Our History

Established in 1938, NAFA is the pioneer arts education institution in Singapore. Over the past seven decades, NAFA has transformed from a fine art school with merely 14 students to a comprehensive arts education institution today. NAFA’s history is intertwined with the development of the local arts scene. Please click on the following link to read about our rich heritage and how we have overcome the odds with an unwavering dedication to become the highest quality education in the arts.

In the early 1930s, a Japanese-trained Chinese artist Huang Suibi, who was founder of the Xiamen Art Academy in Fujian, China visited Singapore. Upon his return, he approached teacher Lim Hak Tai to consider establishing an art school in Singapore, a trading centre between East and West in Southeast Asia with an interesting heritage. In 1937, Lim and a group of art teachers migrated to Singapore just before the Sino-Japanese war in China.

Lim Hak Tai, together with a group of arts education enthusiasts, undertook the challenge and responsibility to set up a formal art school in Singapore with support from the Society of Chinese Artists. They planned for a school modelled after the Chinese art academies but with a balance of Western and Chinese art traditions in curriculum.

The Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (南洋美术专科学校) was launched with 14 Fine Art students on 10 March 1938, in an old two-storey shophouse at 167 Geylang opposite the Gay World Amusement Park. Lim Hak Tai was the founding principal. Besides the Society of Chinese Artists, he was also supported by the Singapore alumni of Jimei High School in Xiamen which included businessman Tan See Siang.

The school shared space with the Society of Chinese Artists and they co-organised activities such as guest artist lectures by Xu Beihong and Liu Haisu which increased the school’s profile.

As student enrolment increased, the school moved to a bungalow at 93 Serangoon Road. There were 50 students taught by 12 teachers. The pioneer batch of four Western art students graduated on 20 June 1940.

The school was closed due to World War II.

Lim Hak Tai reopened the school at 49 St. Thomas Walk in 1946 with 30 students, 40% were international students. The name "Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts" was formally registered.

Lim laid down six guidelines for the school:

  • Fusion of art of the East and the West
  • Integration of culture and customs of the four races
  • Development of the spirit of science and current social thinking of the 20th century
  • Expression of the local flavour through art
  • Reflections of popular demands of local people
  • Emphasis on the educational and functions of fine art

Many Chinese émigré artists came to Singapore in search of a better life after the Japanese occupation. Among them were pioneer artists Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Wen Hsi and Chen Chong Swee who taught at NAFA and left a profound impact on generations of local artists and the arts community. Another renowned artist, Georgette Chen, also joined NAFA in 1954.

Founding principal, Lim Hak Tai passed away due to ill health in 1963 and his son Lim Yew Kuan, who is an alumnus, was appointed the acting principal. He was appointed full principal in 1964, becoming the second principal of NAFA.

The 1970s were a defining period for NAFA. The 1973 oil crisis led to tough economic times through to 1978. In addition, the separation of Singapore from Malaya in 1965 had a negative impact on student enrolment. A group of NAFA graduates launched a sale of their artworks on 8 February 1974 and raised $120,000 to relieve the school’s financial difficulties.

Numerous graduates came back to NAFA to help sustain its fine artistic tradition and promotion of fine art in Singapore. They include Tan Ping Chiang and Sim Kok Huoy who established the Applied Arts course in 1974.

In 1976, NAFA started painting classes for children who would form a pool of potential students for NAFA and would also contribute to the awareness of the arts.

By 1978, there were about 180 students in full-time and part-time evening and weekend courses taught by 12 lecturers who were well-known local artists. They taught Chinese ink painting, pencil sketching, oil painting, sculpture and other art theoretical studies.

Wu Tsung Kan was appointed the third Principal and Lim Yew Kuan the Vice Principal in 1979.

In 1982, with the support of Singapore Foochow Association, NAFA acquired additional premises at 107A Sophia Road which was named the San San Campus. In the same year, NAFA broke new grounds by launching a new full-time Diploma in Applied Arts course, the first institution to do so in Singapore. Courses in computer graphic design were also offered. NAFA’s name in Chinese was changed from 南洋美术专科学校to南洋美术专科学院 which promoted its status from a school to an academy.

