[Singapore Biennale '11] Bye Bye Biennale, Again
Hmmm. It seems as if controversy is stalking this year’s Singapore Biennale every turn of the way. Some two weeks after the event ended, questions about its dubious visitorship claims are still being floated in the media.
The following article, which appeared in The Straits Times today (26 May), builds on an earlier piece.
The difference ? The skepticism is now full-blown and undisguised.
Good for ‘em.
MEASURING THE BIENNALE
The art show drew more than 900,000 visitors, but the bulk of them viewed two free exhibits. So is it considered a success? By Adeline Chia.
Hollywood blockbusters are not the only ones in the business of chasing eyeballs. Arts programming is also pulling out all the stops to boost audienceship.
Take the recently concluded Singapore Biennale, which drew a record number of more than 900,000 visitors during the two-month run of the contemporary art show. This tops the 502,200 visitors that the second edition drew in 2008, and exceeds the inaugural edition’s 883,300 visitors.
On paper, this year’s Biennale should be considered a roaring success. But a closer look at the visitorship figure reveals that nearly 700,000 of the 900,000 visitors were “outdoor” visitors.
This means they went to Cambodian artist Sopheap Pich’s installation in the National Museum’s Rotunda, and to the Merlion Hotel installation at Marina Bay by Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi, but did not enter it.
These works were free exhibits and were installed in public spaces where there was heavy pedestrian traffic. They comprised only two out of the 161 artworks shown throughout the visual arts event.
In contrast, the number of people who went to the Biennale venues of the Singapore Art Museum, (SAM), National Museum of Singapore, Old Kallang Airport and inside the Merlion Hotel was about 196,000.
The Singapore Art Museum, which organised the event, declined to reveal the number of tickets sold.
To put the 900,000 figure in context, it exceeds the 743,647 visitors that went to the Singapore Art Museum for the whole of 2009.
It also beats the visitorship to the Venice Biennale, the oldest and most prestigious art show in the West, which drew 375,000 during its six-month run in 2009.
Going by the Singapore Biennale figure, about 700,000 people would have visited the outside of the Merlion Hotel or the National Museum’s Rotunda, making both places extremely busy and vibrant arts venues, with an average of about 11,700 visitors a day.
How did the Biennale organisers arrive at such a high visitorship number? The Singapore Art Museum says people who made “clear and deliberate eye contact” at the Merlion Hotel are counted. These included people who stopped to take pictures or to read the artwork description.
The counting was done manually by staff or volunteers who were station every day in the open space outside the hotel over one month. The figure was then used to estimate the outdoor visitorship for the exhibition period of two months.
At the National Museum’s Rotunda, visitorship was tracked by a computerised People Counting And Tracking System, a special sensor that is sued by major museums around the world.
But should the Biennale relook its method of estimating visitorship figures?
After all, what is the difference between an arts “visitor” and a passer-by who happens to glance in the direction of an artwork? This distinction is especially important when artworks are placed in busy public places.
In response to queries that the visitorship number seems inflated, a Singapore Art Museum spokesman says: “The overall figures are certainly not inflated. This can be attributed to the increased public outreach and community efforts by SAM.”
For example, it worked with grassroots organisations, which provided free bus rides to visitors, and with schools, which organised student trips.
The Biennale organisers also integrated its programming with existing shows at the museums to attract more visitors.
The spokesman said outdoor visitor figures act as a gauge of the public’s exposure to the event.
But the visitorship number also begs the question: How fair is it to use visitorship figures to assess the success of an arts event?
Clearly, numbers cannot tell the full story. They say nothing about the quality of the artworks or the subjective experiences of visitors.
No doubt, figures are important because they help to measure the reach and impact of an event.
Arts Nominated MP Audrey Wong, who used to be artistic director at the Substation arts venue, syas that while attendance figures may be a limited part of the story, they are a significant part.
She says: “If your attendance is 40 per cent, that’s not good. In the end, artists want an audience. They want to communicate to people.”
Attendance is especially important because many arts programmes are funded by public money and such spending has to be accounted for. No one wants to pay for a festival that nobody is watching.
