The fate of independent arts centre The Substation was a hotly discussed subject during the debate on the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth’s (MCCY)’s budget on Monday (8 Mar).
It was earlier announced that The Substation will permanently close its doors in July this year after operating as the sole tenant at 45 Armenian Street for 30 years, as the National Arts Council (NAC) will be taking back the space for renovation works.
The NAC justified its decision on the basis that The Substation was becoming increasingly “financially unsustainable.”
Workers’ Party (WP) Member of Parliament (MP) Sylvia Lim told Parliament that the community has felt a degree of “unease” over arts organisations losing their spaces or autonomy over buildings they had resided in for a long time.
Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth Low Yen Ling replied: “Our arts spaces have grown over the years. NAC seeks to ensure that these are used optimally and efficiently’ that we provide fair access and inclusive opportunities for as many as possible in the community – especially new groups and younger practitioners; and that these spaces are regularly updated and upgraded to remain relevant to prevailing needs.”
The arts centre—founded in 1990 by a prominent figure in theatre, the late Kuo Pao Kun—announced its closure in a statement last week, noting that the “difficult” decision was made by board members after lengthy discussions with the NAC and members of the arts community.
Not long ago, it was announced publicly that The Substation would have to vacate its premises at 45 Armenian Street by July this year to allow for much-needed refurbishment and renovation on the building.
However, once the renovations are complete, the NAC said that The Substation would be able to return to the building as a co-tenant, instead of occupying the building in its full capacity as before.
The statement explained that the inability for the centre to return fully would mean that The Substation “will lose a fundamental part of its identity and heritage”.
The second reason cited by the NAC for the permanent closure of Singapore’s first independent contemporary arts centre was The Substation’s inability to control the building facilities which are “integral” to its operations if it returns as co-tenants.
During Monday’s debate, Ms Lim questioned if the Government agreed that there was value in arts centres being run by artists rather than all being government-run, “as these would add to the richness of ecosystem and also make the arts authentic and sustainable”.
“Does (Ms Low) not agree that there is no reason why a centre managed by artists cannot also accommodate many users?” she said. “The current concern and dismay about the status of The Substation is a case in point, because many budding artists got their first breaks, or were incubated, in this artist-managed space.”
In response to Ms Low’s point that the NAC had previously conducted dialogues with the arts community, she added: “Some of us have received feedback that although there were indeed sessions, the feeling was that decisions had already been made regarding certain spaces; there wasn’t advance information about what would happen.”
“I would like to ask if the Government will look into assessing whether the current dialogue format could be improved, so as to convince the arts community that their concerns are being taken seriously, and that the Government is coming with an open mind to these discussions.”
Responding to Ms Lim, Ms Low reiterated that since 2017, the NAC has “proactively engaged” The Substation and its board and “offered support in various ways and different permutations and scenarios”.
“We hope the place will continue to support the work of young and unproven practitioners, and be a haven for collaboration for the arts and culture community,” she added.
Ms Low also reassured the House that MCCY, NAC and staff will continue to consult and involve its stakeholders, whether to administer grants or support the community with infrastructure and space.
“That is why Minister Edwin Tong and myself in our earlier speeches mentioned that the SEP Grant and Business Transmission (Fund) will be rolled out in June because we don’t want to rush the process.
“We want to use this few months to conduct focus groups and discussions with the various stakeholders, freelancers, arts and culture organisations, etc to take in their views (and) scope out the various grants,” she said, adding that the same consultation approach will be applied with regards to infrastructure and arts space.
Following that, Potong Pasir MP, Sitoh Yih Pin asked Culture, Community and Youth Minister, Edwin Tong if more arts organisations would benefit from the space after the renovations.
In response, Mr Tong said: “The intention behind this renovation of 45 Armenian Street is precisely to allow more, newer, emerging younger arts groups to come and share the space.”
“In the period of time that we’ve looked, in the last couple of years at the very minimum, the majority of users or usage of The Substation was not by The Substation, it was by third-party users … The view was taken that the arts community would be better served if The Substation post-renovation would return as a multi-tenanted option,” he added.