ARTWALK — known to many as a multidisciplinary arts and cultural festival — is a collaborative project between the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and LASALLE College of the Arts. It’s a regular part of Singapore Art Week’s calendar of events, standing alongside giants such as S.E.A Focus or ART SG.
Though ARTWALK 2024, titled Decennial, is celebrating its 10th anniversary, little is understood of the festival’s significant impact on the student teams who organise it — myself, the team lead for the 2023 edition, included. For its alumni, ARTWALK’s significance goes far beyond celebrating the intersections between art and heritage. To us, it’s an incubator, a launchpad for emerging arts managers. Despite the presence of veteran arts educator Milenko Prvacki, who oversees the project, there’s barely any handholding here. Instead, students are wholly entrusted with the festival’s success. With no room for error, there’s often immense pressure on each student-run team to succeed.
A decade of ARTWALK
The festival has evolved tremendously since 2014. While its inaugural edition solely focused on murals, ARTWALK has grown to feature a mix of live performances, tours, workshops, and even exhibitions, with each batch of students adding its spin to the programmes. Though many recognise the festival for its celebration of heritage, few know that it originated from the educator Milenko Prvacki’s earnest effort to provide students with the right opportunities to succeed.
In the 90s, Prvacki shares, few parents were open to their children studying art, let alone paying their school fees. Prvacki saw the need to support his students by providing earning opportunities and concrete work experiences. “I started to provide projects; we did a lot of murals in Singapore, projects for hotels and paintings to pay for the school fees”. The golden opportunity arrived in the 2010s when STB approached Prvacki for a collaborative public art project.
The large-scale project introduced a mutually beneficial relationship between STB and the BA(Hons) Arts Management degree students at LASALLE College of the Arts. Despite being unpaid, students are given an invaluable learning experience in exchange for volunteering their time to run ARTWALK. The learning, as Prvacki explains, comes from the exposure to every step of the festival planning process. “It’s a good preparation for real life… there are so many situations where theory [learnt in class] cannot help you.” He notes that students develop crucial communication and leadership skills, such as knowing how to communicate with artists, government agencies, and other collaborators effectively.
Behind the scenes, the festival transforms into a pressure cooker. Within a six-month window, teams are given complete autonomy to organise the festival, all while juggling school and, occasionally, part-time jobs. The autonomy is a cornerstone of the learning experience, as noted by Sureni Salgadoe, Assistant Manager (Projects) to Senior Fellow Milenko Prvacki, Office of the President, at LASALLE College of the Arts.
She explains, “When it comes to running a festival, even 24 hours matter a lot… the learning curve is so steep that students pick things up faster than anywhere else… they’re teaching themselves.”
Prvacki places an astonishing level of trust in his students. Some might consider this a risky move, considering they are learning on the job. However, he sees otherwise, noting that trusting the students pays off. “It’s all about trust,” Prvacki explains. “When you trust people and open the window to let them ‘fly’, they will respect it.”
Salgadoe adds that ARTWALK’s gruelling reputation among students can act as a filter. “Not all students want to do this project, knowing the kind of challenges and hardships you face and the timeline you’re working with.”
Students like Alger Law, the programme head for the 2024 edition, find the challenge “scary but exciting” and are acutely aware of the expectations for the team. “There are real responsibilities that we carry when undertaking a project on a scale as massive as this [ARTWALK] and real consequences if it fails horribly.” Noting that “there is no guidebook on how to navigate it [professional relationships] and ensure relations with the artists remain professional,” Law echoes the sentiment that ARTWALK presents a steep learning curve.
Similarly, alumni Dina Nerina from the 2016 team recounts that the newfound authority felt alien back then. “As students, we didn’t think we had that much authority,” she says, which affected how they navigated communicating with the stakeholders.
ARTWALK’s success also hinges on community
ARTWALK also exposes students to the value of forging strong connections with its communities. Megan Leow, fellow 2023 alumni and head of logistics, recounts an incident involving the police at Katong-Joo Chiat, at Dekat di Mata, Dauh di Hati (2023), by Zul ZERO. A resident filed a complaint, fearing our equipment would be used to break into his house. “It was a genuine shock to me as I never expected to hear the words ‘I am calling from the Marine Parade neighbourhood police station with regards to a complaint’ in my lifetime.”
That police complaint was the final straw after our string of challenges in organising the mural’s installation. While getting the wall owner’s permission was straightforward, getting blessings from neighbouring business owners and residents presented its own hurdles. The artists required construction lifts (as shown above) for their mural work, which seemed like a minor inconvenience to us. However, our presence felt intrusive to the residents and business owners; with no pre-established relationship, we weren’t entitled to their accommodation.
