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Creating Homes for the Arts

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The Substation Singapore

Editor’s Note: There has been much concern in the artistic community in Singapore about the fate of the Substation, in light of the recent announcement that the National Arts Council will be taking back the space for renovation works.

We publish below, in its entirety, a commentary by Paul Tan, Deputy Chief Executive Officer (Planning & Corporate Development), National Arts Council, with a view to presenting the perspective of the Council.

We welcome your thoughts and responses.

There has been much ink spilled and anguish aired in recent week about the future of The Substation, a long-standing player in Singapore’s cultural scene. This commentary aims to offer a perspective from the National Arts Council (NAC), and hopes to get a fuller picture of the current situation across to those interested.

There is little doubt that The Substation has an illustrious history. In a time before the creation of our cultural institutions like Esplanade, National Gallery Singapore and most of our arts companies today, The Substation stood tall as a beacon in a city that was still learning how to balance its drive for economic progress with a need for an authentic cultural life. Within the walls of the modest three-storey building, there was a palpable sense of the vision of its founder playwright Kuo Pao Kun, who was able to galvanise the community with an inclusive and thoughtful agenda while equally adept at engaging the government and securing trust for his vision. Many artists have spoken eloquently on how his sense of inclusivity inspired them and indeed, many of our leading arts companies today can trace their origins and growth to The Substation.

I too have fond memories of the space, having worked as a member of a chorus on a production in the Guinness Theatre as an undergraduate in 1992. (The production Details Cannot Body Wants was an interesting part of Singapore’s theatrical history but that is another story for another time.) Even as the cast rehearsed, we could feel a certain frisson about the possibilities of the space then and how The Substation allowed for experimentation and could further the development of arts in Singapore.

Since then, the arts and culture ecosystem has burgeoned – there has been a dramatic growth in the number of arts practitioners and arts companies, thanks to arts institutions like LASALLE College of the Arts, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) and various departments at our public universities, all active in developing new talents. The funding that flows through NAC, and through its parent ministry (in the form of the Cultural Matching Fund and the work of our Cultural Institutions) also supports thousands of jobs, directly or indirectly, as well as a plethora of cultural expressions and experiences. (One data point: there are some 4,000+ arts and culture companies and societies, as of 2019.)

So really, it is less about the state wanting to centralise its resources, as had been suggested in one commentary, but rather enabling a diversity of artforms and voices in the sector. That support isn’t all financial either – the government can support the sector through initiatives like Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Community/Sports Facilities Scheme which has seen arts companies successfully co-locate in commercial spaces like retail malls.

Commentaries have also touched on how arts groups who have long been associated with specific arts spaces are being displaced, and how there is a need to take a customised approach.

The answer is a simple one: spaces, especially in the city centre, are hard to come by and NAC, which leases the sites from Government, needs to make sure they are properly utilised and managed. There is certainly no intention to displace groups which are contributing to the community and larger society. Indeed, the current Framework for Arts Spaces allows artists and groups to continue in their spaces beyond three terms of three years, though at a lower rental subsidy. This is considered generous, certainly when compared to how arts councils around the world support arts companies’ physical spaces.

In other countries, what we have observed is that the arts community, the state and private owners come together in a positive way. Yogyakarta in Indonesia is one interesting model where artists and patrons have an admirably symbiotic relationship with some modest government support, which has created many vibrant spaces which are both viable in the main and artistically exciting.

Back home, we hope that our local arts groups which have been thriving in our spaces will apply for the Open Call when the time comes. So yes, NAC has to strike the right balance between giving new entrants an opportunity to enjoy subsidised spaces and the need to help existing groups forward plan and deepen their own capacity. And for sure, these conversations are not done in a cookie-cutter fashion and different support measures apply to help groups make transitions.

So specific to The Substation, why precipitate a change of the operational model now, especially during a pandemic? As we have explained elsewhere, in late 2017, NAC assessed that the 90-plus year-old building was in need of an upgrade, especially when we looked at how the precinct had spruced up over the years. It was also timely to relook the operating model of the company, given that over the three decades, the company appears to have become less sustainable with a greater reliance on government grants and their commercial tenancy income. Direct and indirect government support thus added up to almost 90% of their annual income. This did not augur well, even as much as we respected The Substation’s vision of doing smaller scale, multi-disciplinary works which were not market pleasers.

It also became clear that experimental, non-mainstream work were being created and incubated in other spaces – from short term project studios in Goodman Arts Centre and residency spaces in Nanyang Technological University to units in industrial buildings being sublet by collectives of enterprising young artists. So clearly it was hard for any one venue to claim to be the sole haven for artistic experimentation.

Furthermore, as Singapore developed over the decades, we all bore witness to different models of operating in the non-profit sector and observed how the bar on good governance has been also raised. This may not be the sexiest of topics but NAC does have to ask the difficult question of whether it can continue to support any group at this high level of subsidy. In fact, in a time of a pandemic, there is an imperative to explore new operational models, including being asset-light and not being tied down to the costs of maintaining physical infrastructure or fretting about commercial tenancies in a slowing economy.

The reality is that being a champion of the arts – and this applies to any arts funding body in the world – involves making tough decisions as well. It requires an assessment of the state of the ecosystem, deciding what models of governance work today, given the finite resources of the state. It is also about projecting where we want to land on as a community and a country, and what strategies need to be laid down to enable us to get there.

Then there is also the longer-term conversation of getting more Singaporeans fired up about the arts. As many have observed, it cannot be the sole responsibility of the state to sustain an arts scene. When more believe in the power of the arts – and indeed many have stepped forward in the last decade – more solutions become possible. What is stopping a corporate from providing an arts group with the financial wherewithal to take up a longer commercial lease elsewhere in Singapore? And whose job is it to win over more believers and future supporters?

But specific to 45 Armenian Street, we do have reasons to say we have confidence in this reset – we can imagine a revitalised space, one that recalls the same sense of possibility that I experienced as a young undergraduate. It could be the home of different arts organisations, including The Substation, which could return to the building as a stronger organisation, with an engaged Board driven by a compelling vision and led by Artistic Directors who can galvanise the arts community, including diverse committed patrons.

There is no reason why The Substation’s vision needs to be tied to a brick-and-mortar building, as asserted by founder Kuo himself. Similarly, there is no reason why an organisation with the right chutzpah and clarity of purpose cannot co-exist with other arts tenants and succeed. NAC will play its part, balancing the hard-headed questions with a heart for how the arts can transform lives. We certainly hope there will be many others in Singapore who share a belief in the organisation and will step forward to serve.

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