A crowd gathered at NUS Museum on 24 January for the inaugural Critical Conversations panel discussion: Looking to The Past for The Future: Arts Festivals in Context. Devised as a method of stimulating ideas and conversation around the arts, the Critical Conversations series will add industry and academic discussion to the NUS Arts Festival each year.

Following a warm welcome by Festival Director, Ms Mary Loh, the audience was presented with new perspectives from invited guests on festival curation and the place of arts festivals in a modern context. Mr Venka Purushothaman, Vice-President (Academic) & Provost, LASALLE College of the Arts, argued that all modern arts festivals followed the format of either Scotland’s Edinburgh Festival or France’s Festival d'Avignon. Mr Purushothaman’s words took on a Foucauldian shine as he discussed modulating governmentalism in the management of arts festivals in Singapore.

In contrast, Mr Joe Sidek shared his experiences from behind the scenes, telling stories from his seven years as the Festival Director of Penang’s celebrated George Town Festival. He spoke about how his open mandate gave him courage and honed him to seek out partnership opportunities under unusual circumstances. This approach was what kept the annual George Town Festival innovative, making it the most highly regarded arts festival in the region.

When speaking about the representativeness of art, the gentrification of George Town, and determinants of success in festival-making, Mr Sidek made a point of not choosing art by its background but simply focusing on each piece on its individual merits.

“Art is intimidating,” he said, “even I am intimidated!” This led Mr Sidek to choosing pieces for his festival that were more accessible, interesting, and in his words, “sexy and quirky”.

In exploring managerial outcome of festival-making, against the backdrop of institutional goals such as key performance indicators, Mr Purushothaman reminded the audience that the measure of success of lies in the heart of community the festival serves.

The Critical Conversations series brings together researchers and artists in thought-provoking sessions, as part of the lead-up to NUS Arts Festival 2017. For information on upcoming sessions, visit nusartsfestival.com

By Quah Kai Xin, Year 3, Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, Alice Lee Centre of Nursing Studies