Goosebump moments with art and life

Arts enthusiast and volunteer, Juliana Lim wants to make art accessible to the public through NUSS initiatives such as the Paint-a-Portrait Project and exhibitions at the arts gallery.


Story by Clara Lock

Published in NUSS The Graduate


Juliana Lim measures life in ‘goosebump moments’, or that tingly euphoria felt on the skin when something moves within deeply.


“Life should be an endless stream of goosebump moments,” said Lim, who feels this sensation most often when she is engaged in the arts and wants to give other people - more people in fact - the chance to experience similar poetic moments. She described it as giving people a chance to flip over a stone to peer at its underside. “You flip it over, and if you do not like it, you flip it back. But at least you got to see what is there,” she said.


Bringing art to the people

To do so, Lim understands that art must be made visible and accessible, so that people do not have to go out of their way to view it.

At the NUSS Kent Ridge Guild House, for instance, Lim converted a corridor and part of the members’ lounge into an art gallery that has showcased 12 exhibitions over the last two years.

Prolific local artists such as Chng Seok Tin and Goh Beng Kwan, who are part of Lim’s personal network, have exhibited their works there. Lim was initially offered a room for the paintings, but she turned it down because the corridor, which links to the jackpot room, karaoke lounge, bathrooms and members lounge receives far more traffic daily. So she lobbied to create a mini gallery, complete with white walls and light fixtures to illuminate the paintings.

Where members once zipped through the corridor, they now paused to contemplate and discuss the paintings. President David Ho encouraged her repeatedly, remarking that members had come to expect new collections every couple of months and the exhibitions would be missed, if stopped.

Lim served as the NUSS Arts Connections Convenor before she handed over the reins in February 2016. She has had an illustrious 18-year career in Arts Management having started as the Assistant Director of Programmes at the People’s Association in 1978 after stints in several ministries.

One of her noteworthy projects was setting up The Esplanade, which was formerly known as the Singapore Arts Centre. As General Manager of the arts centre, Lim helped develop the iconic design of The Esplanade, now lovingly known by its alternate moniker, durians on the bay.

She recalled a time when public sentiment was less favourable. “Some Singaporeans and members of the architectural community expressed disappointment with the design, perhaps because they expected a Sydney Opera House,” she wrote, in a blog entry documenting her work in Singapore’s arts scene. Some members of the public also found the spiky roof design inauspicious.

But then-Deputy Prime Minister Mr Ong Teng Cheong, who helmed the steering committee with then-Minister George Yeo, threw his support behind the design and development team. “Whenever we looked like we were wilting under public pressure, he encouraged us to accept the controversy in our stride, as a part of the journey of building a icon,” she recalled.

Lim, referencing Dutch graphic artist Maurits Coelis Escher’s style of creating tessellations, added: “Through all this, what kept my faith in the roof design was the internal perspective of the floors of the theatre lobbies bathed in Escheresque triangular-shaped patterns of light and shadow.”

But it was only after she resigned from public service to join Singapore Pools in 1997 that Lim realised just how distant the arts was to the man-in-the-street.

“Singapore Pools was a big sponsor of The Esplanade but I felt that until the frontline 4D/Toto sellers staff experienced art, I could not substantiate my “boast” as a former arts manager, that I had helped make the arts accessible.”

It drove her to do even more. “We started a 20- women choir which sang in an Arts Festival Fringe and staged an excerpt of Chang & Eng when we re-launched the Singapore Sweep in support of The Esplanade Theatres, giving our retailers their first glimpse of a Singapore musical.”

Retired from corporate life since November 13, she volunteers with Very Special Arts and OperaViva Limited; and leads the Richard Wagner Association (Singapore) which will stage the very first Wagner opera in Singapore - The Flying Dutchman - in October this year.

Portraits of heritage

In 2013, Lim was among a five-member panel that executed the NUSS Paint-aPortrait Project, which commissioned young artists to paint the portraits of 19 Past Presidents of NUSS.

The project spanned slightly more than three years, with the last two portraits completed in February 2016.

“It was a very special project. We all felt like we grew through it,” said Lim, who facilitated dialogues between the artists, past presidents of the Society and their family members before and during the painting process.

Other members of the panel comprising museum directors Dr Kenson Kwok and Low Sze Wee, artist Hong Sek Chern and collector Dr Victor Savage played an indispensable role, mentoring the artists, offering technical guidance and helping them to produce a portrait in the likeness of their subject. The panel also paired artists with NUSS Past Presidents they painted, matching creative styles to the presidents’ personalities.

For example, she recalled matching one young artist, Leslie Low, to paint Past President Ernest Wong, and described how the artist and subject were a good fit. The artist’s style, she said, had elements of playful pop art, which suited Wong’s youthful personality.

Low represented this through the yellow background of the portrait and explained, “I wanted to capture [Wong’s] playful nature, the exuberance you have when you are young.” He then added tones of purple to convey Wong’s leadership and gravitas during his tenure as NUSS President from 1971 to 1973 and from 1982 to 1985.

With these projects, Lim hopes that the art she brings to the public will let them experience their own goosebumps moments. She said: “If I manage to ignite just a single poetic goose bump in someone, I would feel that I had lived my life successfully.”