Hubert Burda Media

Chong Siak Ching: On the National Gallery and Making Art Accessible

Chong Siak Ching shares with us what to expect when the National Gallery Singapore opens this month.

When it comes to child-friendly spaces, an art museum may not be the first thing that comes to mind. After all, it typically carries the impression of an uptight venue where visitors are expected to be quiet and on their best behaviour. But the National Gallery Singapore, which opens this month at the refurbished former City Hall and Supreme Court, looks set to change perceptions with its variety of inclusive, family-centric activities and its new Keppel Centre for Art Education (a dedicated children’s art facility).
“We want to make art as accessible as possible for everyone, because art is almost like a universal language, says Chong Siak Ching, CEO of the museum. “We want to show everyone, trained in art or not, that there’s something in every piece of art that they can connect to. We want to make art less distant and [intimidating]. We want to break down these barriers.”
The first of its kind in the region, the Keppel Centre aims to provide an immersive experience for visitors through interactive displays, colourful 3D art installations, masterclasses and a children’s museum modelled after an artist’s studio. Adults aren’t left out either. Chong, 57, reveals there will be talks, workshops and forums: “We want the visitor’s experience to be as engaging as possible.”

About the new National Gallery Singapore

Apart from welcoming guests of all ages and from all walks of life, Chong explains that the 64,000-sq-m National Gallery Singapore’s other main objective is to provide a platform for local and regional art to shine. Boasting the world’s largest showcase of modern Southeast Asian art, the museum has access to Singapore’s National Collection of over 8,000 works and will present some 1,000 artpieces at a time. These are from the 19th and 20th centuries and range from paintings and photographs to sculptures. The museum also has two permanent showcases: The DBS Singapore Gallery, which features works by home-grown talents the likes of Georgette Chen, Cheong Soo Pieng and Chua Ek Kay; and the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery, which presents art by regional luminaries such as Filipino painter Fernando Cueto Amorsolo, Indonesia’s Hendra Gunawan and Latiff Mohidin from Malaysia. “[Visitors] will be able to trace the history of art that has developed here and view the best works of various artists from the region,” says Chong.
The $530 million museum’s first major exhibition is slated to launch in April with over 200 works from French art institution Centre Pompidou and from across Southeast Asia. It will be co-curated by both institutions, and is expected to run till September. After that, the National Gallery Singapore will team up with the renowned Tate Britain on an October showcase titled Artist and Empire, which comprises artpieces inspired by the British Empire, with some dating back to the 16th century. Chong believes such exhibitions will attract art buffs from the region and help raise the profile of local art through the “sharing and joint discoveries of artists and their works” with the international museums’ curators. “I hope these [exhibitions] enable us to put Singapore art on a global stage,” she says.
Another main draw at the museum is the Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden Gallery, a rooftop exhibition space named after Far East Organization’s late founder. In September, Ng’s family donated $20 million to the establishment’s research, curatorial and exhibition projects, with an emphasis on outdoor art displays. The gallery features site-specific commissioned works by Southeast Asian and international artists; the first of which will be created by Vietnamese-born Danh Vō, who is representing Denmark at the ongoing Venice Biennale art fair. The artpiece is expected to be ready by January and will be changed annually.

Chong’s role at the National Gallery

Chong was appointed CEO of the museum in 2013. Prior to that, she was president and CEO of business space solutions provider Ascendas, which serves a clientele of over 2,400 customers in 25 cities across 10 countries including Singapore, Malaysia and China. It may seem a drastic switch in vocation, but according to Chong, both portfolios are similar in their commitment to creating positive, unforgettable experiences for customers. “I believe whether one is a non-profit organisation or a commercial entity, customers must always come first. We are in existence for the people we serve,” says Chong. “In the case of the National Gallery Singapore, we serve members of the public. We serve visitors who come into the gallery to enjoy the art, space or history. So everything we do…is about making the visitor’s experience a memorable one.”
Already passionate about art during her stint at Ascendas, she often sought to incorporate it in the company’s real estate ventures. “I’ve always had a soft spot for local artists, so in every project I undertook, I would find ways to work with or commission them to create works…to enhance the real estate,” says Chong. ”When I was in Ascendas, art featured very strongly in our spaces. Over at the National Gallery Singapore, it’s the reverse — art takes centre stage and real estate [plays] a secondary role.”
Outside of work, she is also head of the Visual Arts Cluster, comprising the National Gallery Singapore, Singapore Art Museum and Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI). Her role is to foster “greater collaboration” between the institutions so they can share and exchange ideas and practices, and work towards the common goal of reaching out to the community. “[The cluster] is a very important aspect of the whole arts ecosystem, because we’ve got the two museums that showcase work from established and emerging artists, as well as STPI that puts Singapore on the world map by demonstrating [local talents’] ability to create works with renowned artists,” says Chong, who also sits on the National University of Singapore Board of Trustees and the Yale-NUS College governing board. Education is crucial to both the country’s growth and culture, she explains. “My role is to try and bridge the National Gallery Singapore and the visual arts institutions with the educational sector. We need to continue to develop talent for the arts.”
The weeks leading up to the museum’s official opening have been hectic, but Chong is brimming with enthusiasm: “We want to inspire visitors with stories that touch their hearts. We want to create curiosity and pique their interest to understand and interact with art. And lastly, we want them to have moving experiences that touch their souls.”