As a reflection of Singapore's economic growth and cultural development in the 1970s and 1980s, the department of Interior Design was formed in 1983, the departments of Music and Dance were set up in 1984, followed by the launch of the Fashion Design department in 1986.

In 1983, the Ministry of Education sent the first batch of 20 teachers to NAFA to upgrade their skills in fine art. This milestone of the government’s recognition was a valuable endorsement. In 1984, the Secondary School Art Teachers in-Service class was converted to the department of Arts Education.

The Academy took up lease at Nan Hwa campus at 2 Adis Road in 1985 after the administration office moved to the San San Campus the year before.

Wu Tsung Kan retired in 1988 and Dr Gwee Yee Hean became NAFA’s fourth principal in 1989.

The 1990s heralded a decade of enormous strides and changes at NAFA as it grew itself into a full-fledged arts institution offering new programmes in design and multimedia.

In 1990, the National Arts Council leased former Selegie School premises at 1A Short Street to NAFA as its third campus named as the Selegie Campus, in addition to its Nan Hwa and San San campuses. The Academy’s name in Chinese was changed from南洋美术专科学院 to 南洋艺术学院 to reflect its status beyond a fine art training institution but a comprehensive arts education institution.

In 1992, the logo was modified. NAFA Board Chairman Chng Heng Tiu was appointed as acting principal.

In 1994, Dr Soh Kay Cheng was appointed the fifth principal.

In 1997, Dr Ho Kah Leong, former Senior Parliamentary Secretary (Ministry of Environment) was appointed NAFA’s sixth principal. A multimedia department was set up in January. Various departments were re-organised into three main schools - School of Visual Arts, School of Performing Arts and International School of Fashion Studies. Visual Arts included Fine Art, Graphic Design, Interior Design and Multimedia. The Drama (renamed Theatre in 1998) department was set up in August 1997. In 1996, the National Arts Council sponsored NAFA for the acquisition of the old premises of St. Anthony’s Convent on Middle Road to replace Nan Hwa and San San campuses, as well as space at 11 Upper Wilkie Road the year after.

In 1998, NAFA launched two degree programmes in collaboration with Australian universities as it expanded its offerings for further education.

Arts education gained public interest in 1997 and the government commissioned a study on the feasibility of upgrading the two extant arts institutions. The study reviewed their roles in arts education and examined an expanded situation that would provide well-trained graduates to meet the fast growth of the creative industries. That resulted in NAFA being recognised as a full tertiary institution and being awarded polytechnic-level funding for its Diploma courses by Singapore’s Ministry of Education in 1999.

In the same year, the School of Young Talents was set up to bring together Junior Art, Junior Music, Junior Dance and Junior Drama under one department, providing one-stop arts enrichment lessons to children. The International School of Fashion Studies was also renamed School of Fashion Studies.

In NAFA’s bid to occupy its own purpose-built campus, it approached the government and succeeded in getting three plots of land totaling 8,500sqm along Bencoolen Street. NAFA made a historic move to its current three campuses in 2004. This was the first time since its founding in 1938 that the Academy was occupying its own buildings.

Former Chief Executive Officer of National Arts Council, Choo Thiam Siew, became NAFA president in 2003. The Ministry of Education also entrusted NAFA to train future art and music teachers; two teaching courses, Diploma in Art Teaching and Diploma in Music Teaching were launched.

Further changes were made to the naming of departments to reflect the changing courses. In 2007, the Interior Design Department was renamed Department of 3D Design; Visual Communications and Multimedia Departments were merged and named Department of Design & Media; Arts Management Department was renamed Department of Arts Management & Education.

In celebration of its 70th anniversary in 2008, NAFA organised the inaugural NAFA Symposium – “New Asian Imaginations”, to anchor NAFA’s position in the research and teaching of the arts with a distinctive regional emphasis. An anniversary book on NAFA’s history and future plans titled, ‘Arts Education and the New Economy: NAFA 1938 – 2008’ was also published.

