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From humble arts school to leading arts education institution

NAFA was established in 1938 as a fine art school with a mere 14 students. Today, we have transformed in tandem with the local arts scene to become a leading arts institution in Singapore. Our history is one filled with stories of courage and overcoming the odds—all of which contribute to our rich heritage, passion and conviction to inspire learning and growth in the arts. Read more about our milestones over the decades.

1930s: The start of a new era for Singapore artists

Founding principal, Lim Hak Tai and a group of like-minded arts education enthusiasts came together with a dream: To develop a school modelled after the Chinese art academies but with a curriculum balanced between Western and Chinese art traditions.

With the support from the Society of Chinese Artists and Singapore alumni of Jimei High School in Xiamen, this dream came to fruition on 10 March 1938 and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (南洋美术专科学校) was launched.

The school was located in an old two-storey shophouse at 167 Geylang opposite the Gay World Amusement Park and had just 14 Fine Art students. It shared its space with the Society of Chinese Artists and together, the two co-organised activities such as guest artist lectures by Xu Beihong, which increased the school’s profile.

When student enrolment increased to 50 students taught by 12 teachers, the school moved to a bungalow at 93 Serangoon Road.

1940s & 1950s: Rebuilding after the war

The school’s pioneering batch of four Western art students graduated on 20 June 1940, but the school closed a year later when the war hit Singapore.

In 1946, Lim Hak Tai reopened the school at 49 St. Thomas Walk and 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

Then, there were 30 students in attendance, 40 percent of whom were international. The faculty comprised Chinese émigré artists who came to Singapore in search of a better life after the Japanese occupation, including but not limited to pioneer artists such as Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Wen Hsi and Chen Chong Swee. Georgette Chen also joined NAFA in 1954, adding to the list of names who would leave a profound impact on generations of artists to come.

1960s: The next generation rises up

When Founding Principal, Lim Hak Tai passed away due to poor health in 1963, his son, Lim Yew Kuan, an alumnus of NAFA, was appointed the Acting Principal. He was appointed full Principal in 1964, where he remained until 1979.

1970s: The NAFA spirit shines

The 1970s was a challenging time for NAFA as the 1973 oil crisis, coupled with Singapore’s separation from Malaya in 1965, caused student enrolment to dip. 

To help the school relieve its financial difficulties, in 1974, a pool of graduates came together to sell their artwork, raising S$120,000 for the school.

Numerous other alumni also returned to NAFA to help sustain its fine artistic tradition and promote fine art in Singapore.Notable names included Sim Kok Huoy and Tan Ping Chiang, the latter who became the first Head of our Applied Arts course established in 1974.

In 1976, NAFA started painting classes for children, a move that generated awareness about the arts, and gave the school an avenue to identify potential students for the future.

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. Classes offered included Chinese ink painting, pencil sketching, oil painting, sculpture and other art theoretical studies.

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

1980s: Evolving from a school to an academy

A significant milestone in the 1980s was the change of NAFA’s name in Chinese from 南洋美术专科学校 to 南洋美术专科学院. This was pivotal in altering NAFA’s status from a school to an academy.

In tandem with this, NAFA spent the decade improving its programme offerings. 

For example, in 1983, when the Ministry of Education sent the first batch of 20 teachers to NAFA to upgrade their skills in fine art, the school responded by converting the Secondary School Art Teachers In-Service class to the Department of Arts Education.

Other curriculum changes were made in alignment with Singapore’s economic growth and cultural development: 

● 1982: NAFA launched a new full-time Diploma in Applied Arts course, making it the first institution in Singapore to do so. Courses in computer graphic design were also offered.
● 1983:  The Department of Interior Design was formed
● 1984: The Department of Music and and Department of Dance were set up 
● 1986: The Fashion Design Department was established

NAFA’s campus size also grew alongside the programmes and with the support of the Singapore Foochow Association, NAFA opened the San San Campus at 107A Sophia Road in 1982. Three years later, it also took up a lease at the Nan Hwa campus at 2 Adis Road.

Our third Principal, Wu Tsung Kan retired in 1988 and was succeeded by Dr Gwee Yee Hean in 1989.

1990s: The transformation to a comprehensive arts institution

The 1990s heralded a decade of enormous change at NAFA as it grew from a fine art training academy to a full-fledged arts institution offering new programmes in design and multimedia. To reflect this, NAFA’s name in Chinese was changed from 南洋美术专科学院 to 南洋艺术学院 to reflect this. 
The first significant shift was the reorganisation of various departments into three main schools: School of Visual Arts, School of Performing Arts and International School of Fashion Studies.
The Drama (renamed Theatre in 1998) department was set up in August 1997, and in 1999,  the departments of Junior Art, Junior Music, Junior Dance and Junior Drama were consolidated under the School of Young Talents. The International School of Fashion Studies was renamed School of Fashion Studies.
The nineties were also when NAFA began expanding its further education offerings, and in 1998, the school launched two degree programmes in collaboration with Australian universities. In 1999, thanks to the rising interest in arts education, and a government study on the impact of arts institutes on the creative industries, NAFA was recognised as a full tertiary institution with polytechnic-level government funding for its diploma courses.

