The Singapore Art Museum (Abbreviation: SAM), housed in a restored 19th century mission school, opened its doors in 1996 as the first fully dedicated contemporary visual arts museum in Singapore with one of the world’s most important collections by local, Southeast Asia and Asia artists. It collaborates with international art museums to co-curate contemporary art exhibitions.
Housed in a restored 19th-century mission school, Singapore Art Museum opened its doors in 1996 as the first art museum in Singapore. Also known as SAM, the museum is now a contemporary art museum.
SAM has built one of the world’s most important public collections of Southeast Asian contemporary artworks, with a growing component in international contemporary art. SAM draws from its collection and collaborates with international contemporary art museums to co-curate and present contemporary art exhibitions. Contemporary art of the region is also given international exposure through SAM’s travelling exhibition programme and collection loans.
Officially opened on 20 January 1996, SAM is one of the first art museums with international-standard museum facilities and programmes in Southeast Asia.
The museum, then known as a fine art museum, was born out of a project by the National Museum to set up a five-museum precinct in the city. The other four museums that make up the precinct are known as the Singapore History Museum, Asian Civilisations Museum, People’s Museum and the Children’s Museum. The Fine Arts Museum project began with the restoration of the former St. Joseph’s Institution building. At the same time, the appointment of artist and surgeon Earl Lu to head an 11-member Fine Arts Museum Board was announced on 18 July 1992, by the Minister of State (Information and the Arts and Education), Ker Sin Tze. The museum board was tasked to acquire works of art by notable painters from Southeast Asia and East Asia, and by upcoming artists from these regions. Low Chuck Tiew, a retired banker and prominent art collector, served as museum adviser, along with Shirley Loo-Lim, Deputy Director of the National Museum of Singapore as vice-chairman of the board. Geh Min, Ho Kok Hoe, Lee Seng Tee, Arthur Lim, T. K. Sabapathy, Sarkasi Said, Sum Yoke Kit, Wee Chwee Heng, Singapore Polytechnic alumni, and Yap-Whang Whee Yong formed the rest of the museum board.
The restoration work on the then 140-year-old national monument took more than two years at a cost of S$30 million. It first opened its doors to the public as the Singapore Art Museum on 20 October 1995. Its first art installation was a S$90,000, 7 m (23 ft)-high Swarovski crystal chandelier at the museum main entrance. It weighs 325 kilograms and took over three months to make. The museum was officially opened by the Prime Minister of Singapore, Goh Chok Tong on 20 January 1996. In his opening speech he envisioned the new museum, along with the other four museums in the Arts and Heritage District and the Arts Centre, aiding Singapore in reprising its historic role as a centre of entrepot trade for the arts, culture, civilisation and ideas to the people in the Asian region and the rest of the world.
In 2019, the museum closed for a second revamp that will add space and facilities while peserving the old buildings’ heritage architecture. The $90 million development is supported by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY), and Tote Board. During this period, exhibitions and events will continue at partner venues and community spaces.
Location and amenities
Situated in the heart of Singapore’s arts and culture district, SAM is located alongside Singapore’s major performing arts and visual arts institutions: the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, LASALLE College of the Arts, the Stamford Arts Centre, the Selegie Arts Centre, Singapore Calligraphy Centre, YMS Arts Centre, Dance Ensemble Singapore, Action Theatre and School of the Arts.
In addition to the main museum building, SAM maintains an annexe on 8 Queen Street, SAM at 8Q, which also exhibits SAM’s permanent collection of contemporary art, as well as newly-commissioned, contemporary artworks.
SAM consists of two adjacent sites. The main building, dating back to 1955 is the former Saint Joseph’s Institution on Bras Basah Road; the second building known as ‘SAM at 8Q’ is the former Catholic High School on Queen Street. The museum was the organiser of the Singapore Biennale in 2011, 2013, 2016 and will continue to do so for 2019 and 2022.
The Central Building
The galleries in the Central Building were formed by knocking down walls that made up former classrooms.
The Glass Hall
The Glass Hall was originally a gymnasium and opened on three sides.
Once the chapel of the school, this decommissioned chapel is now an art exhibition space.
Queen Street & Waterloo Street Wings
This building, originally known as Anderson Building, was named after Sir John Anderson, Governor of the Straits Settlements (1904 – 1911).
These were originally the school quadrangles.
SAM is accessible by major public transportation systems such as the public buses, MRT and cab services. SAM is a 2-minute walk from Bras Basah MRT Station, and a 10-minute walk from Bugis, Dhoby Ghaut or City Hall MRT stations.
SAM’s approach is to present works curated from the permanent collection alongside changing exhibitions, to offer a well-rounded aesthetic experience of Asian contemporary art. From 2001, the museum began acquiring works and accepting donations from around the region, including regional contemporary artists like Cheo Chai Hiang, Dinh Q Le, Natee Utarit, Nge Lay, Suzann Victor and Titarubi.
The museum also regularly partners with other leading art institutions to co-curate and produce exhibitions, such as the collaboration with Deutsche Bank and the Yokohama Museum of Art for Still Moving: A Triple Bill on the Image; Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo for Trans-Cool TOKYO (highlighting works by Japanese artists such as Yayoi Kusama and Yasumasa Morimura); and Video, An Art, A History with the Pompidou Center (Bill Viola, Jean-Luc Godard, Bruce Nauman).
The museum organises regularly contemporary art exhibitions and events. For example, French artist Stéphane Blanquet was invited, twice, to present installations. Once, for the Night Lights festival in 2012, with Distorted Forest and once for Art Gardens in 2013, with Glossy Dreams in Depth”. French artist Emmanuel Guillaud presented an in-situ version of his installation Until the sun rises in 2011
The Singapore Art Museum focuses on international contemporary art practices, specialising in Singapore and Southeast Asia SAM has built one of the world’s most important public collections of Southeast Asian contemporary artworks, with a growing component in international contemporary art SAM draws from its collection and collaborates with international contemporary art museums to co-curate and present contemporary art exhibitions Contemporary art of the region is also given international exposure through SAM’s travelling exhibition programme and collection loans
Contemporary art is created by artists living and practicing in the here-and-now, particularly the 21st century. Contemporary art may be regarded as both art of the present-day, as well as art of a historical category, that for the Southeast Asia region may be seen as emerging from the 1970s, and in the case of Singapore, reaching a critical juncture in the 1990s.
Contemporary art reflects on contemporary society and the issues surrounding people and the world we live in. The areas that contemporary art explores include our everyday realities, questions about personal, cultural and national identity, and reflections of humanity’s impact on the environment.
Contemporary artists work in a wide range of mediums, and their artworks can be multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary. Contemporary art utilises a combination of materials and methods, and concepts play a prominent part to challenge traditional boundaries and ideas of how art is defined—or even what constitutes art.
When engaging with contemporary art, viewers are encouraged to consider whether the work is “thought-provoking” or “interesting”. Beyond asking “Is this work aesthetically pleasing?”, viewers can also reflect if the artwork questions the status quo, or changes perspectives on an issue.
Visitors can extend their SAM experience through complementary and exhibition-related education and public programmes such as:
Exhibition-related public programmes and workshops
educational programmes and workshops which cover a diversity of art trends and contemporary art practices for all ages
outreach programmes where SAM programmes are extended outside of the museum to schools, community centres, and partner locations
SAM exhibition downloadable activity sheets for pre-schoolers, primary, secondary and tertiary level students