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National Arts Council’s chief executive Kathy Lai leaves after three year tenure

SINGAPORE — National Arts Council’s chief executive officer (CEO) Kathy Lai is stepping down from her post at the end of the month after three years at the helm, the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) announced on Friday (Oct 21).

National Arts Council’s chief executive Kathy Lai leaves after three year tenure

Kathy Lai, Chief Executive Officer of National Arts Council (NAC) will be returning to IE Singapore after completing her tenure at NAC. Photo: NAC

SINGAPORE — National Arts Council’s chief executive officer (CEO) Kathy Lai is stepping down from her post at the end of the month after three years at the helm, the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) announced on Friday (Oct 21).

Lai will return to IE Singapore — the government agency driving Singapore’s external economy — to assume the appointment of its deputy CEO (Special Duties).

She was previously IE Singapore’s assistant CEO from 2007 to 2013, until she took over NAC’s top job from Benson Puah in November 2013, who had relinquished his position in August that year.

In the interim, Paul Tan, NAC’s deputy CEO, will serve as the covering chief executive officer.

Lai saw the re-opening of the iconic performing arts centre — the Victoria Theater and Concert Hall, the return of the Singapore International Festival of the Arts in 2014 and Singapore’s return to the Venice Biennale last year.

Under her leadership, NAC spearheaded partnerships with key stakeholders to commission a series of creative arts programmes and exhibitions ranging from music, visual, literary arts, to traditional and contemporary arts in celebration of Singapore’s Golden Jubilee year.

Professor Chan Heng Chee, NAC’s chairman, said in a press release that Lai “has strengthened NAC and won the respect of the arts community during her stewardship”.

“Her leadership provided vision and challenged the staff to reach higher standards of excellence. Her conviction that the arts can become an integral part in everyone’s lives has resulted in a greater commitment by the Council to engage the wider Singapore public. Figures of public participation in the arts have gone up,” Prof Chan added.

“Under her watch, meaningful partnerships between countries were established as part of growing new markets and audiences for our Singapore artists. The Council is fully appreciative of her contributions, and we wish her all the best as she continues to be a strong supporter and advocate for the arts.”

Lai’s departure is the most recent in a slew of departures in art institutions here, typically after a few years at the helm and with no apparent succession.

In July this year, the Singapore Art Museum’s (SAM) director Susie Lingham and its chief executive officer Leng Tshua stepped down after taking on their roles in 2013 and 2015, respectively. Subsequently, Lee Chor Lin, chief executive officer of Arts House Limited, made news in September following her resignation after three years with the organisation.

There have been no official updates regarding who will take over any of these positions. For Lai’s position, MCCY has stated that it will “work with the Council to identify a new CEO to lead the NAC into its next phase of growth”.

Singaporean artist Gerald Leow, 32, who previously exhibited his works at the SAM, said the growing lack of leadership in these organisations poses problems. “You would say the same even if you were looking at a corporate entity — any short term change in leaders makes it difficult to establish any continuity in any organisation. You need one Steve Jobs, not five Tim Cooks.”

Still, Jason Wee, a Singaporean artist and the founder of Grey Projects, a non-profit artists’ space in Singapore supporting curatorial, exchange and publication work, said there is still leadership in the arts scene, particularly in the independent arts institutions. “NUS Museum, DECK, Art Outreach and Objectifs have all demonstrated stable and capable senior leadership, and we are developing the possibility of leadership growing, from those leading smaller art spaces and initiatives moving on to lead ever larger ones.”

Art collector Ryan Su, said he is saddened by the departure. “I have always thought of her as being passionate about the arts ... She comes across as having great foresight, yet (she’s) highly pragmatic. She is one of the few people I know who takes it upon herself to attend performances and exhibitions in her own capacity and in her own time, and not part of work, and personally has a tremendous interest in the arts. She will be missed.”

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