UOB, Eyes on the Prize

The Bird by Botero stands in front of UOB headquarter by the Singapore river
(Courtesy UOB)

Every country has its own closely watched, long-running painting competition, provoking as much interest as controversy from the local arts community. Australia has its Archibald Prize, Britain has its BP Portrait Award, and Singapore has the UOB Painting of the Year.

The 31-year-old annual art prize is the country’s oldest and richest, with a purse of $35,000 going to the overall winner. While newer regional art contests, such as the Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation Signature Art Prize and the Sovereign Asian Art Prize, have sprung up, UOB Painting of the Year is the only competition interwoven with Singapore’s art history, having provided a platform for its artists since the 1980s. The results may sometimes be divisive, but love it or hate it, the UOB Painting of the Year competition is hard to ignore. A walk down memory lane will throw up some notable, hard-to-dispute names: veteran painter Goh Beng Kwan, as well as artists Chua Ek Kay and Anthony Poon.

The award is run by United Overseas Bank (UOB), one of Singapore’s leading financial institutions. Any painting created in the last two years can enter the competition for free. The egalitarian spirit reflects the bank’s ethos of “giving back to the community by identifying, recognizing, and showcasing local art talents, whether they are budding or established artists,” says Terence Ong, UOB’s head of global markets and investment management.

Recently, the company has updated the rules and reach of the Painting of the Year competition to match the regional presence of its banking business. Between 2011 and 2012, the competition started accepting entries from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand and naming winners from each country. Last year it introduced the Southeast Asian Painting of the Year award, for which the winners from each country can duke it out to gain an additional prize of $10,000.

UOB’s support of the arts began in the 1970s when the bank started its art collecting program. Currently, its holdings comprise some 1,700 pieces, many of which were produced by Singapore’s early masters such as Cheong Soo Pieng, Georgette Chen, and Goh Beng Kwan. They also include the winning pieces from the painting competition. Several of these works are on display at its branches and at the public art gallery at UOB Plaza One in Singapore’s central business district.

There have also been exhibitions to showcase the bank’s collection to a wider viewership. The latest was November’s “UOB Painting of the Year Reimagined,” for which UOB partnered with Australian creative agency Chouette to digitally animate 14 winning paintings.

Over the years, the award has been particularly meaningful for emerging artists. Contemporary Chinese ink painter Hong Sek Chern says it was one of the factors that led her to go full-time as an artist. “The competition gave me the opportunity to showcase my ink paintings in a well publicized solo exhibition the following year, resulting in the exposure of my works to a larger audience.”

Choo Thiam Siew, president of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and a four-time judge of the contest, agrees that the award helps spot emerging talents, citing Hong and another contemporary Chinese painter, Tay Bak Chiang, as artists who have gone on to stable careers.

The competition makes an effort to remain responsive to the changing art scene. This past year saw the  introduction of new Emerging Artist and Established Artist categories to acknowledge entrants at different stages of their careers. “Ultimately,” says Ong, “we hope it contributes to raising the standards and appreciation of visual arts in Southeast Asia.”

This article was published in the January edition of BLOUIN Lifestyle.com magazine