After a decade of planning and construction, the National Gallery Singapore is scheduled to open its doors tomorrow (24 November). The world’s largest public collection of Modern Southeast Asian art will be housed in two meticulously restored British colonial-era structures, the former City Hall and the Supreme Court building. It cost more than S$500m (US$358m) to convert the buildings into a 64,000 sq. m museum.
The museum is preparing an ambitious series of collaborations to highlight connections between the art of the region and international movements. In March, it plans to present an exhibition on Modernism with the Centre Pompidou in Paris. More than 100 works by artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Marc Chagall will be placed in dialogue with the Singaporean collection, including work by the Filipino Modernist Galo Ocampo. In October 2016, the museum is planning a show with Tate Britain on “artist and empire”. Around half the works will come from the UK museum’s collection.
The inaugural programme also includes the largest public collection of work by the Chinese ink painter Wu Guanzhong and rarely seen 19th-century works by the Javanese painter Raden Saleh and the Filipino artist and nationalist Juan Luna.
Over the past two decades, Singapore has added significant works to its 8,000-strong national collection, from which all government museums draw. The National Gallery is to be the main venue for works from the 19th century to the 1980s. (The nearby Singapore Art Museum will focus primarily on contemporary art.) The museum’s historic emphasis makes it less vulnerable to Singapore’s censors, who have in the past blocked the display of contemporary art with religious or political content.
To trace the development of art in the region, “we start in the 19th century, a time of authority and anxiety, when most of Southeast Asia was under colonial rule”, says Eugene Tan, the museum’s director. “In the early 20th century, artists became more aware of their surroundings and identity, so you see the development of art schools.” Then, in the mid-20th century, “many countries were caught in struggles for independence and turbulence caused by wars”.
Converting historic structures into a museum-ready space with proper climate control and security was no easy feat. At one point, engineers had to prop up the City Hall chamber with an elaborate support system while they dug underneath. The renovation was funded primarily by Singapore’s government. Local corporations including UOB, DBS and Keppel also contributed funds.
Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong first made public plans for the museum in 2005. The French architecture firm studioMilou and the Singapore-based CPG Consultants were awarded the project in 2008. With only five million residents in Singapore, the state-of-the-art museum expects to find a wider audience in culture aficionados from neighbouring countries.