Courtesy of Arts House Limited

Our Cultural Medallion Story: 3 ways to explore this showcase of Singapore artists

A new interactive showcase is shining the spotlight on the 130 artists who have been conferred the Cultural Medallion, Singapore’s highest accolade for the arts. Titled Our Cultural Medallion Story, the exhibition consists of a physical exhibition–with artefacts, write-ups, books and multimedia componentsand a companion website, which introduces the public to these renowned artists from all genres of the arts, and makes the documentation of their practices more accessible. The exhibition was launched on 26 November 2021, after first being announced in Parliament back in March.

Initiated in 1979, the Cultural Medallion is the most prestigious award for Singapore artists. From experimental pianist Dr Margaret Leng Tan to classical Indian dancer Santha Bhaskar, theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun to master ceramist Iskandar Jalil , the award is conferred to the most established and distinguished artists whose contributions and commitment to the arts have enriched the arts landscape. Today, the award is presented by none other than Singapore’s President – an important recognition of the symbolic value of the arts to the country.

The physical exhibition spreads across a gallery space on the ground floor of The Arts House. With 130 artists to get to know, one may not know where to start, so here are three recommended routes to help you make the most of your journey:

Our Cultural Medallion Story: The Discovery Route

For The Arts Enthusiast

Do you know some of the Cultural Medallion artists, but less so about others? Get to know the artists who have played a monumental role in developing our local arts ecosystem.

Walking flow: Entrance > Digital Interactive Stations > Library

Start at the entrance, where there is a welcome video and a feature wall showcasing the photographs of all 130 artists who have received the Cultural Medallion award to date, from visual artists to writers, musicians, theatremakers and more. Flipping any circular panel with a recipient’s picture will reveal the artist’s name and the year they received the award. (My editor says it’s very “Vanna White in Wheel of Fortune”.)

The Feature Wall. Photo: Janice Yap
The Feature Wall. Image courtesy of Arts House Limited

While you are here, try to identify one or two artists you want to find out more about. Look around – are there any faces you know? Any portraits that intrigue you? You might also recognise some faces that were featured in the welcome video. Feeling lucky? Pick a random portrait and start there – you might be surprised by what you learn.

Once you have some names in mind, head over to the Digital Interactive Stations located at the back of the gallery to browse the extensive archival documentation of the Cultural Medallion artists and their artistic achievements. Type in the name of an artist and you will be able to view a brief write-up about them and selected newspaper clippings, along with artist videos and artwork images for some artists. This gives you a broad overview of the artist’s unique practice as well as an idea of where they were in their careers when they received the Cultural Medallion award.

Digital Interactive Stations. Photo: Janice Yap

As an arts lover, you may end up wanting to go even deeper. If so, we highly recommend the delightful Library section located in the middle of the showcase. Sit back on an armchair and take your time to browse the books which have been curated to accompany the exhibition. Find a book that you really like? You can borrow it from most public libraries across Singapore.

The Library. Image courtesy of Arts House Limited
Did you know?

There are a number of Cultural Medallion recipients who are affiliated in some way, such as (year awarded the Cultural Medallion in brackets):

  • Kuo Pao Kun (1989) and Goh Lay Kuan (1995), husband and wife
  • Goh Soo Khim (1981) and Goh Choo San (1986), sister and brother
  • Asiah Aman (2016) and Iskandar Mirza Ismail (2008), mother and son
  • Chia Hwee Pheng (2008) and Chia Joo Ming (2021), brothers
  • Paul Abisheganaden (1986) and Alexander S. Abisheganaden (1988), brothers
  • Alvin Tan (2014) and Haresh Sharma (2015), co-founders of theatre company The Necessary Stage

Learn about their individual art practices and contemplate how they may have influenced each other’s development in the arts.

Our Cultural Medallion Story: The Experiential Route

For The Weekend Warrior

Are you hanging out with friends, or bringing your children out for a fun day in the city? This route highlights the interactive and fun features of the showcase.

Walking flow: Entrance > Watch Digital Feature Videos > View the Coin, Lapel pin & Certificate > Cultural Medallion Award Videos > Play the Digital Interactive Quiz > Check-Out Kiosk and Photo Wall

Start by collecting your Near-Field Communication (NFC) token at the entrance, which you can use throughout the showcase. The welcome video also employs moving screens that shift throughout the video, which can be quite a sight.

Check-In Kiosk and NFC token. Photo: Janice Yap
Digital Feature Videos. Image courtesy of Arts House Limited

Enter the main gallery space and head for the next pitstop: the display with the Cultural Medallion coin, lapel pin and certificate

The Cultural Medallion coin, lapel pin and certificate. Photo: Janice Yap

Now that you’re in the main gallery space, it’s time to look for the exhibits that you can interact with your trusty NFC token. This includes the Cultural Medallion Award Videos, which feature over 40 interviews with past Cultural Medallion recipients. You can even vote for the videos you liked the most. Enjoy trivia? Head to the back of the gallery and try the Digital Interactive Quiz. This trivia game allows you to learn about selected Cultural Medallion artists through play.

