Sculpture Square



Singapore Infopedia

by Hong, Xinying, Pwee, Timothy

Background

Located at 155 Middle Road, Sculpture Square was a venue in Singapore dedicated to the exhibition and promotion of three-dimensional art. It ran from 1999 until 2014. Housed in a historic 19th-century church building, exhibitions were held monthly at the arts venue from its inauguration in March 1999. Sculpture Square was noted for its well-received children’s visual arts programmes including the popular Sculpture Carnival and the Children’s Sculpture Exhibition.

History

The Sculpture Square project was the brainchild of local sculptor Sun Yu-Li, who felt that Singapore lacked the facilities necessary for the development and exhibition of three-dimensional art.1 While searching for a suitable location, Sun came up with the idea of turning an abandoned 19th-century church building on Middle Road into a new centre for three-dimensional art.2 As the church building has a nine-metre-high ceiling and is unobstructed by pillars, the building was ideal for the exhibition of large sculptures.3

In December 1995, Sun discussed the project with a friend, Edmund Cheng of Wing Tai Holdings. Cheng’s education in architecture had sparked a personal interest in three-dimensional art. He thus shared Sun’s interest in promoting the art form in Singapore and the two began working on the project together shortly after.4

Cheng’s involvement was crucial as he volunteered the use of Wing Tai’s extensive network of contacts to raise funds and support for the Sculpture Square project. By appealing to Cheng’s business partners who shared his interest in the arts, the project came to be backed by prominent corporate figures.5 Some of these supporters also agreed to be part of the board of directors of Sculpture Square Limited, the non-profit organisation that manages the art venue. Cheng became the first chairman of Sculpture Square while Sun was the first artistic director.6

In March 1999, Sculpture Square opened to the public and staged its first Sculpture Carnival on 5 June that year, an event that became a significant part of Sculpture Square’s programming in the next decade.7 The first edition was conducted by Prasanta Mukherjee, a sculptor from New Delhi, India, and featured hands-on activities for children.8 From an attendance of 1,500 in 1999, the Sculpture Carnival, as well as the associated Children’s Sculpture Exhibition where the children’s works were exhibited, grew to draw a 5,000-strong crowd every year until the final carnival in June 2012.9 That year, Sculpture Square also participated in the Singapore Art Festival’s visual arts programme, “Volume and Form”. Between May and September 1999, international artworks were exhibited at several venues including Sculpture Square.10

The inaugural exhibition held at Sculpture Square following its official opening on 22 October 1999 was entitled Provocative Things: A Three Dimensional Experience in Singapore, where works by 16 local artists were shown.11 The exhibition sought to provoke questions not just about existence but also what constitutes three-dimensional art.12

By January 2000, however, Sun had expressed concern at the Square’s lack of identity and low demand in venue booking. In response, the art critic and historian, T. K. Sabapathy, who had curated the inaugural exhibition, was appointed senior curatorial advisor. He remained in the position until 2002. Sabapathy charted the direction for Sculpture Square in terms of exhibitions, publications, residencies, workshops and symposiums.13

Sabapathy curated the Square’s first anniversary show, Transformations: 6 from Malaysia, in September 2000.14 Exhibiting works by local and regional artists, such anniversary shows became a significant component of Sculpture Square’s exhibition calendar until 2011.15 The fifth anniversary show, Reformasi: Contemporary Indonesian Artists Post-1998, in particular, drew some international attention with coverage by the BBC World TV and Asian Wall Street Journal.16 Reformasi was described as a “highly politicised” exhibition showing a certain angst about Indonesia’s future six years after the end of Suharto’s rule.17

In 2001, the Square appointed a new general manager, Tay Swee Lin, a former curator at the Singapore Art Museum. She has been credited for developing Sculpture Square’s artistic reputation, citing the anniversary shows during her tenure from 2002 to 2007 and her realisation of Sabapathy’s wish for artist residencies. The artist residency programme was launched in 2003 and ran until 2012 when the Bureau programme replaced it. Tay also engaged in curatorial consultancy work for projects at places like CityLink Mall, National Museum of Singapore and Changi Airport Terminal 3. The curatorial consultancy work became part of the Square’s activities and outlived both her tenure there as well as the venue itself.18

It was during Tay’s tenure that the arts landscape changed in Singapore. The increasing number of arts groups and activities made funding more competitive, and funding for the Square fell in the mid-2000s. As a result, then chairman of the board, Richard Helfer, presented a new business plan in September 2006. The plan reduced the number of exhibition days to increase the amount of time the gallery could be rented out and further develop its curatorial consultancy business. Eventually, The Old Parliament House was appointed as the managing agent for Sculpture Square in 2008 and renovations to the buildings were done the following year to increase the gallery space in the second building. The old programming was retained, but a new component, “Emerging Curators Show”, was added. Two such shows were staged in 2011 and 2012.19

