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Artists Need Space


First published on in March 2012

Recently I was at an art show at SAM at 8Q, a contemporary art facility on Queen Street. The show, Future Proof, exhibited art works by Singapore’s most promising current generation artists—encompassing better known artists like Donna Ong and collective Vertical Submarine as well as artists completely new to the scene and who have never exhibited a work before this, like Gerald Leow.


Some of the artists were there and I asked one of them about her work, an interesting sculptural installation piece. It was created in Berlin, she told me, where she had obtained an artist’s residency. There’s just no affordable space for artists in Singapore, she lamented. However, she added, the National Arts Council did pay for her residency in the form of a grant. With rents in Singapore being so exorbitant and artists’ spaces so scarce, the grant would have gotten her no suitable space locally, but was able to land her a decent residency in the affordable cultural capital of Germany.


Lack of working space has been a perennial challenge for artists in small Singapore. So when the Ministry of Information and the Arts recently announced that it would be pumping a generous S$274 million into developing arts and culture in Singapore, I wondered if it was going to address this fundamental issue. It’s unclear.


Most of this arts and culture budget will go towards creating more opportunities for ordinary Singaporeans to be exposed to the arts through funding arts groups and providing them with platforms, the rest of it will go towards building arts education in schools and developing artistic talent through training programmes and scholarships. All this is fantastic of course.


But this focuses mainly on the outcomes of having a strong arts scene—social cohesion, a well-rounded education, and jobs and skills in the arts professions. It doesn’t quite embrace the pressing need to facilitate art creation amongst working artists in Singapore. And it needs to do that, as our own art creation—not foreign artists and acts—is vital to achieving and sustaining the good outcomes this plan has as its objectives.


At the heart of art creation are good, suitable artists’ spaces—that are of the right size, with the right environment and that are affordable. And that are offered purely for the purpose of artistic creation, open to all arts practitioners, without the expectation of a return of investment. I mean studios for visual artists, musicians, dancers and theatre practitioners. Without these spaces, we are going to constantly be limiting our production of the arts. 


To be fair, the government does provide some space for artists. The National Arts Council Arts Housing Scheme, launched in 1985, has since given rise to three Arts Belts—in Waterloo Street, Chinatown and Little India—that houses an assortment of arts groups. 

That’s a big statement and one that has been brandished so much it sounds cliché, but it’s true. The arts will not flourish as long as there is censorship and control. Requiring that the arts always be wholesome or restricting certain works, is an artificial constraint that dampens creation. The fear that removing censorship will unleash a torrent of unsavoury works is probably misplaced. While there will always be some works that certain people find offensive or shocking, it is unlikely that all hell is going to break loose. What it will do is allow the minds of artists to work in the way their should.


For this fundamental and seismic shift to occur, both the government and society have to be ready and comfortable. Ironically, in this aspect, the government might be further ahead than we think. Heeding the vocal demands from arts practitioners and an increasingly savvy citizenry for more openness in the arts, and bowing to the borderless Internet age, the government is happier to act with more flexibility on its moral position on censorship and control. The issue is not whether to open up, but how to do so without rocking the boat and causing an outcry amongst those who feel the government should continue to be a moral watchdog in the arts (and media).


Clear steps have been taken to allow a wider range of artistic content to be available, while keeping a free-for-all openness at a prudent arm’s length. Arts performances, for example, that deal with mature or sensitive topics such as sexuality, race, religion, politics, even the topic of censorship itself, can be staged but only with classification determined by the Media Development Authority. A recent example is MDA’s approved release of filmmaker Martyn See’s video of Singapore’s longest serving political prisoner, Chia Thye Poh, with an NC16 rating.


Underlying this is of course the question of who should be held accountable for the content we are exposed to and consume—the content creators, distributors, regulators or audience? If the government is to move away from censorship and control, then the responsibility for this falls more squarely on the shoulders of the consumer. Unfortunately, after decades of paternalistic government that controlled content in Singapore, from the days of the anti-yellow culture campaign of the 1960s that deemed even rock and roll morally decadent, some people offended by content they see are conditioned to turn to the government to take care of this perceived problem.


So for our local arts scene to really bloom to its full potential, we still need to work on changing our minds. Towards more acceptance of real openness in the arts and valuing art creation enough to hand over good space to arts practitioners in Singapore.


And that is one issue that throwing money at may not help.

There are also various other homes to the arts like The Substation and Telok Kurau Studios to name a couple. And Gillman Barracks, the new visual arts nucleus being put together by various government agencies led by the Economic Development Board and the National Arts Council, will set up a Centre for Contemporary Arts that promises to offer artist residencies.


But I think we need to go deeper than that.


We need to value the arts for their own sake, as being worthy in their own right. Not viewing them as another avenue of high net worth commerce or a tool for social cohesion. Not measuring the arts by their outcome, but by their creation. But by the imagination, inspiration, talent, good taste and passion that goes into creating an artwork, composing a piece of music, choreographing a dance, making a film or shooting a photograph.


Until we value art creation, its very genesis and all that goes into it—we are not going to carve out enough good space for artists. We are not going to look at a piece of property in the city and instead of seeing its real estate value, say ‘this would make a great artists’ studio.’ And see the importance of having artists working in our midst, which adds a tremendous amount of soul and vibrancy to a city.


An example of how this wanting state of affairs has played itself out is Old School on Mount Sophia. A privately run arts enterprise, Old School took it upon themselves, at their own cost and risk, to provide very affordable space to artists and musicians, including new and emerging practitioners, and became a gem in the arts community. The space given over to artists at Old School had high commercial value and could have easily been used for profitable ventures. But because the owners of Old School believe in supporting the arts, they saw the intrinsic worth in letting that space become artists’ space. This went beyond dollars and cents, beyond pragmatism, beyond running a corporation, and became about appreciating the intangible beauty of creation. Sadly, the future of Old School hangs in the balance as the buildings it is located in—11 Mount Sophia, the former Methodist Girls School—is slated for demolition to make way for a condominium.


For the other kind of space artists need—mental and emotional space—we need to look away from the government. Stop turning to schemes or review committees or policies to legislate this into being. In fact, in this area, the government would actually help by doing less not more.


Mental and emotional space means having the freedom to create and focus on producing the best work one possibly can and not worrying whether the authorities will approve it, what one has to alter about a work in order to get the rating one wants, or whether it is in line with a national agenda or mainstream social values. It means letting go of censorship and control of the arts.

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