A new logo was launched in 2009. NAFA Gallery 3 was renamed Lim Hak Tai Gallery in tribute of NAFA’s founding principal and his portrait sculpture was unveiled outside the gallery.

NAFA sought to partner top universities for its degree programmes and a comprehensive programme of courses from UK universities was introduced from 1999 to 2001. In April 2011, NAFA became the first comprehensive arts education institution to launch a government-funded degree programme, the Bachelor of Music (Hons), with the prestigious Royal College of Music (RCM), London. It was also the first time that the RCM was conferring its degrees outside the UK.

In June 2011, NAFA became the first arts education institution to be awarded the four-year EduTrust certification by the Committee for Private Education. The second NAFA Symposium: New Asian Imaginations: (Re)Searching the Arts in Southeast Asia was held in September 2011. NAFA also announced the development plan for its fourth campus to be built above the future Bencoolen Street MRT station.

In 2013, NAFA celebrated its 75th anniversary with an extravaganza of visual and performing arts events to showcase its talented students and faculties. The events culminated in a NAFA 75th Anniversary Fundraising Gala Dinner & Concert graced by President Tony Tan Keng Yam on 1 November which raised more than $1.2 million for its Development Fund.

After a decade of success, Choo Thiam Siew left NAFA as president in 2014. Former Ngee Ann Polytechnic principal Chia Mia Chiang took over the helm as NAFA president on 1 April.

In 2015, there was a thorough review of the academic structure to enhance NAFA's standing as a student-centric institution that is driven by academic and organisational excellence. The academic departments were re-organised into three academic schools to reap synergies in curriculum planning, teaching and learning, utilisation of facilities and resource planning. Following the review, 3D Design, Design & Media, Fine Art and Fashion Studies departments were merged into a new “School of Art & Design”; the Dance, Theatre and Arts Management & Education Departments were merged into “School of Arts Management, Dance and Theatre”, and the Music Department was re-designated as the “School of Music”.

In December of the same year, the Academy received its largest donation since its founding in 1938. The Ngee Ann Kongsi pledged a sum of $10 million to NAFA, of which $9.4 million went to support the cost of building a new facility above the Bencoolen MRT Station. The rest of the donation or $0.6m goes towards The Ngee Ann Kongsi Talent Scholarships, which is given out to deserving full-time diploma students.

The following year, NAFA also received a generous S$5 million donation from the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple. The bulk of it went towards the NAFA Development Fund, which supports infrastructure and capability development. The rest of the donation was used for acquisition of library resources as well as to set up the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Student Relief Fund and the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Fellowship.

The year 2017 was a highlight for NAFA. The academy was very honoured to welcome His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales on 1 November 2017. During the visit which took place at The Ngee Ann Kongsi Galleries, His Royal Highness viewed art exhibits from the NAFA Collection. Creators of some of the artworks, who are alumni artists of NAFA, were present to introduce their works and techniques used. Students from NAFA’s School of Music also had the honour to interact with and perform musical pieces for The Prince of Wales.

The new facility above Bencoolen Station, named NAFA Campus 1 Tower Block, was officially opened on 2 February 2018. The expansion of campus space is the first following the move to the school’s permanent home in Bencoolen in 2004. The additional space goes to state-of-the-art classrooms, studios and student interaction spaces to benefit NAFA’s students.

On the same day, NAFA launched its 80th anniversary celebrations. Both milestone events were officiated by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) and Second Minister for Defense. The event also kickstarted a year-long festivities to celebrate its eminent history. Programmes include an eight-week long arts festival, opera production, commemorative book, homecoming events for our alumni, and a rich variety of performances.

As NAFA continues to grow, the school also continues to strengthen their curriculum to remain relevant in the creative industry. It revamped its courses to strengthen career development and life skills with elements of internship, industry projects and teaching practice. The holistic approach ensures that students are ready for the creative industries and can make a difference in their future roles.

NAFA strives to be a provider of quality arts education for all ages. As a school which started humbly in 1938 with 14 Fine Art students, NAFA has been at the forefront of arts education development in Singapore for 80 years and continues to chart new frontiers.