By Bala Starr
I’m writing in the weeks following the end of Singapore Art Week 2018, and the full schedule of exhibition tours and meetings with international museum, gallery and education professionals it marked at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore. The ICA Singapore is the curatorial division of Lasalle College of the Arts. Art Week’s many and various artists and visitors are reminders of the increasingly global context for our programme but also of the capricious field into which Lasalle fine arts graduates will emerge.
Since a visit to the Frankfurt Städelschule’s Portikus in 2004, and a meeting with then curator Jochen Volz, I had been interested to work closer to the intersection of contemporary art, curatorial practice and student learning. The Portikus model was non-didactic, offering opportunities for Städelschule visual arts and architecture students to propose guest speakers, and assist international artists to make commissioned projects, install exhibitions and produce art events. At the time of my visit, there was a plan to involve students in baking bread for a project by artists Pierre Huyghe and Rirkrit Tiravanija with art historian Pamela M Lee that explored the ‘anarchitecture’ of Gordon Matta-Clark. The exhibition component, In the belly of anarchitect, developed from a student workshop focused on art, cooking and architecture.
At that time I was working as a curator at the University of Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum of Art, enjoying relative curatorial independence and the sensation of dynamism that comes with a sizeable and unusually varied temporary exhibition programme. My team and others ran robust internship programmes but there was little other engagement with the university’s School of Creative Arts students and, in later years post-amalgamation, no artistic collaboration with Victorian College of the Arts students. The museum was designed as an impermeable concrete edifice and, more importantly, the institution’s curatorial and artistic activity rarely addressed the student body beyond its status as audience sector. Neither of these characteristics were unique to the University of Melbourne; in the same city, Monash’s art museum and RMIT’s gallery appeared to pursue similar thinking, albeit that their architecture is more accessible and connected to their campuses. Then, as now, the divide between ‘university art museum’ and ‘faculty (or student) gallery’, with all their hierarchy and history, was entrenched.
In taking up the position of director at Lasalle’s ICA Singapore in 2013, I was looking to get geographically closer to where new ideas around art and exhibition-making might develop. But I was also attracted to the idea of sharing an environment with a large population of art and design students, aware that this provides a clear focus and specialist audience, enabling more experimental processes and types of participation. The ICA Singapore is by necessity a gregarious unit with all types of demands on our resources. Our work extends beyond negotiating curatorial ambitions. We work with numerous artists, guest curators, with staff and students across two Lasalle campuses, with architects, designers and writers, and we engage professionally trained technical staff, researchers and gallery invigilators.
Our greatest asset is exhibition space, and that is therefore the major site for both our curatorial practice and our contribution to learning and teaching at Lasalle. Around 1300 square metres of space are organised across five glass-fronted galleries on two levels at Lasalle’s bold and spirited city campus. In the two largest galleries we present a programme of curated international exhibitions (the Kunsthalle model). Alongside these, in three smaller spaces, we present curriculum-related exhibitions or stand-alone projects produced with students, academic staff and alumni. The ICA Singapore curator who organises an innovative international exhibition, might in the next month organise an exhibition of work in collaboration with, say, students as young as sixteen in the Diploma of Fine Arts programme. In this way, we identify the curator’s specialist skills and perspective, including their role as mediator and communicator, as crucial to the circulation and exchange of new concepts and practices from international artist to student to artist to lecturer to student to artist and so on.
For the ICA Singapore’s experienced curators, the model of exhibition space (whether international or curriculum-related) as learning and teaching environment offers challenges and rewards. The high energy levels and creative risk associated with organising multi-stakeholder curriculum-related exhibitions alongside international exhibitions can obfuscate and diminish focus, especially when it comes to singular, longer-term research projects. But such a context also provides a sense of traction and purpose that is all the more important at a time when the global art world has never been more beholden to market forces, never apparently less interested in the intrinsic value of art; a time when the ethics of care, of learning, listening and art discourse, have never been more necessary.
Bala Starr is a director and curator of international contemporary art. Before taking up her position in 2013 as director at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, Lasalle College of the Arts, she was senior curator at the University of Melbourne's Ian Potter Museum of Art. Early experiences of working closely with emerging artists within studio and exhibition programmes are keystone influences in her curatorial practice. Recent exhibitions such as The world precedes the eye (2016), Marco Fusinato: Constellations (2015), Based on a true story: Geoff Lowe (1972–1992) and A Constructed World (1993–2012) (2013), and Post-planning (2012), negotiate relationships between artists' practices and discourse in a pan-Asian context. Throughout her career in art spaces and museums, Starr has advocated for intergenerational exchange by employing feminist strategies, and working collaboratively with independent curators.