So, my parents are visiting and I’m showing them around this “fine” city again. (They last visited in 2013.) Yesterday, we went to the National Gallery of Singapore. The gallery is housed in the restored former British colonial-era Supreme Court and City Hall buildings, and is home to the largest public collection of Singaporean and Southeast Asian art in the region. The SG$536 million reconstruction project is a truly spectacular architectural marvel and is, in and of itself, worth a walk through. My parents were duly impressed.
We walked through two exhibitions—Siapa Nama Kamu: Art in Singapore Since the 19th Century and Between Declarations and Dreams: Art of Southeast Asia Since the 19th Century—which collectively showcase about 800 pieces drawn from the museum’s collection of 8,000 works. In Siapa Nama Kamu, they were most enchanted by works by the city state’s Nanyang artists—Chinese migrants who arrived in Singapore and adapted Western styles of painting, such as the use of oil, to portray local subjects. I still find, on my third visit, Between Declarations and Dreams, which presents an eclectic selection of artists from Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Cambodia, and showcases a variety of techniques, from traditional Chinese brush painting to abstract expressionist collages, to be the stronger of the two exhibitions, despite its obvious art historical flaws.
My parents enjoyed their morning at the museum. My father chatted with the gallery security (who I found rather interruptive and obsequious), and my mother took lots of photographs which she has already posted on Facebook. While I appreciated seeing art that I would likely never see in the United States, I was underwhelmed by the “user experience.” I noticed, as I was visiting with tourists who have less knowledge of art and art history in Southeast Asia than I do, that the museum’s wall text does not provide much context or scaffolding to the novice. The National Gallery wants to the “Louvre or the Met of Southeast Asia,” yet because only a tenth of the National Gallery’s collection is on its walls and in its galleries, the 689,000-square-foot space feels so, so empty. On this visit, I noticed how little of the space was used to display art! Much of what is one view is in closed-off, glass-doored galleries, while the long corridors and numerous open spaces, perfect for painting or installation, remain bare and unused. The National Gallery seems to lack the warmth and bustle—there was no one other than us in many of the galleries—and intensity of the Louvre or the Met.
If you go: General Admission is free for Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents, and $20 for other Singapore residents and tourists. The National Gallery of Singapore is open from 10AM to 7PM from Sunday to Thursday and on public holidays, and from 10AM to 10PM on Fridays, Saturdays, and the eves of public holidays. Admission ends 30 minutes before closing time.