In contrast, Zane Motalif, the 2020 team lead, highlights an incident in Little India where a neighbour helped the team navigate the challenges they encountered while setting up Mayura (2020) by Boon Baked. After mistakenly leaving a forklift in an unauthorised area, Motalif found the nearby florist communicating with the LTA officers to give the students leniency. “Sometimes he [would] help explain to the LTA officer that we were setting up and even emphasised the mural was meaningful for his family,” which bought time for the team, Motalif recalls.
These incidents illustrate how many layers of approvals one mural can easily require — the level of support students have from the community makes or breaks the process. Compared to Little India, Katong-Joo Chiat is still relatively new to ARTWALK’s programmes and has a long way to go in establishing its presence. While collaborations with Little India’s stakeholders have grown easier over the years, Kamini Ramachandran – a professional storyteller who has been a mainstay of ARTWALK’s programmes since 2015 – notes that it was not always so straightforward.
Ramachandran’s programmes often involve collaborating with local stakeholders, such as small eateries or traditional craftsmen, for audiences to appreciate Little India’s heritage fully. She recounts an instance in the festival’s earlier years when students approached a temple committee to use their venue for a storytelling show. “Nobody responded properly or took them seriously because the temple is not used to this request.” She adds that language barriers often add to the challenge, requiring students to go the extra mile in establishing a strong connection. Without these relationships with the community, many of ARTWALK’s programmes would not be possible.
ARTWALK’s impact on its alumni’s careers
ARTWALK is often a badge of honour amongst its alumni, who gain professional experience even before their final year of school. Often, the festival opens many doors for them, with some continuing their working relationships with the artists years after.
For example, some alumni maintained professional relationships with Ramachandran after the festival. The artist notes how ARTWALK has equipped her regular collaborators, like Motalif, to be problem solvers: “[Y]ou’re not fazed by things other people might be worried about.”
Motalif’s experience managing the murals in 2020 led him to his current role as a programmer for visual arts at *SCAPE. “If I didn’t do this festival,” he notes, “my [career] trajectory would be different. [Without it] There would be no ‘street cred.’” He clarifies, however, that it was the networking through ARTWALK that contributed to his success.
Ramachandran resonates with Motalif — “Maximise your time as a student, plan ahead, so you can meet every artist you’re supposed to work with” — and adds that students who build that personal connection leave the strongest impressions.
For alumni like Nerina, ARTWALK gives them the space to explore new interests, acting as a great launching pad for students who “want to get a little bit of everything.” While Nerina originally had a performing arts background, her festival experience pushed her to try an internship with Art Outreach Singapore, where she eventually became their Community Programmes Manager. To her, every moment of ARTWALK presented a lesson, especially given that students were given the rare opportunity to experience being the “upper management” first-hand.
Reflecting on the growth and future of ARTWALK’s legacy
Created by a new batch each year, the festival’s programmes often have a rugged charm — a result of the student’s desire to prove themselves and make their mark, as well as, in my opinion, a healthy dose of naivety. Admittedly, I’m not sure whether I’d take on ARTWALK again if armed with current knowledge. In hindsight, what we planned for 2023 was, while rewarding, far too ambitious; I’d say we only succeeded because we were blissfully unaware of and unfazed by the challenges our plans entailed.
While we were taught what we could do as arts managers, ARTWALK also arguably taught us that just because we could do something didn’t necessarily mean we should — wisdom that only developed through hands-on experience. ARTWALK has grown year after year, with each batch building upon the work of its predecessors. Each January, the next wave of alumni brings their own unique spin to the festival.
The 2024 programmes present a meaningful call-back to ARTWALK’s history, infused with the incoming team’s originality — celebrating the festival’s impact on its audiences, precincts, and organising teams. Explaining the thought process behind this year’s programmes, Law shares, “We wanted to breathe new life into past programme concepts and transform them…In this spirit, we curated experiences that foster community engagement, placing a paramount focus on interactivity with our audiences.”
The opportunities ARTWALK presents cannot be stressed enough — for many, it would take years to build the trust needed to get the amount of autonomy and resources we were given. In an industry that often requires you to “know the right person,” the festival was and continues to be a game-changer, welcoming all students without fail over the last 10 years.
It may be too soon to draw firm conclusions about ARTWALK’s development moving forward. In a joint response about the festival’s future, LASALLE and STB shared, “This is the tenth year that LASALLE and the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) are jointly organising ARTWALK. We are very pleased that the festival has been a crowd favourite during Singapore Art Week, and will be sure to share more information about future editions in due time.” But in the meantime, we continue to honour its history and what it has meant for the Arts Management students who found their calling here.
Header image: Tapestry of Saree 2040 (2023) by Mural Lingo. Image courtesy of LASALLE College of the Arts Singapore.