Other highlights of the decade are as follows:
● 1990: NAFA expanded its campus by leasing the Selegie School premises at 1A Short Street from the National Arts Council.
● 1992: The NAFA logo was modified and NAFA Board Chairman Chng Heng Tiu was appointed Acting Principal.
● 1994: Dr Soh Kay Cheng was appointed the fifth Principal.
● 1996: The National Arts Council sponsored NAFA’s acquisition of the old premises of St. Anthony’s Convent on Middle Road to replace the Nan Hwa and San San campuses, and a year later, also the use of 11 Upper Wilkie Road.
● 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. 
● 1998: A new logo was born. Designed by Berwin See, it sought to bring across the message “to proceed freely in the world”. Prominent calligrapher Pan Shou wrote the Chinese characters of the academy in the logo.

2000s: A decade of intensive growth

The 2000s marked a decade of intensive growth as NAFA expanded its campus and continued to revamp its programme structure to meet the evolving needs of the industry.

● 1999 to 2001: NAFA sought to partner top universities for its degree programmes and a comprehensive array of courses from universities in the United Kingdom was introduced.

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

● 2004: NAFA  succeeded in obtaining three plots of land totalling 8,500sqm along Bencoolen Street and made its move to its first purpose-built campus.

● 2007: 
○ Various departments are reorganised to reflect the changing demands of the industry. For example, the Interior Design Department was renamed Department of 3D Design. Also, the Visual Communications Department and Multimedia Department were merged to form the Department of Design & Media. The Arts Management Department was renamed Department of Arts Management & Education.

● 2008: 
○ NAFA celebrated its 70th anniversary, with the inaugural NAFA Symposium, New Asian Imaginations.
○ An anniversary book on NAFA’s history and future plans titled, Arts Education and the New Economy: NAFA 1938 – 2008, was published.

● 2009: A new logo was released. This incorporated an abbreviation of the original Chinese characters by Pan Shou. NAFA Gallery 3 was also renamed Lim Hak Tai Gallery as tribute to NAFA’s Founding Principal and Lim’s portrait sculpture was unveiled outside the gallery. 

2010 to present: NAFA as we know it today

The 2010s were a time of celebration as NAFA continued its transformation into the leading arts institution you know today.

● 2011: 
○ In April, 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. This was the first time that RCM conferred its degrees outside the United Kingdom.
○ In June, NAFA became the first arts education institution to be awarded the four-year EduTrust certification by the Committee for Private Education. 
○ In September, the second NAFA symposium New Asian Imaginations: (Re)Searching the Arts in Southeast Asia was held.
○ NAFA announced plans for its fourth campus to be built above the future Bencoolen MRT station.

● 2013
○ NAFA celebrated its 75th anniversary with an extravaganza of visual and performing arts events to showcase its talented students and faculty. The events culminated in a NAFA 75th Anniversary Fundraising Gala Dinner & Concert graced by President Tony Tan Keng Yam on 1 November. Over S$1.2 million was raised for the NAFA Development Fund.

● 2014: Choo Thiam Siew stepped down as President and was succeeded by former Ngee Ann Polytechnic Principal Chia Mia Chiang who became the eighth President.

● 2015:
○ NAFA’s academic structure was reviewed and departments were re-organised into three academic schools to reap synergies in curriculum planning, teaching and learning, utilisation of facilities and resource planning. This saw 3D Design, Design & Media, Fine Art and Fashion Studies departments coming under the new School of Art & Design, while the Dance, Theatre and Arts Management & Education departments formed the School of Arts Management, Dance & Theatre. The Music Department was re-designated as the School of Music.
○ In December, the Academy received its largest donation since its founding in 1938. The Ngee Ann Kongsi pledged a sum of S$10 million to NAFA, of which S$9.4 million went to support the cost of building a new facility above the Bencoolen MRT Station. The rest of the donation or S$0.6m was channelled to The Ngee Ann Kongsi Talent Scholarships.

● 2016: A generous S$5 million donation from the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple supported the NAFA Development Fund, the acquisition of library resources, and the set up of the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Student Relief Fund and the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Fellowship.

● 2017:  
○ NAFA welcomed His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales to The Ngee Ann Kongsi Galleries on 1 November. During the tour of the galleries, NAFA alumni with pieces in the NAFA collection were present to introduce their work and explain about the techniques used. Students from the School of Music were also given the opportunity to meet and perform for His Royal Highness.

● 2018: 
○ NAFA celebrated its 80th anniversary and the official opening of the NAFA Campus 1 Tower Block, located above Bencoolen MRT Station.
○ The launch event of the anniversary celebrations and campus opening was 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, including an eight-week long arts festival, an opera production, a commemorative book publication, homecoming events for NAFA alumni, and a rich variety of other performances.