If an event is doing consistently badly at the box office, funding for it may be cut. The result may well be a smaller Singapore Arts Festival or Biennale in future. Or the direction of a festival may be changed to take on a more populist slant, to attract more visitors.
Even if an event is privately sponsored, sponsors would want bang for their buck.
Take the Singapore M1 Fringe Festival, which is supported by the telco company. The arts festival, which typically runs in January and features emerging artists, is organised by The Necessary Stage.
Ms Melissa Lim, the theatre company’s general manager, says “attendance and ticket sales will always be important to our sponsors because they represent the market outreach for their sponsorship dollars.”
But even if numbers are the easiest and most direct way to measure the impact of an event, an over-reliance on figures may start a meaningless numbers game.
In a bid to justify funding, arts managers may need to top each year’s performance with even higher attendance numbers to satisfy their bean-counting paymasters.
As the Singapore Arts Festival general manager Low Kee Hong puts it, it is a “vicious circle”.
“If you’re busy chasing numbers, you’re stuck in a rut,” he adds.
He should know. After he took over the running of the annual festival in 2009, the attendance figures for the arts festival released by the National Arts Council fell drastically compared to previous years.
Last year, the council said 80,800 people attended the Singapore Arts Festival. It is a far cry from 2009’s 800,000 and 2008’s 600,000.
This was because the festival stopped counting complimentary tickets given out and also took care to exclude passers-by when a free event was taking place outdoors. Instead, the organisers counted people who registered their names or took a goodie bag.
The resultant figure, Mr Low says, is a more meaningful one.
He says attendance figures tell only “10 to 20 per cent of the full story of the festival’s impact”.
“It is not a qualitative understanding. You don’t gain any insights as to what is going on in people’s heads, how they are processing the festival,” he says.
He is looking to “softer” measurements such as feedback forms, post-festival focus group studies and what people share with him informally.
Are these measurements enough to satisfy the bureaucrats who need to meet performance targets and who want hard figures? Mr Low says he sees “the beginnings of change”.
He adds: “We need to understand it’s more than just numbers. As civil servants, we need to grow and mature in the way we measure success.
“If internally, people don’t see the value of the things I do, then there is no way I can say 80,000 people attended the first edition, right?”
The Necessary Stage’s Ms Lim says counting is “more of an art than a science”.
It is especially difficult for outdoor performances and artworks. For example, in the Esplanade Tunnel, where the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival has art exhibitions, a volunteer is stationed there for a day to count the number of people looking at the artwork. The number is then multiplied by the number of days that the festival lasts.
It is not a scientific method, but these ar eth realisties of such calculations, Ms Lim says.
The Hong Kong Arts Festival has a simple solution: It counts only what is directly quantifiable, such as the number of tickets sold and the number of underprivileged children sponsored to go to a performance.
Over at the Sydney Festival, the largest arts festival in Australia, it measures attendance figures, both ticketed and unticketed, as well as the revenue generated by the festival.
For non-ticketed attendance, it relies on an external government agency that makes estimates by observing how many times a public space, whose capacity is known, is filled over the course of an evening.
This year, the festival also commissioned an external body which estimated that the event contributed around A$50.2 million (S$66 million) to the New South Wales economy.
This is calculated from visitor expenditure and the demand for goods and services in other industries, such as restaurants, hotels and shops.
That is another way of measurement, but as Ms Wong points out, “the emphasis may switch back to economics to justify spending on the arts”.
The more important question, she thinks, is measuring the quality of the visitor’s experience.
“In evaluating the arts in Singapore, we haven’t come up with a proper method of qualitative analysis,” she says, adding that the problem is faced by many other arts councils in the world.
But a fuller picture can emerge from using a variety of measures, she says, such as by counting, one-by-one interviews with attendees, focus group studies and, for big events, measuring the economic impact.
As the Singapore Arts Festival’s Mr Low says: “It’s clear that you cannot depend on absolute numbers alone. I’m not saying abandon the numbers, but beef up the other aspects as well.”