The idea of a national arts centre for Singapore was conceived.
[Esplanade] is a name beloved of all Singaporeans, for it conjures in the mind respite from the day's exertions, tropical sea breezes, the aroma of satay, glittering harbour lights, romance beneath the stars. Former Minister for Information and the Arts George Yeo, 1994, when the name of the centre was revealed.
The Vision 1999 plan for Singapore announced the intention to build a national arts centre.
First design brief was formulated with input from the arts community.
The Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts, chaired by then Second Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheong, released its report that contained important recommendations for the arts in Singapore. It called for the creation of various arts institutions, among which was a "world-class performing arts centre". A steering committee was set up and chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheong and when he was elected as President in 1993, then Minister for Information and the Arts George Yeo took over as Chairman.
The first public exhibition of the architectural plans was held, titled "Taking Shape". The arts centre was named Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.
The Esplanade project was redesigned in phases: Phase 1 comprised the Theatre, Concert Hall, studios, rehearsal and commercial spaces. Medium-sized theatres were to be built in Phase 2.
Construction of the superstructure began.
On 12 October, after a decade of careful planning and construction, with input from the Singapore arts community, Singapore's national arts centre was officially opened. It was named Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, and it acquired what would become a fond nickname, "Durian", inspired by its resemblance to the iconic Southeast Asian tropical fruit.
Esplanade was conceived and opened as a socially motivated, not-for-profit arts centre. The vision and mission was clear then: to be an arts centre for everyone that entertains, engages, educates and inspires. This became a guiding philosophy that the arts centre continues to live by today.
Esplanade's Opening Festival—a three-week multicultural and multi-genre event—presented a wide range of quality ticketed and free performances and activities that had something for everyone. By the end of the festival on 3 November, Esplanade received more than a million visitors to the centre who enjoyed arts experiences offered through 73 ticketed and 600 free events that also included talks, workshops and exhibitions, featuring 1,300 artists from 22 countries.
From this very well-received beginning, Esplanade surged ahead on its journey in shaping and influencing the arts in Singapore.
A week after the Opening Festival, the arts centre launched its first regular annual festival Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts. Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts and Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts were launched in the months that followed, ensuring that there was something for all arts audiences from Singapore's three main cultures.
And that was only the start. Esplanade went on to create a year-long calendar of events that included genre-specific festivals that covered dance, music and theatre, and also festivals that catered for young arts audiences as well as the more senior members of the community. Several programme series were also created to reach out to a broad range of arts audiences.
Esplanade hosted the International Society of the Performing Arts (ISPA) Congress, held for the first time in Asia.
The Association of Asia Pacific Performing Arts Centres (AAPPAC) Secretariat moved from Sydney Opera House in Australia to Esplanade. This was the first time the Secretariat was hosted in Asia. Esplanade also presented the world premiere of I La Galigo, which was commissioned and co-produced by Esplanade and directed by Robert Wilson.
The Outdoor Theatre was reopened. Now twice as large as before, the space seats 450 people and accommodates up to 600 standing.
Recognition of Esplanade as a Continuing Education and Training (CET) Centre by Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA) for training workers in the technical theatre industry. Launch of Technical Theatre Training Programme (TTTP), approved under the Workforce Skills Qualification (WSQ) framework as the standard for the technical theatre industry in Singapore.
Esplanade formed a dedicated education unit in the Programming department to look into better meeting the age-specific needs of young audiences.
As Esplanade reached its 10-year milestone, it commemorated a decade of serving the community with a year-long calendar of performances and programmes themed Celebrating Life – The best of the Human Spirit through the Arts that paid tribute to key human values at each of its festivals.
On Esplanade's anniversary weekend from 11 – 14 October 2012, the centre presented a special four-day Dedicated To You event celebrating Singapore arts and artists. The weekend featured an original lineup of 11 specially commissioned programmes and a host of free programmes that cut across genres of dance, music, theatre and visual arts.
Recognising the efforts of the many arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the arts in Singapore, Esplanade also launched the TributeSG initiative, an online repository featuring important figures in Singapore's arts scene.
Formation of a dedicated community engagement unit in the Programming department to deepen Esplanade’s engagement with voluntary welfare organisations and youth.
A centre-wide physical renewal and refreshment exercise commenced to offer a better experience for our visitors and patrons.
Esplanade put Singapore artists at the forefront to commemorate Singapore’s 50th birthday. The centre presented a meaningful line-up of special commissions and collaborations year-round, involving a wide range of Singapore artists across art forms and generations.
The completion of the physical renewal and refreshment exercise. Completed works include the refurbishment of various hospitality and visual arts spaces; a full redevelopment of our Forecourt into the thriving Forecourt Garden with a lively ecosystem; the creation of PIP’s PLAYbox, a dedicated children’s activity area at Level 4, as well as Annexe Studio, a new venue converted from a dance club into a raw and flexible two-storey space suitable for informal performances, artist residencies and development programmes, rehearsals, workshops and masterclasses.
As Esplanade turns 15, the arts centre prepares itself for its next stage of development. This includes expanding its arts programmes to inspire the next generation, our young; creating more original works with artists and arts groups to generate shared experiences and stories through the arts; and nurturing budding artists from home to the world stage.
To enable this phase of growth, Esplanade launches its plans to build a new 550-seat theatre along its waterfront. The estimated $30m project is a ground-up initiative for which Esplanade aims to build through contributions from the public and corporates, and government support. The venue is targeted to be operational by 2021.
In October 2017, Esplanade embarks on #mydurian—a year-long celebration for its 15th anniversary—comprising programmes and activities that bring together people and stories that have helped shape the iconic arts centre fondly dubbed the Durian.