SAM x Shentonista: Novel Ways Of Dressing—Cornerstone

With the digital medium making consumption of any material easier than ever, our taste and trends are changing faster than ever, including our interest in art. In charge of curating a varied palette of programmes at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), much of Sean’s role revolves around translating the often complex vocabulary of art into terms that laymen can grasp and digest and constantly building and refining the bridge that’ll bring people closer to art. With much of his work requiring him to communicate and understand people on a deeper level, we found it fitting that it was Dawn Ng’s HDB Corridor, a work that shares a sliver of insight into gotong royong spirit of our public housing system and the symbolism of owning your share of pie in the sky, that appealed to him and his sartorial senses.

In the feature below, we chat with him more about how his eventual foray into the world of art brought him to SAM and how his current role keeps him on his toes. Seek fashion inspiration from the ongoing Time Passes exhibition by SAM and stand a chance to be rewarded with $500. Continue reading on till the end of the article to find out how you can participate in our Novel Ways Of Dressing open call.

Shentonista (S): Share with us more about your role at SAM!
Sean: My role is one where we need to know it all! Jokes aside, I work in Public Programmes in SAM and I see myself as the bridge that connects our audience to the museum and artworks. We organise programmes to engage different audiences in various ways. These programmes range from hands-on workshops and talks to bigger festivals like the Singapore Night Festival, to volunteer and docent engagement. Our job is to look for simple access points for audiences to understand the themes and concepts of our exhibitions and artworks—whether it’s the themes, concepts or simple things like materials and colours.

As for why I said we need to know it all? Other than understanding the exhibitions and artworks, my team also organises the logistics for all our programmes, which includes tentage, electrical supply, musical instruments, applying for various licences and so on.

S: You chose Dawn Ng’s HDB Corridor as your artwork—what was it about this piece that stood out to you?
Sean: The words in the artwork—Faster Apply For Your Pie In The Sky—was something I could relate to. In 2015, I bought my first house, which is now my current home. I felt it was the right time, as the conditions then were right; prices were stabilising and financially I felt I was ready. So I was able to relate to the phrase faster apply, before the prices went up again!

S: How did this artwork inspire your outfit choice?
Sean: HDB is a very localised concept, and I don’t think there’s something similar to this scheme anywhere else in the world. This inspired me to try and pick my pieces from local and unique places—just like the HDB scheme! My top is from a local designer, Depression and I was inspired by the colours of the artwork to choose white, grey and blue as my outfit colours.

Dawn Ng, HDB Corridor, 2012, as part of The Learning Gallery. Collection of the Singapore Art Museum.

S: ‘Faster apply’ is a colloquial Singlish term, and could refer to how Singaporeans tend to be kiasu about certain things. What is your favourite uniquely Singaporean trait?
Sean: Singlish, for sure! I used to study in Australia, and I got to know that one of my American classmates used to live in Singapore as well. I remember her mentioning to my Aussie classmates that she couldn’t understand me when we were back in Singapore, since I spoke in Singlish a lot more and my accent became very localised.

S: Share with us some fond memories you have of staying in a HDB flat.
Sean: There’s this sense of Kampung spirit amongst residents. Due to the structure of HDB blocks, especially the ones with common corridor, you’ll always need to walk past your neighbours, which forces you to see them and eventually get to know them.

It’s so multi-cultural as well! You’ll see your neighbours celebrating different festivals, like Hari Raya Puasa and Deepavali. When I was a kid, I used to go to the playground with other kids during Mid-Autumn festival and we all had our lanterns with us. Most HDB estates also have everything you need around you—shops, food, markets, now even malls and cinemas!

S: As part of the SAM Programmes team, what’s something that you enjoy the most about your job?
Sean: Over the course of my career, not only have I had the opportunity to organise a variety of programmes and meet individuals from all walks of life, but I got to try out new things and concepts too. Sometimes, within one project, I get the chance to work with artists, vendors, government agencies, volunteers! I’ve been blessed to have worked with a lot of good people to realise my projects and programmes. In this role, I have really learnt a lot, and the things I have gained or learnt sometimes surprise myself—like learning how to communicate with people and manage volunteers despite being an introvert.

S: Having organised many programmes during your time at SAM, what would you say has been your favourite one?
Sean: Every programme, big or small, has its own challenges and stress. If I had to pick a favourite, it’d be the road closure event in 2017. It was organised as part of Singapore Art Week, where we decided to close a small section of Queen Street, in front of SAM. I had this idea for about two to three years, but we only managed to do it in 2017. I remember seeing the road closure signage being installed on the lamp posts, which gave me a really big sense of achievement. We transformed the street and there were performances, a small artisan market and we converted areas for people to chill out, connect with each other. The process closing even that small part of the road was insane, but the stress was worth it. It was really a nice evening and everyone who was there enjoyed themselves.

Dawn Ng, HDB Corridor, 2012, as part of The Learning Gallery. Collection of the Singapore Art Museum.

S: What do you think is a common assumption people tend to have about your job that isn’t true?
Sean: When I tell people that I work in the museum, the reaction I get is always wah! or wow!—which always makes me wonder why. I think a lot of people have the perception that working in the arts or the museum is very glamourous. Additionally, I don’t think a lot of people know the amount of behind the scenes work we are involved in and the amount of work we put in—even for a very simple programme.

S: How do you think your understanding or perception of art has changed during your years at SAM?
Sean: I wasn’t trained in arts until I reached 30—I liked art from a young age but never explored it further in my studies. I decided to do a mid-career change by pursuing a post-graduate degree in art administration or art management, and that was also the age that I entered a career in the arts. My understanding of art before then was very shallow: I could only tell you whether I like or don’t like it. Over the years, I’ve seen more, learnt more. My work also taught me how to dissect the meaning of the artworks or exhibitions and now I tend to want to dive deeper into an artwork when I see it.

S: What’s one practice at work that you found seeping into your personal life?
Sean: I’m not sure if this is an occupational hazard or whether it’s just a personal habit, but I’m always early! My job requires prep time before the programme starts and I’ve learnt to be early so that I don’t have to rush.

S: You help people from different backgrounds appreciate and understand art better—what’s been an important takeaway for you from this process?
Sean: There isn’t a cookie-cutter model! Audience expectations are constantly changing—they may like certain things now but in a few months, something new or interesting may emerge. We need to always think of ways to engage them and to ensure that what we do is relevant and interesting enough for them to understand art. The other factor is target audience. Every age group is very different, so we need to find the right access points to ensure different audience groups understand art better while having a good time at the museum.

Be fashionably inspired by the artworks that are part of the ongoing Time Passes exhibition and stand a chance to be rewarded with $500—to participate in our open call for Novel Ways of Dressing, simply follow the steps below:

1/ Visit the Time Passes exhibition either digitally (at the link here) or in-person, from now till 30th November
2/ Find your fashion inspiration from any work on display and dress up
3/ Snap a photo of yourself in your curated outfit next to the artwork that inspired it, and tell us why you were inspired by it. If you’re visiting the exhibition virtually, simply tell us in your post which artwork you’re referencing.
4/ Share it on either Facebook or Instagram (or on Stories!) and remember to tag the Singapore Art Museum (@singaporeartmuseum), Shentonista (@shentonista) and add the hashtag #NovelWaysOfDressing to your post!

This is a content partnership with Shentonista and the Singapore Art Museum. Stay tuned as we feature other stories from the individuals behind Singapore Art Museum.

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