 million) in grants last year, maintains that 'the general criteria for NEA grants are artistic excellence and merit'.

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