The recent closing down of The Substation, a 30-year-old multi-disciplinary center for the arts in Singapore is the stuff that classic, recurring art scene nightmares are made of. In the most recent, yet all-too-familiar episode, finger pointing and fault finding between Singapore’s National Arts Council (NAC), directors of The Substation, its board, artists and supporters of the center orbited around the tiresome subject of arts funding and the gymnastics of state cultural policies. If you ask me, I find the funding situation rather ironic given that K.C. Chew, its chairman, has often been hailed as one of the city-state’s masters in fundraising. K.C. as he is fondly known, “opened the first fund-raising office for the National University of Singapore (in 2003). In just five years, the university raked in more than $1 billion from philanthropists and a government program that matched donations to universities. This was four times the amount raised in the 12 previous years”. Then, in 2011, he raised SG$117 million while at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU). At that time, this donation from Lee Foundation was reported to be the largest-ever private donation to a Singapore university.
The Substation was founded by theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun, whose visionary leadership gave it the pride of place as a ‘home for the arts’ and the first truly independent multi-disciplinary arts center in Singapore. This was in 1990, one year before the establishment of the NAC i.e. before structured state funding for the arts came into being. This was pretty much a pre-digital era where for many years, entities such as Monster Films ran 16mm film-making workshops and Art-2 Gallery, a small yet formidable local commercial gallery, called the venue home. At the back of The Substation’s own art gallery space was a cosy café, run by an elderly Chinese couple, where artists could sip coffee and have a simple meal, conduct meet-ups and view happenings in the gallery from a raised vantage point. There was a garden, an open-air space (yes, was), accessible through a door from the gallery. Not many in the scene know that this garden was not originally part of the property parcel of The Substation. It was ‘acquired’ as an extension of the center, ‘to preserve the all-important connection between art and nature‘. Concerts, punk gigs, poetry readings, talks, murals (before graffiti became fashionable), theatre, experimental architecture, performance art all used to take place in this garden. Losing the garden permanently to a bar, albeit as a survival strategy for revenue generation, significantly shrank the center’s capacity to host more art activities. There was an access door from gallery to garden. This door has been pretty much permanently locked up, divorcing the symbolic and symbiotic relationship between art and life.
When the Choo’s café ceased operations, Fat Frog, a bigger outfit took over and expanded its footprint to the garden. The outdoor garden space was shared between artists and Fat Frog and still allowed for independent art events to take place. It was a different story when Timbre, the bar, moved in in 2005. Headed by Edward Chia (now a parliamentarian under PAP’s ticket) Timbre, in my opinion, has not been art or artist-friendly. In 2006, when co-organising Future of Imagination 3, an international performance art event, I remember having painful negotiations with Edward in asking for a few hours so that a couple of performance artists could present their pieces in what used to be the garden. Since then, I have never seen or heard of any worthy art events in this said garden. My sense from being frequently approached for directions to the bar all those times when I ‘loitered’ at the center’s front entrance tells me that many Timbre patrons did not know or care to know that they were, in fact, at an art center.
I recall a personal conversation sometime in early 2010 with the center’s then-General Manager Julie Englefield. As space appeared to always be in contest, she floated an idea of The Substation as an entity above its physicality - that it could exist and operate elsewhere given its two decades of history and built-up brand. The Substation’s dependency on short-term occupancy extensions was becoming untenable. I agreed and felt that this was an idea worthy of serious exploration.
At that time, I had travelled and participated in programs at various independent art centers in UK, France, Australia, Indonesia, Thailand and elsewhere to recognise that for its ambitions, and the multifarious art forms it supports, the limited physical footprint of The Substation alone was already one of its core handicaps. Space determines how, how much and what art could be shown. This then impacts audience and participant numbers, which in turn, dictate all potential in revenue generation. There were also conversations I had with Audrey Wong, one of the center’s previous directors in reclaiming the garden. I thought that a food and beverage initiative in the model of a co-operative, with The Substation and other stakeholders in the arts, particularly artists, as shareholders would be an option and to paraphrase Kuo Pao Kun - worthy of a failure.