Conversations with Alicia Teng

By Tanya Nagar and Charu Nivethitha

With a passionate mind to serve the community better and constantly looking out for opportunities to build her portfolio, let’s take a closer look into the work of Ms Alicia Teng, an accomplished Arts Administrator who has been active in the field of philanthropy and community development for the past 10 years. This article gives meaningful insights into her evolving career journey and how she seeks and forges strategic partnerships to enhance meaningful and sustainable collaborations.

My role consists of a few portfolios due to my unique job scope. They include access initiatives, volunteer management and community engagement. As a result, my day is filled mainly with meetings with my team members where we discuss the projects that we are working on and collaborate with internal and external stakeholders to execute the projects.  I also spend time doing coaching in a small group or one-to-one basis with my team periodically. Due to the nature of our programme offerings, there are times when we work extended hours on weekdays and weekends. 

My degree is in Bachelor of Arts from National University of Singapore with a major in Information Communications Management (now known as Communications and New Media). I would say that it is by chance that I ended up in the Arts sector. 

I started my career as an Account Executive selling airtime in a radio station. I chose the media sector as it was closest to the degree I pursued. However, after a few years, I realised that I was more inclined towards building relationships with my clients than doing sales. While I was exploring other career options, I chanced upon the role in the advertising and promotions team at a local tourist attraction, where I worked for a while.

In 2008, when the impacts of the financial crisis rippled throughout the world, I chanced upon a six-month contract offer from the National Arts Council for the Singapore Arts Festival. Landing full time job opportunities was extremely tough at that point in time and thus, I took this job offer and entered the arts sector.  When the ArtsFest Team dissolved in 2012, I joined National Gallery Singapore and it has been 10 years since.   

Throughout my time in the arts sector, I have had the privilege to explore different roles from marketing to fund raising and to my current diverse portfolio. The journey has been very meaningful and fulfilling. While it may not be the popular choice, I am glad to have the opportunity to be a part of this sector.

Both roles were definitely different as being part of the sales department in the radio station required me to sell commercial airtime. On the other hand, being part of the advertising and promotions team in the tourist attraction required me to promote the programmes to boost local ticket sales. Although both roles involved sales pitching, the way the products were sold were different. At the attraction,  my target was local ticket sales which is a cumulative effort of the team to increase local visitorship as opposed to a personal sales target for selling airtime.

The whole concept leaned more towards marketing the organisation and bringing the message to more people out there.

It is tough to narrow down to one experience as I have had the opportunity to learn many valuable lessons along the journey with National Gallery Singapore (The Gallery for short). When I first joined the Gallery, I did not start off with the team that I am currently in. I joined in 2012 as part of the fundraising team. Although I previously struggled with sales, fundraising was a different concept and it involved a collective effort from the team to cultivate and solicit funds from donors. With experience in sales and marketing as well as the exposure to the arts sector from being part of the National Arts Council, the experience gave me an upper hand in marketing the Gallery’s causes to potential donors.

I was very fortunate that during my time with the Gallery’s fundraising team, we managed to receive the largest single donation to the arts from a corporate and from an individual at $25 million and $5 million respectively. These major gifts were not just groundbreaking for the Gallery but they also paved the way for other arts organisations and groups to be creative in asking for major donations. 

Having transitioned to the Community and Access team in 2018, the last five years had been especially fulfilling. From being unsure of our purpose as a team to clearly articulating what we stand for – to increase access to the underserved communities through equitable opportunities so that every person can make meaningful connection with our art, heritage and offerings – we were able to create many enriching experiences at the Gallery with the support of our community partners. From rolling out the first comprehensive access guide ever produced by a cultural institution, to developing the Slow Art Programme at the height of the pandemic, to creating a Calm Room that is opened to all as a way to cultivate collective empathy and compassion, and also the launch of Art with You, a three-year journey to create a programme supporting caregivers accompanying loved ones living with dementia, I feel so grateful and encouraged when participants share with us how much they have benefited from these initiatives. 

In particular, Accessibility is becoming a more significant topic of discussion. We place emphasis on making art experiences inclusive to meet the diverse needs of visitors with access requirements such as those who are physically challenged.

We are currently working on and progressively moving towards making the Gallery more inclusive for all types of audiences so that everyone can enjoy the arts regardless of their background or access requirements. It also includes catering to the needs of people who are not familiar with the arts and providing them with ways where they can explore our Gallery’s art collection. 

Overall, we are exploring ways to create accessible and meaningful experiences for different types of audiences.

First of all, the key stakeholders that I work with have changed over the years. When I was part of the fundraising team, I used to meet corporate donors and high net worth individuals, a demographic vastly different from the community partners whom I meet now. I used to market the Gallery’s programmes to seek funding support, but I now look at how we can design programmes to better engage the community groups when they visit the Gallery. This requires us to work closely with community partners, fulfilling our motto of developing our programmes with the community instead of for the community.

I wish that I had better understood the job scope of someone working in community and access as it did take me a while to understand it. For someone who did not have much experience before, being involved in the community sector has given me more leverage in doing my work better.

One thing that I deeply appreciate is the support given by the community partners whom we work with, especially the feedback they provide regardless of the impression they may have of the Gallery. The open-mindedness they possess makes the feedback more effective and allows us to improve for the better, fostering a thoughtful and inclusive society where everyone can coexist together. The support came with the rapport that we build with our partners and the trust that we forge with one another.

Regardless of whether it is personal or work related, human to human relationship is complicated and is constantly a challenge. 