Another major shock was to come: In 2011, the National Arts Council (NAC) dropped Sculpture Square from its Major Grant Scheme.20 The Council said that Sculpture Square lacked artistic direction, and thereafter the latter reviewed its plans and positioning to focus on cultivating emerging artists. The Square then employed Alan Oei as its artistic director in August 2012. Oei’s direction was to “question and challenge the notion of sculpture in the contemporary”.21

With Oei at the helm, the Square’s programming was totally changed. New programmes such as Bureau, Iconoclast and Social Milieu were implemented.22 For instance, the Social Milieu programme, Ghost: The Body at the Turn of the Century, curated by Oei,23 looked at local representations of the human body and the relationship of those representations with the state. The show’s highlight was Loo Zihan’s documentary installation about the December 1999 performance by Josef Ng at the Artists’ General Assembly.24 The drastic overhaul had its desired effect: Sculpture Square was reinstated to NAC’s Major Grant Scheme in April 2014.25

However, just a few months later, Helfer announced that the board had decided to vacate the premises to concentrate on curatorial consultancy.26 On 8 August 2014, Sculpture Square closed its doors with a final exhibition, Postcards from the Future, in August 2014.27 At the time, Sculpture Square had two ongoing curatorial consultancy projects: one with Farrer Park Company to curate an art collection of more than 700 works, and the other with Seagate Technologies.28

During its existence, the venue featured several exhibitions every year, at times having more than one a month. Helfer, in his prologue to Sculpture Square’s commemorative book, Sculpture Square: Re:Defining Space, said that there were “over 4,000 days of exhibitions and events”. The highest visitorship was reported to be 15,200 in 2005.29

Sculpture Square building
In 1996, NAC’s Arts Housing Scheme allocated two formerly disused buildings to Sculpture Square.30 The abandoned church building that Sun had proposed was one of these, while the other was a former two-storey hotel located next to the church building. NAC provided additional aid to the project by subsidising the costs involved in refurbishing the venue.31 The remaining costs were paid for through donations from private donors and organisations such as the Real Estate Developers’ Association of Singapore, Shaw Foundation and the Lee Foundation.32

The church building, which was marked a historic site by the National Heritage Board in 2000, is said to be one of the few remaining examples of gothic architecture in Singapore.33 With a rich history spanning over 130 years, the building has served at various times as the former Middle Road Church, Baba Malay Methodist Church, Methodist Girls’ School, May Blossom Restaurant during the Japanese Occupation, and even as as a car workshop in the 1980s.34

The church building housed Sculpture Square’s main 174-square-metre Chapel Gallery, while the adjacent two-storey building contained the main office, a smaller gallery and was also used as storage space.35 The latter was renovated in 2009 to create four galleries, a studio and a research library in addition to the administrative office.36 The courtyard between the two buildings was frequently used for outdoor activities such as the annual Sculpture Carnival.37 A small restaurant was also situated at the courtyard; the rental of this space provided Sculpture Square with a source of income.38 The exhibition spaces at Sculpture Square did not just host programmes by Sculpture Square but was also open for rental at subsidised rates to artists and art groups as well as corporate entities.39



