Kudos to the National Arts Council (NAC) and its Director (Strategic Planning) Kenneth Kwok for organising the “Inaugural Sharing and Networking Session on Arts & Culture Research in Singapore” that will be held next week.  It is open to artists, academics and arts researchers “to share their research findings on arts in Singapore, as well as to address the challenges of arts research in Singapore”. One thing to look forward to is the possible headline speakerProfessor Kwok Kian Woon, one of our best brains and a person with integrity, honesty, and deep links to the arts (including being on the NAC Council).

The event is a great idea.

The first reason is that the NAC commissions quite a bit of research either through its research grant or directly through one of its operational units such as Arts Engagement. (The Institute of Policy Studies has been funded for research under both schemes.)  A check with the government procurement portal GeBiz shows that NAC commissioned six studies (mostly surveys) in the six-month period up till January 2017.  Some research is published here, but many appear not to be. I know of two recent ones that have not been made public. So I am glad some of the research will be disclosed at the upcoming event.

And this is linked to the second reason why the “sharing and networking session” is a long overdue:  It will allow for the airing some of the critical issues surrounding the conditions of doing research for the NAC.

These include:

  1. Openness and transparency. The NAC’s default position on all research it commissions (indeed undertakes) should be to put the results in the public domain. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The only reason that the government might withhold information and knowledge is because of national security. Since the domain is  cultural rather than, say, defence, security or policy, I don’t see the NAC having to apply this rule. The reality is that the default for the NAC is to not release research findings. Hence, precious little research gets shared, discussed and made use of by arts groups, arts businesses and academics.
  2. Ability to take criticism and willingness to hear what you do not want to hear. Research findings can serve to confirm your hunches, or pat yourself on the back if it shows that all is well. But research findings that tell you what is wrong (specifically what you are doing or have done wrong) and what you are not hoping to hear (for instance, that your policy is not working or that your assumptions are unfounded) – are equally if not more useful. Indeed, one should expect to find (especially in complex policy areas like that of cultural policy) some short-comings or unexpected and undesired effects in every area.  In most reports there will be some good, perhaps mostly good, and at least some bad.
  3. Access to data. Researchers need access to information that NAC has to make their work better. But at times, NAC has been head-scratchingly unforthcoming with helping the researcher that it has commissioned.

I am not sure if I have left out any issues – let me know if I have. I am also not sure how general the above three problems are (for the very reason of the lack of openness and transparency).

I have faced some of the three issues when I did cultural policy research for the ministry that the NAC is part of, then the Ministry for Information, Communications and the Arts and now the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth. Indeed, the problem is government-wide: thin-skinness and an unwillingness to hear challenges to their world view.

I hope that all researchers, especially the new ones, deal with all three issues upfront, difficult as it might be. I know that insisting on openness and access holds the danger of not being given the research project. But it should at least be raised as a possibility, if not insisted on as a necessity on the chance that they might agree.

I also know that being “difficult” and  writing the full truth in the reports might mean locking yourself out of future grants, a worry for independent researchers especially. But my fear is that the less scrupulous researchers might even “massage the message” or even hide unwelcome findings in their reports to please their paymasters. I hope not. Fortunately, I myself have not had a commissioning agency telling me to be less than completely truthful. They have been very unhappy with what I have reported, but that is a different matter.

The future of the arts depends on us researchers telling the truth (sermon alert here). Of course, we should do it in as nice a way as we can, in the same manner that a doctor who delivers bitter but necessary medicine should.

I think that things have improved somewhat in the NAC. Of late, for instance, some NAC officers have been admirably ready to face scrutiny, coming to speak at events that I have organised where artists and others have given them strong criticisms of policy. This is to be applauded.

Also, look at some of the people who are running the departments or units that make or implement policy. We can see some new thinking. Let’s hope that it is infectious. We even find some artists or arts lovers among them. It is not that artists and arts lovers are better people or sharper thinkers;not by any means for this government is run by some seriously brightest people. But at least the artistadministrators know enough about the arts. That is, they would not be spending the first part of their tenure mastering the domain (attending school, as it were).  And at least most of them really care about the arts. Unfortunately, they are inheritors of a system not of their own devising. But this does not mean change, however slow, cannot happen.We on the outside can help give things a little nudge.

PS: Here is the line-up of panelists:
Session on Academic Research on the Arts in Singapore
•         Creative Place Making  (Speaker: Dr Cho Im Sik)
•         Arts Management and Cultural Policy  (Speaker: Ms Audrey Wong)
•         Arts Education (Speaker: Dr Charlene Rajendren)

Session on Arts and Practice Based Research in Singapore
•         Theatre (Speaker: Mr Kok Heng Leun)
•         Music (Speaker: A/P Eugene Dairianathan)
•         Visual Arts (Speaker: Prof Ute Bauer)
•         Dance (Speaker: Dr Stephanie Burridge)
•         Traditional Arts (Speaker: Ms Nirmala Seshadri)