So You Wanna Be An Independent Art Curator in Singapore?

By Syed Muhammad Hafiz

(1,000 words, 3-minute read) 

For the uninitiated, art curators are a mysterious bunch. Even scary, sometimes. Usually associated with big, stuffy museums, they speak a particular language that only they would recognise, and write essays that would require you to have a dictionary on hand.

Fortunately, most of those stereotypes are fast becoming dated. However, there are still certain perceptions of curators that have either become entrenched in our minds, or have spawned countless memes online. Now, everyone and their Instagram friend is a curator, or think it’s cool to be one. With the proliferation of degrees in curating, aspiring curators are spoilt for choice – that’s if they subscribe to the idea that a degree will get them a foot in the industry. 

Having had my fair share of both institutional and independent curating gigs, I think it can be bewildering for those who are thinking of dipping their toe into the world of curating. The independent scene here in Singapore, with its promise of curatorial ‘freedom’, can even be disappointing.

This list is written with tongue firmly in cheek, from someone who has “been through it all”. A word of warning to all who proceed!

To Aspiring Independent Curators:

Starting Out

1. So you want to be an independent curator? Nice. You will probably start off curating for your artist friends because it’s more fun and meaningful when you help your friends. Plus, you know about their practice more than any other curator. The real test (for yourself at least) is whether you move on from that. You don’t want to be accused of being biased, right?

2. There are curators and then there are artist-curators. The benefit of the latter is that they can choose to include their own artworks in their curated shows. Who says you can’t have your cake and eat it too? 

3. You will find yourself on social media a lot more because most of the art world is on Instagram. Like it or not, Instagram is the LinkedIn of the art world. That’s how we select artists for our group shows these days, don’t we?

4. For some galleries who are inclined to have a curated show, that usually just means getting someone to write an extended essay for the show. Sometimes, the artist(s) and artwork(s) have already been decided. Don’t take it too hard. 

5. If you can’t seem to get a foothold in the local art scene, start something – a space or a collective. Somehow a collective seems more legit than an individual, what more if you have a space. You can always curate your own shows, on your own terms. 

(Re)defining Success

6. If you’re an independent curator, the only way to be ‘critically acclaimed’ or have museum curators come to visit your show is to do shows in non-conventional spaces, i.e. not commercial galleries. If nothing is sold from your show, even better.

7. If you curate for commercial or private galleries, your practice is not ‘critical’. You’re just a ‘commercial’ curator. It will be worse for you if the show is sold out or commercially successful.

8. Sometimes a successful independent curator is judged based on the artists that they work with. The inclusion of established or famous artists in an exhibition often suggests that the curator has clout. The relationship between artists and curators have always been symbiotic, but sometimes it is also driven by personal gains i.e. artist dependent on the curator or vice versa. There is definitely the dynamics of power at play. And with these dynamics present, it goes without saying that some artists won’t work with you because they have their preferred curators.

9. Since independent curators don’t get gigs all the time, they have to juggle many things to sustain themselves, including teaching part-time, and that’s alright. We all have bills to pay! But be prepared that your independent curatorial practice might not quite cut it with the programme leaders and the HR department. They will still look to that meagre institutional affiliation you had, even though policymakers and educators always talk about the various stakeholders within the arts ecosystem.

10. Ironically, success for an independent curator in Singapore might mean getting that rare invitation to curate shows for an institution or be part of curatorial forums or talks organised by institutions. You can then play the non-institutional curator role, emphasising how you do things differently because you are ‘different’ by default.

Acknowledging Reality

11. But for the most part, don’t bother waiting to be invited for curatorial forums, conferences or writing for publications on curating. Those are the domain of professional, salaried museum curators.

12. A plus point: you will be cool to your regional art friends, and you can seek solidarity with them because most of the regional art scene revolves around independent, non-government initiatives. And you’ll get invitations to THEIR forums or talks! You will have an extra edge because like it or not, we can’t ignore the regional networks if we’re talking about curatorial practice.

13. You will realise that a large part of your practice revolves around fundraising and project management (i.e. balancing NAC budget sheets and installing works with artists). By the time you get to talking about the show, you’d be like “wtf, I need to sleep!”

14. Let’s face it, at the end of the day, no one is really independent (yes, all you NAC- and SAW-funded applicants). In an art scene like Singapore’s, it’s a challenge to be truly independent. Unless you really do a show in your own room or your parents’ place. 

15. The reality is, the time will come when you might be inclined to join an institution because of a number of factors: the monthly salary is just too good to reject, the institutional recognition and networks will make you feel better (almost like a validation of your curatorial existence), or simply more resources. You might feel that you are better able to achieve your curatorial agendas – that is, until you feel jaded with the bureaucracy or office politics, after which you might start plotting your independent path again.


Someone Who Used To Be You

Syed Muhammad Hafiz spent a year at Singapore Art Museum and 6 years at National Gallery Singapore before leaving to pursue his PhD studies. He has been curating independently on and off since 2009, besides juggling many other gigs in between. His greatest challenge so far, has been to get his two young children to shower and sleep on time every night. 

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