In 1989, the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts, chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheong, produced a report assessing the status of various aspects of arts in Singapore. The report would form the blueprint for cultural policy in Singapore, and led to the establishment of the National Arts Council and National Heritage Board to spearhead the development of arts in Singapore.
In 1991, the National Arts Council (NAC) was formed from the amalgamation of the Singapore Cultural Foundation, Cultural Division of Ministry of Community Development, Festival of Arts Secretariat and the National Theatre Trust.
The NAC is made up of the following sectors and departments: Performing Arts, Visual Arts, Literary Arts, Arts & Community, Arts & Youth, Arts Education, Capability Development, Strategic Planning and Precinct Development. They are supported by the Human Resources, Corporate Communications and Marketing Services and the Finance department to implement strategies and programmes to better the art scene in Singapore.
The NAC adopted an arts cluster development approach starting from 15 April 2004. This project was led by a dedicated team of officers championing the performing, visual and literary art forms. This new approach enabled the Council to develop all its various art forms in a holistic manner by working through the entire value chain, nurturing and developing artists, arts groups and arts businesses, to providing international stages for Singaporean artists to showcase their talents. This new plan also helps enhance the relationship within the arts community, where artists and arts groups become partners, implementing the cluster development plan.
In line with the NAC’s goal of developing lifelong arts participation, the Council works closely with other agencies to bring arts to the wider public using community platforms, such as the community centres, public libraries and communal spaces found in the heartlands. One of the key initiatives was the development of the District Arts Festivals across all five Community Development Councils (CDCs) to showcase community talents and to raise the level of arts engagement amongst the general public.
In order to help develop Singapore's young art talents and organisations, the NAC has set up schemes to provide them with financial and non-financial assistance at all levels of participation. These schemes include 2-year and as well as annual grant to provide funding to major arts companies as well as various project grants, which also assist in the production and presentation of artistic work and activities. In order for the council to promote Singapore arts overseas, International Development Grants' are available to artists and arts companies for touring, collaboration and marketing.
In order to create more demand for the arts in Singapore, the NAC has supported a range of programmes that cut across various art forms, as well as reaching out to the community. Some of these programmes are:Arts For All - a Community Engagement Plan initiated in 2008 to broaden and deepen arts experience and appreciation in the community as well as to enliven community spaces through sustained access to quality arts.
National Arts Council - Arts Education Programme (NAC-AEP) - an initiative that advocates the value and importance of arts education and appreciation among the young in schools. It connects the arts community with the education sector and supports the professional development of artists.
To further develop and identify potential artistic talents, the NAC also organises competitions to enable artists in Singapore to enhance their performing, literary and musical skills. Some of these competitions include:National Piano and Violin Competition
National Chinese Music Competition
National Indian Music Competition
Golden Point Award
The NAC also organises several flagship art events in Singapore. They are:Singapore Arts Festival - an annual signature event that sees a broad and inclusive programme ranging from premier classics to contemporary creations. It is also a national platform for Singaporeans to engage in the arts. In June 2012, the Arts Festival was put under review. In May 2013, after recommendations made by the Singapore Arts Festival Review Committee, the National Arts Council announced the formation of Arts Festival Limited, a new arts company set up to organise and manage the Singapore Arts Festival. The Council is currently in the process of setting up the company as a Company Limited by Guarantee governed by an independent Board.
Singapore Writers Festival - The annual festival aims to showcase some of the world’s major literary talents to Singapore, as well as promoting new and emerging Singaporean and Asian writing to an international audience. It is a multi-lingual festival focusing on the official languages of Singapore – English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil.
Noise Singapore - this initiative is dedicated to making “noise” about the creative talent of young people aged 35 and below. Through numerous platforms to express, develop and showcase their creativity, Noise Singapore hopes to encourage young people in Singapore to actively participate and nurture their relationship with the arts, as well as get them spotted for their budding abilities. The programme will wrap up with a Festival Showcase, where the creative works of these young artists will be featured through a series of events and exhibitions.
Despite its goal "to nurture the arts", the NAC has censored Singapore arts through funding and other means consistently since its formation.
