UOB and the Southeast Asian art scene, as they celebrate their 40th annual Painting of the Year competition
Two worlds collide
When we talk about art, banks are not the first thing that comes to mind. Well, they aren't even in the top ten. Often, they're linked to office folk in stifling suits, numbers, paperwork, and a place where minimal creativity is required. Yet, United Overseas Bank has continuously ventured into art for four decades now, with over 2,500 pieces from various South East Asian artists, which are currently housed in UOB offices around the region. On top of that, their 40th Painting of the Year competition (POY) is now open for submissions — both amateurs and veterans of the art community may participate through digital submissions due to COVID-19.
So while some (as flagged out last year in a public survey conducted by The Straits Times) might view art as "non-essential", UOB certainly thinks otherwise.
But why are they so interested in art? Ms Lilian Chong, Executive Director, Group Strategic Communications and Brand, UOB, explains that art shares many similarities with how the bank has operated for generations.
"When we link [business] back with art, it resembles the thinking and actions – from broad strokes to the fine touches — of how we deal with our customers. This is how UOB has embedded art into our organisation," said Ms Chong.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Painting of the Year competition, which has played a role in propelling artists from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand further into the art sector and bringing them success.
The first winner of the POY competition in 1982, Mr Goh Beng Kwan, dubs it as one of the most important moments of his life and pushed him to pursue a career as a full-time artist.
"As a result of it, I was invited to participate in many local and overseas exhibitions. This gave me the opportunity to develop further as an artist, as well as interact and learn from other Southeast Asian artists. It also led to my artworks gaining tremendous recognition," said Mr Goh.
With the addition of the "Emerging Artist" category in the past decade, Mr Goh has noticed many young artists, local and international — being discovered from the competition — went on to have a career in the arts as well.
One example would be Ms Pannaphan Yodmanee, the country winner of the 2010 UOB POY (Thailand), who has gained international awards such as the distinguished Benesse Prize — the official award of the Singapore Biennale, in 2016.
With such a great platform in terms of exposure, this led us to wonder why the competition has not gone global?
Ms Chong acknowledged that it would be nice to roll out the competition to more countries but UOB's focus will remain in South East Asia and champion the art scene here.
"UOB has the most extensive business network here such as our branches. The intent is to own the South East Asian market including the art and this gives us an edge when we present to [businesses] in the market," said Ms Chong.
But art is more than just a smart business venture to them, the POY competition has also allowed UOB to set up a wide range of art-related workshops and events with previous winners to bring art closer to people outside of the industry.
In May 2020, the UOB Art Explorer was launched to bring the benefits of art into homes around Singapore and the world through an online visual arts programme. During a time of uncertainty and isolation, the purpose of this initiative was to bring people closer together through art.
"We wanted to make it an opportunity for others to do a bit of colouring as a form of relief by using the winning artworks as a canvas or watch a short animation of what the artworks were about," said Ms Chong.
"Art as therapy" was one of the programmes in their lineup that promoted mental well-being through the process of creating art with 2016 POY winner Ms Yoko Choi, who is a registered art therapist and educator.
While many may view the arts as "non-essential", the Regional and Singapore Chief Judge of the POY competition, Dr Bridget Tracy Tan, brings up the fact that art is more than just an elitist or expensive possession but rather a practice of creation and communication of ideas in a visual form that we can't escape from.
"Content producers are fundamentally artists in their own right. When you watch Netflix, when you read a book, when you watch videos and TV programmes of baking, architecture, renovation, singing – all of these things have a lineage in artmaking," said Dr Tan. And art is omnipresent, she continued, from murals painted at our void decks to the bills we use to pay for everything. All we need to do is open ourselves up to witness the art that is surrounding us.
She added: "Art is stimulation of the senses, to be inspired, to feel alive."
As chief judge, Dr Tan will be part of the panel that decides which country winner will receive the opportunity to participate in a month-long residency in Fukuoka, Japan. However, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the competition, UOB will be sending the remaining country winners to Shanghai, China, which is a new location, to participate in a cross-cultural residency at their office branch.
"This year is special, for the winners who do not get the residency in Fukuoka, they will work with our Shanghai team in a residency that will give them an opportunity to explore the various museums and other cultural art spaces, followed by preparing an artwork either for an exhibition or for charity purposes," said Ms Chong.
Submissions for the 40th UOB POY are open till 31 July. Click here for more information.