Finally, remember to head to the Check-Out Kiosk to return your NFC token. The kiosk will also give you an ‘Art-inerary’ with suggested activities on what to explore next. Before you leave, take a photo at the Photo Wall featuring the Cultural Medallion as a keepsake to remember your visit.

Did you know?

This is the first time that the Cultural Medallion coin and lapel pin are made available for the public to see, so take a good long look! We wouldn’t otherwise know how the coin or lapel pin looks up-close, unless we become the next Cultural Medallion recipient (haha).

Our Cultural Medallion Story: The Timeline Route

For The Cultural Policy Nerd

Here’s a fun secret adventure: track the development of cultural policy and arts governance in Singapore over the years as it coincides with and impacts the Cultural Medallion awards. 

Walking flow: View Cultural Medallion Milestones and Award Photographs, starting from the panel on Mr Ong Teng Cheong > 1979 & 1980 > 1981 onwards

Start your visit with the exhibition panel that features an excerpt of a speech by the late President Mr Ong Teng Cheong and then head to the beginning of the Milestones section (1979-1980) located a few steps away. These two panels explain how the Cultural Medallion award was originally initiated by Mr Ong, who was then our Minister of Culture! 

The timeline also features visual documentation, including photographs that have not been readily accessible to the public till now, such as a photo of the very first Cultural Medallion presentation ceremony held at the DBS Auditorium in 1980. These photographs provide vital glimpses of the evolution of the award as well as our changing cultural landscape over the years. 

Credit: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore
Credit: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

Once done, head further into the gallery to view milestones after 1981 (1981-present). This section will show you how the award has evolved in the context of broader events in cultural policy and arts governance after it was first instituted. 

Milestones Timeline. Image courtesy of Arts House Limited

Any policy nerd worth their salt will recognise the key cultural policy documents that have been vital to the development of our arts landscape in Singapore – from the 1989 Report of the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts (ACCA) to the Renaissance City Plans of the 2000s. The timeline features interesting information about how such documents, as part of cultural policy, have impacted the Cultural Medallion experience.

For example, the first Renaissance City Plan in 2000 saw the allocation of funding support of SGD1 million by the National Arts Council for Cultural Medallion winners. This resulted in the introduction of the Cultural Medallion Fund in 2001, which allowed recipients to access funds of up to SGD50,000 to support their projects. To further achieve the Renaissance City Plans’ goal of transforming Singapore into a ‘Global City for the Arts’, this was raised to SGD80,000 in 2007, to further enable artists to raise their profile locally and overseas.

As an arts management student, the timeline helped me draw links between how changes in cultural policy can affect the Cultural Medallion award and the arts at large. The timeline is also meant to be refreshed as more artists are awarded the Cultural Medallion in the coming years – so do keep visiting for updates! 

Did you know?

The responsibility of administering the Cultural Medallion award has undergone changes through the years. 

For instance, in 1979, the arts and culture portfolio (including the Cultural Medallion award) was administered by the Ministry of Culture. In 1985, the Ministry of Culture was dissolved and the duty of administering the Cultural Medallion was handed over to the Ministry of Community Development. More revisions have happened since – try to find out which other Ministry administered the Cultural Medallion before the responsibility was handed over to the National Arts Council (which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year!).

Concluding thoughts 

Overall, this was a fitting tribute to the generations of artists who have blazed a trail in the arts and committed their lives to pushing the boundaries of their artistic practice over the years. I also appreciated that archival material like photographs were used and contextualised in this showcase – a significant step forward in documenting our cultural history and making it publicly accessible in a meaningful way, hopefully inspiring future generations of artists and audiences.

Whichever route you take will lead you down a unique path, perhaps one that follows the footsteps of these cultural movers and makers. 

Special thanks to Assistant Professor Hoe Su Fern for her guidance, and Rachel Lin for identifying the relationship pairings between some of the Cultural Medallion artists.

Our Cultural Medallion Story is located at The Arts House, Level 1. Admission is free, and the gallery is open from 10am to 7pm daily. For more information, click here

This content is sponsored by Arts House Limited. The money earned from paid advertising goes towards covering ArtsEquator’s running costs and paying our writers and content creators. We have a strict policy regarding which content which can and cannot be sponsored. To read more about our editorial policy, please go here.

About the author(s)

Janice Yap is an aspiring arts manager currently enrolled in the Arts and Culture Management (ACM) Programme at Singapore Management University.

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