How Art Encourages Critical Thinking
As chairman of the board of educational non‑profit organisation Art Outreach Singapore, Mae Anderson has personally helmed quite a few art appreciation sessions in local schools. Sometimes, she asks students this question: how does art make you feel? When their responses include words such as “scared” and “confused”, she is delighted.
In her view, an ambivalent reaction to art is one step towards forming a more intellectually curious view of the world, and that is a crucial skill for the classroom and for life. “In other areas of education, the answers can be very binary—yes or no,” says Mae, who served first as Art Outreach’s fundraising chair when it was founded in 2003, and took on the chairmanship in 2007. “But the best experiences in art are always fraught with some tension. It’s that tension that holds our attention, and we shouldn’t be afraid to enjoy it.” Art Outreach’s mission, after all, is not to teach the making of art, but rather to use art as a conduit for learning critical thinking. “We don’t want to create passive consumers of art. We want to get their synapses firing.”
A mother of two daughters, Mae works in the private banking sector. Her first volunteer experience was with the charity Food from the Heart. Participating in its food distribution programme brought her into contact with low-income families, and gave her an appreciation of the need to better expose students from this demographic segment, as well as broader student audiences from neighborhood schools, to the visual arts. Since 2003, Art Outreach has interacted with over 500,000 students through art appreciation classes and assembly programmes.
As a child, books were what opened up new worlds for Mae, and she wanted to create that same sense of excitement for these students. “But not all children like to read, while art is very democratic. Even if you’re not into words, you can still enjoy images.” The trained volunteers who lead the school sessions use accessible language to discuss the cultural context of various artworks. “We want to break down the mystique and elitism associated with art. That’s all rubbish,” Mae declares.
“But not all children like to read, while art is very democratic. Even if you’re not into words, you can still enjoy images.”
Besides learning about artists and genres, these sessions are also a way for students to learn about different cultures and strengthen their language skills by acquiring new vocabularies. The volunteers quickly realised that students felt a greater affinity for Asian art, simply because it was often much easier to relate to the themes and stories behind these works.
“We have seen a consistently strong response and affiliation to local art,” says Mae. “It therefore makes sense to promote and support the producers and curators of art in Singapore by offering them opportunities to create sustainable careers in visual art.” Thus, in 2017, Art Outreach launched the Impart Awards, which bestow emerging Singapore artists and curators with cash prizes as well as residency and mentoring programmes.
While the buzz around the art scene has heightened considerably since Art Outreach’s early years (it predates both Art Stage Singapore and the National Gallery Singapore), that doesn’t mean homegrown talent is finding it easier to survive. Most collectors, for example, still favour works by established foreign names rather than young Singaporean artists. “But the marketplace is not viable if we don’t buy art that’s not our own,” Mae points out. Beyond commerce, nurturing homegrown art is a vital way of telling the Singapore story. “It’s easy to measure success by economic indicators. But it’s through art that we tell the world who we are.”