Young starts for arts
Children are the new target audience for the arts, with programmes made just for them. -ST
By Adeline Chia
Theatres, museums and art galleries may seem like sophisticated spaces for grown-ups. But little ones are crowding into these spaces - attending plays, classical music concerts and going to galleries.
Children have become a formidable force in the arts- and museum-going crowd, and children's arts activities have grown in number and in range over the past few years.
Children's theatre companies regularly play to packed houses, attendance for children's festivals is growing, and it is de rigueur for arts groups to have a kids' outreach arm.
More events are springing up, too.
This month, 8Q sam, the contemporary art wing of the Singapore Art Museum, is holding its first full-scale art exhibition for children, converting its four-storey premises in Queen Street into an interactive playground for young visitors.
Over at the National Museum of Singapore, the third Children's Season is in full swing, packing the museum's corridors with roving performances, special play areas and interactive tours of the galleries for families.
New businesses have also popped up, such as family theatre company Paper Monkey, which was set up in 2007. It joins the four companies already in the business of entertaining children.
Practitioners say the boom in children's arts is due to a growing acceptance of the arts as a learning medium. A large part of the demand is fuelled by schools.
The Singapore Tote Board, which administers the Tote Board Arts Grant, disbursed $2.7 million in 2006, $3.7 million in 2007 and $4.1 million in 2008.
The grant was set up in 1995 to encourage the development of a vibrant arts culture in schools and promote arts appreciation among students.
A Tote Board spokesman told Life!: 'Schools purchased 22 per cent more arts education programmes in 2008 compared to 2006, and an average of about 300,000 students a year have benefited from the grant in the three years.'
Another factor is that more parents want enriching activities for their children.
Take housewife Cheryl Gunalan, 42, who regularly takes her three daughters aged one to six to the theatre. They attend at least 20 shows a year and she spends more than $2,000 on such performances.
She says: 'I think it gives them stronger observational skills. It also stimulates their imagination.'
Ms Charlotte Nors, 42, Singapore Repertory Theatre's executive director, says that the children's audience base is more stable than the adult one. The company has a children's theatre arm called The Little Company, which puts on about three shows a year.
She says: 'Parents know we're a good company. So they keep coming back with their kids. But audiences for our adult shows are more fickle, and it depends on what we offer for the season.
'Whether you come to an SRT adult show depends on whether you are into comedies, thrillers or musicals.'
The Little Company sells about 43,000 tickets a year, a substantial part of the total number of tickets sold by the company, though she declined to say how much.
Besides children being a stable source of income, museums and arts companies know that if you hook them young, you hook them for life. Today's little tot running amok in a museum will be tomorrow's regular museum-goer.
In the National Musem, attendances for its annual Children's Season have been growing since it was launched in 2008. The festival, which takes place during the schools' mid-year break, comprises ticketed and free performances for children, and workshops and special interactive corners set up in galleries.
About 75,000 came for the first Children's Season which included the Mozart: A Child Prodigy exhibition and lasted over three months, and 30,500 in the second year, which lasted about a month.
Programme manager Katharyn Peh, 38, who is in charge of planning children's events, says that the museum started the season because it 'recognised that children and families are one of our core groups of audiences'.
About half of the National Museum's attendance comes from school groups, she says.
She adds that the museum is looking to expand the Children's Season in response to public feedback. Suggestions from parents include more outdoorevents, more overseas acts and more workshops concentrating on developing children's skills in story-telling and public speaking.
Ms Peh, who has a six-year-old daughter, says that some parents have followed the Children's Season faithfully since it started. 'It shows that they are growing with us and we're responding to their needs, too,' she says.
Another sign that arts for children is booming is that more children's theatre companies have been set up in the past few years.
The oldest players are Act 3 Theatrics and Act 3 International, which put on school shows and children's festivals respectively. They started out as one group in the 1980s but split in 2003.
The newer ones are Paper Monkey, formed in 2007; Players Theatre, formed in 2003; and I Theatre, formed in 2001.
The youngest company is Paper Monkey. Its artistic director Benjamin Ho, 42, says that he joined the business two years ago out of passion, not because he saw a market for it.
But he acknowledges that there is a hunger for good children's theatre, and his company does about five to 10 shows a month for school assemblies, which remain its core business.
The company puts on about one public show a year. His Mandarin puppet drama last year, White Bone Fiend, was presented during Huayi, Esplanade's Chinese festival of the arts, and was sold out.
It will be restaged at the Drama Centre Black Box in November.
I Theatre's artistic director Brian Seward, 53, says the children's theatre landscape has changed dramatically since he started.
'We did shows in 350-seat theatres for about eight to 10 performances, and we would be struggling to cover costs,' says the Briton who has been living in Singapore for the past 14 years. 'Now, we're running 45 to 60 performances in a 250-seat theatre and selling out.'
