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. In this model, profits would be channeled back to The Substation’s operational and programming needs. Shareholders enjoy dividends, and artists and programmers could once again reactivate the space with meaningful projects.
As his contribution to the Singapore Biennale in 2011 (13 Mar – 15 May 2011), artist Zai Kuning had proposed for The Substation’s garden to be turned into an ‘all access’ creative space. Matthew Ngui, the Biennale’s Artistic Director, Timbre and the artist explored various ways for this to happen. After many exchanges, when the artist’s intention to pause all commercial activities at The Substation garden were made clear, Timbre responded with a compensation ask at $500,000 per month, to cover its loss of revenue in that period. If a run-of-the-mill watering hole that is Timbre could muster the audacity to claim a half-million dollars each month in compensation for lost revenue at the garden, just imagine how much The Substation could have earned if it were to run its own professionally-run bar, on its own premises, in its own terms.
Early on in my journey, during the decade-long directorship of Audrey Wong and Lee Weng Choy at the center (2000 – 2010), I was lucky enough to have been given support as one of its pool of Associate Artists. Audrey who specialises in and oversees the center’s performing arts activities became the rock that supported all of my projects and ideas there even though my place in the programme was parked under the visual arts. Prior to Audrey’s tenure, I had also been commissioned to mount a play in one of its festivals by its second Artistic Director, T. Sasitharan. Although I never had any professional contact with its legendary founding director Kuo Pao Kun, The Substation was pretty much my art school playground. I had also participated in many artist-initiated events there since it first opened in 1990.
For me, The Substation’s loss of space and eventual permanent closure was not unexpected. The Singapore arts scene had recently lost Centre 42, a center to develop writing for the stage, the exhibition and artist residency platforms of the Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (NTU CCA), and saw entities such as The Necessary Stage (TNS) and Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) rendered homeless. I have also been told (by personal sources) that The Private Museum would be moving out of its premises at 51 Waterloo Street by the end of 2021 as its lease from the NAC had expired and that the building is slated for renovation.
In 2016, then Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Grace Fu announced that the government will spend SG$3 million in the next three years ‘to further enliven these art and heritage-rich neighbourhoods and endear people to them’ as part of an effort in the ‘placemaking’ of the Civic District and the Bras Basah Bugis (BBB) precinct. The Substation, like many other art centers and museums are located within this precinct. The National Heritage Board (NHB) became the ‘designated place manager’ of this BBB precinct. According to Hoe Su Fern, the state’s plan to include arts and culture as a tool in ‘place management’ or ‘place making’ began with the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) Master Plan of 2008. The idea of ‘placemaking’, which emphasises the rejuvenation of urban areas empowered through collaborative community participation could be traced back to the 1960s with American urbanists such as Jane Jacobs, Kevin Lynch and William H. Whyte. Placemaking, in my opinion, should not impose contrived strategies for the sake of ‘identity creation’ or artificially compartmentalise the use and ‘branding’ of spaces. To ‘placemake’ is to mediate at eye level, to allow urban stakeholders access to participate, contribute value, meaning, and where and when possible, accord them with autonomy. There are lessons to learn from various foreign communities that have demarcated (organically place-made) sites such as Peninsula Plaza, Orchard Road, Golden Mile Complex and Geylang Serai as communal activity spaces and organically nurtured an ever-blossoming suite of niche businesses. Without the aid of legislation, they were able to inject character and meaning.
Did The Substation become collateral damage because it did not fit the archetypal profile for the city’s placemaking plan? Is its demise the climatic reprisal for complacency in arts leadership brought upon by an over-dependency on public funding? Perhaps it was an irreconcilable fissure of management, leadership and ideologies both from within and with public governance? Or maybe, despite the many luminaries that the center has supported over the years, the art they support in recent times are just really not good enough to take the proverbial cake?
This is probably where I cue the oft-mentioned work of American artist Theaster Gates, who raised US$45 million to acquire, rehabilitate and activate 30 properties in South Chicago, USA for housing and community facilities. Or glance nearer to home at the Jim Thompson Art Center in Central Bangkok, fully funded by James H.W. Thompson Foundation and not the corporation like many believe. Or the Selasar Sunaryo Art Space in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia, a 5000 square meter multidisciplinary, non-profit arts center launched in 1998, initiated and seed funded by the artist Sunaryo. Or the Phare Ponlieu Selpak in Battambang, Cambodia, a non-profit ‘free’ arts school opened in 1994 by Véronique, a French art teacher and the nine students she originally met and taught at a refugee camp along the Thai border. In retrospect, these examples show how a society should not depend on the government alone for such initiatives to succeed.