Authors

Hong Xinying & Timothy Pwee



References
1. Sun Yu-li and Hong Bei Yu, From a Dot: Journey of Sun Yu-li (Singapore: ArtBeatz Pte Ltd, 2014), 60. (Call no. RSING 730.92 SUN)
2. Parvathi Nayar, “From Rat-Trap to Art Venue,” Business Times, 22 October 1999, 27. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Clarissa Oon, “A Square Deal for Sculpture at Last,” Straits Times, 19 November 1998, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Nayar, “Rat-Trap to Art Venue.” 
5. Nayar, “Rat-Trap to Art Venue.” 
6. Phan Ming Yen and Siow Yu-Ming, Sculpture Square: Re:Defining Space (Singapore: Sculpture Square Limited, 2014), 23. (Call no. RSING 730.605957 PHA)
7. Phan and Siow, Defining Space, 26; “Encounters in the Third Dimension,” Straits Times, 7 June 1999, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
8. “Encounters in the Third Dimension.”
9. Phan and Siow, Defining Space, 10, 133, 134.
10. Sian E. Jay, “Tribute to the Spirit and the Female Figure,” Straits Times, 14 June 1999, 5; Parvathi Nayar, “An Interesting Way to Interact with 3-D Art,” Business Times, 23 July 1999, 26. (From NewspaperSG); Phan and Siow, Defining Space, 26.
11. Sian E. Jay, “Facing Up to Artistic Space,” Straits Times, 2 November 1999, 7 (From NewspaperSG); Phan and Siow, Defining Space, 21.
12. Sian, “Facing Up to Artistic Space.”
13. Sian E. Jay, “See 3D in Sculpture Square,” Straits Times, 22 September 2000, 10 (From NewspaperSG); Phan and Siow, Defining Space, 36.
14. Sian, “See 3D in Sculpture Square”; Sian E. Jay, “A Peek at Issues from Next Door,” Straits Times, 22 September 2000, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Phan and Siow, Defining Space, 34, 86–87.
16. Rachel Farmay Jacques, “Reformasi: Contemporary Indonesian Artists Post-1998, Sculpture Square,” Business Times, 23 July 2004, 21. (From NewspaperSG)
17. K. Vaswani, “Indonesian Artists Speak Out,” Asian Wall Street Journal, 2 July 2004. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
18. Phan and Siow, Defining Space, 39–40, 103, 107, 148.
19. Phan and Siow, Defining Space, 41, 44, 46–49, 51, 55, 72, 117.
20. Corrie Tan, “Council to Give Arts Funding 25% Boost,” Straits Times, 31 March 2011. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Phan and Siow, Defining Space, 59–63, 67.
22. Mayo Martin, “Sculpture Square Moves Out of the Box,” Today, 15 August 2013, 60. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Huang Lijie, “Body Parts Haunt Ghost,” Straits Times, 30 October 2013, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Mayo Martin, “Ghost Story,” Today, 19 December 2013, 72. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Corrie Tan, “Local Arts groups to Get $12.7m,” Straits Times, 1 April 2014, 9 (From NewspaperSG); Phan and Siow, Defining Space, 74.
26. Huang Lijie, “Sculpture Square Exits Middle Road,” Straits Times, 5 August 2014, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Phan and Siow, Defining Space, 12.
28. Cheah Ui-Hoon, “500 Original Artworks for New Hotel and Hospital,” Business Times, 20 June 2014, 28 (From NewspaperSG); Richard C. Helfer, ed., Art Lifestyle Environment: The Farrer Park Company Art Collection (Singapore: One Farrer Private Limited, 2016), 6 (Call no. RSING 709.5957 ART); Phan and Siow, Defining Space, 148.
29. Phan and Siow, Defining Space, 4, 27, 38, 48, 70, 90.
30. Phan and Siow, Defining Space, 18–20.
31. Sandi Tan, “Centre for Three-Dimensional Art to Open Mid Next Year,” Straits Times, 1 April 1996, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
32. Phan and Siow, Defining Space, 22.
33. Ginnie Teo, “Sculptors Shape Up to Bring 3-D Art to All,” Straits Times, 24 May 2003, 14; Leong Weng Kam, “Church to Car Workshop... to Historic Site,” Straits Times, 27 January 2000, 53. (From NewspaperSG)
34. Leong, Church to Car Workshop”; Phan and Siow, Defining Space, 30–31.
35. Clara Chow, “Building on Dreams,” Straits Times, 30 November 2004, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Teo, “Sculptors Shape Up”; Phan and Siow, Defining Space, 48.
36. Phan and Siow, Defining Space, 55.
37. Phan and Siow, Defining Space, 113.
38. Tan Su Yen, “A Refined, Restful Place,” Business Times, 27 August 1999, 32; Wong Ah Yoke, Wong, “The Secret’s Now Out,” Straits Times, 15 August 2004, 32; Rebecca Lynn Tan, “Young F&B Turks,” Straits Times, 10 October 2010, 24 (From NewspaperSG); Phan and Siow, Defining Space, 47.
39. Tan, “Centre for Three-Dimensional Art”; Phan and Siow, Defining Space, 46, 48, 66.



Further resources
Richard C. Helfer, ed., Art Lifestyle Environment: The Farrer Park Company Art Collection (Singapore: One Farrer Private Limited, 2016). (Call no. RSING 709.5957 ART)

R. Jacques, “Oblique Shadows: Asian Influences in Australian Sculpture: 10 Nov to 31 Dec, Sculpture Square,” Esplanade the Arts Magazine (March–April 2001), 76. (Call no. RSING 791.095957 E)

R. Jacques, “Fluid Forms: Tan Teng Kee in an Overview, 1958–2000 at Sculpture Square, 14 Sep to 28 Oct,” Esplanade the Arts Magazine (September–October 2001), 46–47. (Call no. RSING 791.095957 E)

Sculpture Square Limited, Women Beyond Borders: Singapore: Sculpture (Singapore: Sculpture Square Limited, 2001), 7. (Call no. RSING 730.95957 WOM)

Sculpture Square Limited, The Lost City of Monadnock: 3 September 2005 to 23 October 2005 (Singapore: Sculpture Square Limited, 2005). (Call no. RSING 730.95957 WOM)

Sculpture Square Limited, Molecule Mountain: An Exhibition of Selected Works from Sculpture Carnival 2007, 9 September–21 October (Singapore: Sculpture Square Limited, 2007). (Call no. RSING 730.95957 WOM)



The information in this article is valid as of 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic. 







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