From 1994 to 2004, the NAC withdrew funding support for the scriptless art forms of performance art as well as forum theatre, effectively banning both mediums. This followed artist Josef Ng's 1994 performance Brother Cane, in which he bared his buttocks and trimmed his pubic hair to protest media coverage of an anti-gay operation in 1992.
In 2000, the NAC objected to theatre group Agni Kootthu's planned staging of Elangovan's play Talaq, a one-woman show about an Indian Muslim woman's divorce, which had already been staged twice. They suggested that Agni Kootthu arrange a preview of the play for selected persons so that their recommendations would help the Public Entertainment Licence Unit (PELU) to decide on the licence application. When PELU refused to grant a licence, the NAC supported the staging of the play subject to some changes being made. Agni Kootthu instead decided to hold an invitation-only rehearsal to document the play at the Drama Centre, which it had booked beforehand. NAC, as the Drama Centre's landlord, decided to close the Drama Centre on those days, resulting in a four-hour standoff when S. Thenmoli, president of Agni Kootthu, arrived. The then-Executive Director of NAC called the police and Thenmoli was arrested for alleged trespassing.
In the same year, the NAC withdrew funding of $8,000 from theatre group Drama Box's staging of The VaginaLogue, a one-woman show by Li Xie, because the group's artistic director Kok Heng Leun declined to take down a projected image of a vagina that was used as a backdrop. As a result, the group lost money on the production. Three years later, the NAC declined to fund Drama Box's re-staging of the same play.
In 2002, the NAC demanded that lines from Alfian Sa'at's play Causeway, staged by Teater Ekamatra, be removed due to its supposed incitement of cross-strait and racial tensions.
In 2003, the NAC withdrew its funding of the journal FOCAS: Focus on Contemporary Art and Society Vol. 5: Second FRONT three days before it went to print. The suspected reason was playwright-poet Alfian Sa'at's essays, “The Racist’s Apology”, about being an indigenous Malay in Singapore, and one on NAC's censorship in previous issues of the journal.
In 2006, the NAC informed an unnamed artist invited to the Singapore Biennale that he would need a lawyer for his project, and that he would be held responsible if anything should go wrong in the project. He was also told that he would not receive further support unless he had engaged a lawyer which was not possible as a lawyer would have required half of the budget given. The proposed work had intended to interview 5 individuals who have been active in the arts scene in Singapore and the video recording would be presented as a 5-hour long screening during the Singapore Biennale 2006. The work was not completed and presented at the Biennale.
In 2007, the NAC removed artist-writer Jason Wee's essay, "Raising the Subject", from the catalogue for "Raised", an art festival that was part of the Singapore Art Show 2007 which thematically focused on migrant labor, reportedly because it included references to Operation Spectrum.
In May 2010, the NAC cut the annual grant given to local theatre company W!LD RICE. It got $170,000, down from $190,000 the year before. It is the lowest annual grant that the company has received from the council. Artistic director Ivan Heng says the council told him funding was cut because its productions promoted alternative lifestyles, were critical of government policies and satirised political leaders. Veteran theatre company TheatreWorks also had its funding cut, from $310,000 to $280,000. Its artistic director Ong Keng Sen was told that the company had to have more "local presence".
In early 2011, the NAC revoked its publishing grant for playwright Chong Tze Chien's book Four Plays (Epigram Books) as it included the controversial and classic play Charged.
In late 2011, following a private preview, the Singapore Art Museum removed Japanese-British artist Simon Fujiwara’s work, Welcome to the Hotel Munber (2010), which featured homoerotic content, despite appropriate advisory notices put up by the museum and the Singapore Biennale, organised by the NAC. This censorship was committed without any consultation with or notification of the artist.
In May 2015, it withdrew $8,000 worth of funding after it deemed that the best-selling graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (Epigram Books) by Sonny Liew, which it had previously read in full in draft form and approved of, had "sensitive content" and the potential to "undermine the authority and legitimacy" of the government". This led to a heated debate between artists and the council.
From November to December 2015, NAC was involved in a fracas with local artists and academics after its CEO Kathy Lai and Chairman Chan Heng Chee argued for the need for and defended NAC's use of censorship. This prompted calls to boycott the NAC.