Returning to the bugbear issue of arts funding here in Singapore, surely it is time to revisit policies that incentivise private patronage and participation. After all, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, Forbes reported that the wealth of Singapore’s 50 richest increased by 28% to make a total collective of SG$167 billion. Also, Singapore’s number of UHNWI or Ultra High Net Worth Individuals, that is, those with a minimum net worth of SG$30 million, rose by 10.2% between 2019 and 2020. While tax-breaks are offered for monetary contributions to arts Institutions of Public Character (IPC), not many arts organisations are registered as such and not all artists and arts professional work under such banners. While many working in the arts could be considered to belong to the ‘gig economy’ or operate as ‘freelancers’, such paid work does not usually empower innovation or original creation. And when original creations by artists begin to see the light of commercial stability, usually after years of taking on multiple jobs to survive, the fact that Singapore is just too small of a marketplace to scale, sustain, and preserve any form of success autonomously is daunting. If independence and professionalism is the desired outcome, public grants cannot be allowed to remain as lifebuoys for denizens of an arts landscape.
Just a day after The Substation’s board of directors and its two joint Artistic Directors issued a statement deciding to permanently close the art center, it was reported that Singapore is to have its own arts university. Yes, not college, not polytechnic, not vocational school; but UNIVERSITY. I guess, this reinforces the allusion of ‘sound infrastructure’, what Singapore is famous for. But what about the basic ‘understructures’? I have been told many times by professionals in visual arts here of a need and demand for more curators. My question is, who, outside of the museums, are willing to pay for the work of a professional curator and for how much? If an experienced, middle-weight curator, holding a Master’s degree were to put in the equivalent of a solid, one-month’s work at curating, which private gallery, artist collective, independent art space or art center is willing to pay, say, SG$5000 remuneration excluding contribution to the Central Provident Fund (CPF)? Realistically, how many of such opportunities are available, particularly for those fresh in the scene? I have also been told that for an arts scene to blossom and ‘check itself’, it needs to make room for the transparent voice of critics. Yes, not just gossips, fluff pieces or straight on news reporting, but qualified critiques, particularly by those grounded non-exclusively in ‘art speak’ but also in the real world.
In the arts, we are coming into (if not already in) the era of post-isms, post-histories, post-theories, post-production, post-books, post-internet, post-digital, post-curating, post-museums, post-galleries and arguably so, post-IG, post-FB and post-human. We carve a new normal, all day, every day. In every sense of the word, our realities have been enhanced, virtually and augmented by ‘wireless fidelity’. We are connected to our peers across the globe, in good times and bad. If we are to join the table in union and conversation, we cannot continue to live, be made to live and reminisce the glorious days from clunky post-modern bunkers.
The Substation is a masterclass in arts leadership, governance and administration, not a wallow pit for nostalgia. It is one of Singapore art scene’s stations of the cross, not a petrol station – that will soon enough, have to give way to EVs.  
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 Substation Stories, Juliana Lim, 15 Dec 2009, https://julianalim.wordpress.com/2009/12/15/substation-stories/, accessed 5 Mar 2021
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To Theaster Gates, Art And Redevelopment Are One And The Same, Jose Gose, 4 Dec 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/joegose/2018/12/04/to-theaster-gates-art-and-redevelopment-are-one-and-the-same/?sh=18df76367576, accessed 6 Feb 2021
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 Singapore to ban new diesel car and taxi sales from 2025, Bridie Schmidt, 5 Mar 2021, https://thedriven.io/2021/03/05/singapore-to-ban-new-diesel-car-and-taxi-sales-from-2025/, accessed 6 Mar 2021  Singapore unveils Green Plan 2030, outlines green targets for next 10 years, Ang Hwee Min and Matthew Mohan, 10 Feb 2021, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/singapore-green-plan-2030-targets-10-years-14161356?cid=h3_referral_inarticlelinks_24082018_cna, accessed 10 Feb 2021