As a team leader, I have to be aware of how I communicate with my team members and take care of their personal and socio-emotional needs as it may impact their quality of work. 

We also have to collaborate well with colleagues from other divisions so as to achieve the outcome that will benefit everyone. Being able to articulate diverse perspectives in a balanced way to ensure everyone’s requirements are considered has proven to be challenging.

I believe the factors do depend on which life stage one is in currently.

When I first graduated, my main aim was to gain as much experience as possible. I was provided with two offers, one from the Radio Station and another from the special needs field. I chose Radio as I thought it aligned more with what I learned in school, and the scope, to me then, was more robust.

In my current stage of life, I am looking for opportunities that will give me experiences to develop aspects that I am weaker or perhaps not been exposed to. I seek jobs that will give me meaning to what I do and how I can also give back to society through what I do. Having worked in different teams and organisations, I also have clearer expectations of the type of work environment and team dynamics that I want to be immersed in.

When I was in my second job, I naively thought that the kind of support that I had from my colleagues in my first job, will be the same in my second. But reality is always different from expectations and I struggled to adapt to the different work culture from the one I was used to. 

Looking back on my career journey, I learnt that regardless of the circumstances, good or bad, I should always find ways to draw out what I can gain from the experience. The knowledge gained helps me better understand myself so I can leverage it in the next phase of my career.   

Specifically in community and access at the Gallery, one needs to have the heart to serve the Community. The work we do takes a lot of hard work so if there is no interest to serve the community, one may get discouraged or jaded very easily.

Adaptability and good communication are also key elements that I think are vital not just for this job but for many other jobs in general. 

The leadup to the opening of the Gallery was stressful and overwhelming as multiple things were going on. My role as a committee member of the Gallery Opening Taskforce was an extension to my core duties and it provided me with a more holistic perspective working towards the opening of the Gallery as I got to work with different divisions, representing my department to share our plans and align with those from other departments. 

Another committee that I was involved in was the Welfare committee. Back then, the staff strength was only 70 compared to the current strength of over 200. A memorable event we planned was a challenge inspired by the Amazing Race where colleagues formed groups to complete timed challenges. We used the opportunities to design challenges that provided some insights to the work of different departments within our organisation. 

Being involved in these committees enabled me to be more in touch with the work and colleagues at the Gallery.

Development of the Access Guide was one of the first few initiatives that the Community and Access team championed. As the Gallery’s vision is to be a progressive museum that fosters and inspires a thoughtful, creative and inclusive society, the Community and Access team thought hard about how we could contribute to realising the vision.

In trying to understand accessibility, we learnt that there are different types of access barriers and everyone faces multiple barriers. With the different access barriers in consideration, we started off with the more straightforward one, which is the physical barrier. 

While our organisation is very young, the buildings we occupy are very old colonial buildings built in the early 1920s. Upon the refurbishment of the buildings, Universal Design was applied but there are still limitations to the accessibility of certain spaces within the building. To help our visitors better understand how accessible our building is, we developed a comprehensive Access Guide which outlined various accessibility features of the Gallery, in partnership with the Disabled People’s Association (DPA) and Levelfield Consultants. When embarking on this project, we came to understand that such a document was not previously available in Singapore. With the Access Guide, visitors are made aware of the access features and accommodations that are available at the Gallery, thus managing their expectations on the accessibility of our building. This enhances their experience in planning their visit to the Gallery and avoids any misalignment of expectations with regards to their museum experience at the Gallery. 

Through an accessibility audit that was conducted to help us draft the access guide, the reports of the audit were shared with various departments in the Gallery. Improvements that were made through this initiative included automating some of the heavy doors at the Gallery so wheelchair users need not struggle with opening such doors.

The best piece of advice was from one of my superiors when I was working in the Singapore Arts Festival.

No matter what we do, never be a post-box. A postbox’s function is mainly to pass messages from one to another and it does not add value. Although some tasks may seem menial, we should always find ways to add value to what we do. 

We work with volunteers regularly and due to Covid restrictions, they could not help out for events physically. This resulted in us having to rethink what volunteer engagement actually is and having to ramp up the ways in which we engage with them during the pandemic. With over 50% of our volunteers aged 50 and above, the team came up with the idea of creating Zoom tutorials so our volunteers can continue to engage with one another while being stuck at home.  

It was extremely encouraging to learn that after our volunteers attended the tutorial, they shared what they learnt with their friends and family so they could connect with one another through Zoom subsequently. 

This knowledge gained allowed us to work with our volunteers to conduct Zoom tours for our community partners who were also stuck at home. We started with conducting these digital tours using PowerPoint and eventually our volunteers were able to conduct live-stream tours.

Although Covid disrupted our industry back then, it gave us a chance to rethink how we engage with our volunteers and through these efforts, how the new skills acquired by our volunteers could be used to better serve the needs of our community.

It boils down to the requirements of the job. While the competency of the person is crucial, a positive learning attitude may be more preferred than the competency they possess for certain jobs. Overall, it is a combination of various factors when it comes to obtaining a job.

Being able to spend time alone at home does help to restore my energy as I am constantly engaged with a lot of people. Taking a stroll in nature and getting away from the built environment gives me serenity and soothes me a lot. Sometimes, even if I am not able to leave the house, I try to look out of the window and enjoy the view of the trees, the greenery around and the weather in general. Immersing in nature is therapeutic. Also, spending time with my family and talking to my husband are effective ways to calm me down during stressful situations.