The company puts on four or five productions a year, including Broadway- style shows, such as last year's musical Duck And Dive!, which wove together Hans Christian Andersen's The Ugly Duckling and The Grimm Brothers' The Frog Prince, and 2008's Wizard Of Oz.
Asked if the children's theatre market is lucrative, he laughs and says: 'We don't have any major corporate sponsorship. About 92 per cent of our income comes from ticket sales. If we bomb in the next show, we're out of business.'
In the music scene, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and the Singapore Chinese Orchestra also hold various concerts for children.
One of the most popular events is SSO's Babies Proms, an event for children under six which is usually sold out within a few days.
The SSO usually plans to put on four sessions a year, but has had to add a fifth show over the past few years due to popular demand. Last year, over 3,200 tickets were sold for the event, and this excluded babies under the age of two who were allowed in free to sit on their parents' laps.
The eighth edition will return in November, and some parents are already looking forward to it. Information technology manager Cheryl Quek, 32, is one of them. She took her three-year-old daughter to the last Proms, where the tot had a good time.
'She liked the music and imitated the conductor by waving her hands. She was playing, but I think it was good exposure for her - she can appreciate classical music and know what an orchestra looks like.'
'I like Funky Forest. I can stick out my hand and flowers will grow. It's fun and interesting. I like interactive stuff. I feel that some of the artworks are for younger children. At Walter's Garden, I didn't know what to do.'
'You play pillow fight. I take the pillows and whack Ryan's head. I want an artwork with a Wii or Nintendo DS.'
'I like stepping on the flowers with Alaina.'
'I like Daisies. It means that when you go into a forest, when you walk over the flowers, they die. The artist is telling us to be careful. I want something like this in my house.'
'I like Daisies. I'll ask my friends to come again with me'
Pillow fight at kids day out at 8Q sam
On the ground floor of 8Q sam, Singaporean artist Dawn Ng has created an art installation that is the very epitome of cuteness: a room covered with green carpet and with 200 small cushions for children to arrange in any way they like. On the walls are the words, 'Hop! Hop! Hop!'
You would expect, with all the explicit suggestions in this work called Walter's Garden, that little children would hop around like bunnies.
But the reality was a little more chaotic. One boy is lying on the floor, while his younger brother pelts him with the cushions and shouts: 'Pillow fight!'
And that is what I realise taking a group of five children to the Art Garden, 8Q sam's art exhibition for children: Their reactions are completely unpredictable but honest.
If an artwork fails to engage them, they simply walk away. No artsy posturing for them.
In the party are three girls from the United World College of South East Asia in Ang Mo Kio: Singaporean Gaby Ho, seven, Japanese Kina Takahashi, seven, and American Alaina Hauber, eight, and Singaporean brothers Ryan Yeow, 11, and Matthew Yeow, seven, both pupils at Maris Stella Primary.
They have the energy of a pack of puppies and tear around the museum like monsters. Running after them - especially up the stairs - is no joke.
We start at the very top, in a gallery designed and decorated by artist Joo Choon Lin. Her work centres on a girl called Ringmaster who makes her own toys and battles chocolate monsters.
The story plays out in a stop-motion animation film, and spills out into the gallery as chaotic murals and little toys. The muddy colours and DIY art school aesthetic do little for the children and they do not linger.
They quickly drift to the dark room on level three, where the girls lie down on the floor to play with Daisies, an artwork by Theodore Watson which projects daisies onto the floor. When you walk over the daisies, they disappear, only to reappear a few seconds later.
It is a simple idea that is beautiful and eloquent, evoking the fragility of the natural world and is interactive enough to hold the girls' attention.
It also has a very zen atmosphere: One of the girls sits cross-legged on the floor with her eyes closed, as if in meditation.
The boys gravitate towards Funky Forest, another work by Watson. This is an interactive ecosystem where children create trees with their bodies and then divert the water flowing from the waterfall to the trees to keep them alive.
The children are rapt because of the sense of mission and adventure. It also helps that they seem like players in a beautiful videogame world.
Then we go down another floor to end up admiring Floribots, an installation of 128 robot flowers which sense movement and grow and bloom accordingly.
The kids' first instinct, when told that the work responds to movement, is to run around it in circles, until they are told by the gallery assistant that no running is allowed.
This work by Australian artist Geoffrey Drake-Brockman, with its slow and soothing movements, seems more suited for adults, who can take a seat at one of the benches to take in the hypnotic view.
Finally, they go over to the Enchanted Forest by Sandra Lee, a gallery completely covered with the flora and fauna in a storybook world.
The children crawl around, exploring the intricacies of the drawings, although it could have been the lingering smell of paint and thinner that calmed them down.
There are more surprises when I question the children on what they would like to see in a children's art exhibition.
Gaby says: 'I'd like to see something new and modern, something that nobody has seen before.'
I ask for some examples. A spaceship?
She answers: 'How can I tell you? I said I have never seen it before.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times.
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