By Nabilah Said and Kathy Rowland
The fate of a certain house is a matter of contention amongst a group of people in Singapore. In this case, the house – a bright blue, pre-war bungalow located on 42 Waterloo Street – will stay put, but its main occupants will experience a shift. Since July 2014, the space has been run by Centre 42, appointed by the National Arts Council (NAC) to support the development of writing for the Singapore stage.
On 22 January 2020, plans were announced to redevelop the space on 42 Waterloo Street into a main physical site of the Arts Resource Hub (ARH), set up by NAC to support freelancers in the arts. The 512 square metre site will undergo renovations from May 2020, and reopen later in the year as a multidisciplinary space, with Centre 42 becoming a co-tenant occupying the office located on the second level of the annexe.
The plans were first made known at a closed-door dialogue between NAC and a group of about 30 arts freelancers on 22 January, and subsequently reported by The Straits Times. When Centre 42 released a statement of its own the next day, the news caught many in the arts community by surprise, leading to a furore as theatremakers and arts practitioners expressed their feelings online. Many were reacting to initial information announcing that the site would be turned into a co-working space for freelancers working in the arts, cannibalising already-scarce spaces for creating and presenting creative works.
Two smaller co-working spaces were opened as part of the ARH in early January, at Goodman Arts Centre and Stamford Arts Centre (a stone’s throw from 42 Waterloo Street), leading many to wonder about the need for a third one. These spaces, which are designed for activities such as hot-desking, meetings and informal networking, are currently offered to subscribers for free as part of a trial period, but will soon be tied to a membership scheme. In response to our queries on the take-up rate of the two existing spaces, NAC told ArtsEquator that it is “happy with the utilisation of the two spaces at Goodman Arts Centre and Stamford Arts Centre since their opening”.
Many of the posts online, while pondering over the fate of Centre 42, paid tribute to the hard work of its team over the years. This included acknowledging its support for projects under its developmental platforms such as Basement Workshop residency, Guest Room and The Vault which have helped numerous artists and have led to the incubation and development of over 200 new works. On Facebook, Rei Poh, theatremaker and founder of collective Attempts, shared a letter that he had sent to NAC’s upper management, expressing his “grief and confusion” about the news. He says:
“ATTEMPTS have benefited from C42 in not just venue partnership, but through documentation, journals and the genuine interest from the team with our work. This has encouraged us to grow and continue to do our work… Centre 42 is not just a venue partnership organisation. They also play a big part in the arts community as a bond that binds many artists together.”
On 29 January, NAC itself released a statement via the ARH website, attempting to clarify some of these questions. While the current black box would be retained, it said that other structural changes would be made, including improved disability access. It also committed to renewing its partnership with Centre 42 for the next three years, expressing that it is “confident C42 can continue to play its intermediary role in the theatre scene in the 42WS premises after the renovation”.
While it is reassuring that NAC’s statement declared that 90 per cent of the compound “will continue to serve the needs of arts practitioners as creation, rehearsal and presentation-related spaces”, the question of how access to the spaces – previously under the care of the Centre 42 team – will be managed and/or curated remains unclear. There is also a lack of clarity over how exactly the work of Centre 42, both tangible and intangible, will be affected in real terms, with a loss of remit over the running of the actual space.
While no one can dispute that freelancers in the arts require more support, the somewhat confusing drip-feed of information, relayed over a period of a week, points to a series of communication missteps by NAC. This has dulled some of the sheen of the ARH initiative, which had been introduced on the back of immense efforts by the Council, and spearheaded most visibly by veteran theatre producer and arts manager Tay Tong.
The ARH initiative was officially launched by NAC in August 2019 to help freelancers develop more sustainable careers in the arts, which is one of the priority areas outlined in NAC’s Our Sg Arts Plan (2018–2022). From as early as 2017, the ARH team had conducted hours of consultation and feedback sessions with more than 370 members of the arts community to identify the specific needs of arts freelancers, who make up about half of the industry. Most of the initiatives of the ARH suggest an understanding of what freelancers need – from its website that houses a job portal, to providing online resources and information on legal and financial support, and sharing tips on mental health wellness and CV writing.
It is no surprise that spaces are often contested in Singapore. But in the case of 42 Waterloo Street, NAC has inadvertently pitted the needs of arts freelancers, as a kind of monolith, against the work of Centre 42, which supports many artists including freelancers, thus setting up an unfortunate false binary. Most arts freelancers would find themselves hard-pressed to decide which side of the debate to fall on. Producers SG, a community of local arts producers, issued a statement of support for Centre 42, describing it as “a welcoming, supportive, and nurturing space for artists making work”. At the same time, its individual members, most of whom are freelancers, have used the other two ARH spaces on multiple occasions, and were involved in consultations with ARH.
As befitting the ARH’s industry-wide focus, the NAC statement also noted that the ARH at 42 Waterloo Street would be a multidisciplinary one, with spaces that can “support artists and writers in the performing arts, visual arts and literary arts”.
But the arts has often defied neat categorisation. While Centre 42 was set up to support the incubation of new theatrical works, in practice it supports artists and works across genres, such as 2017’s For the Record by Cheyenne Alexandria Phillips and Charlene Shepherdson, a multi-part project which comprised a spoken word performance and a literary and visual arts exhibition; and site-specific installation work The Room that Grew Buoyant, Little by Little in 2018 by INDEX, a design collective formed by spatial designer Lim Wei Ling, lighting designer Lim Woan Wen and sound artist and composer Darren Ng. It has also cultivated partnerships and long-term relationships with a wide range of groups including reading and discussion group Bras Basah Open, the Asia-Europe Foundation and Singapore Association of Motion Picture Professionals.
Further, there are already spaces that do support multidisciplinary work, such as The Substation, The Arts House and NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, which are all funded by the state in some way. The statement also raises new questions about why a space that has become an important part of the performance ecosystem would need to be further stretched to support multidisciplinary work.
ArtsEquator spoke to a number of arts freelancers to see what kinds of spaces would best serve their respective practices, and what they thought about the new plans:
“A temporary working studio would be great but one thing I recently realised that may be useful would be a co-working space for artists to come in and perhaps through chance, meet another creative… Personally, I can only speak for myself but artists tend to work in their own spaces, if not studio. Hence, the way I see it, the current ARH (Stamford and Goodman) offers a new way of working. I’m not certain of the third addition.”
– Zulkhairi Zulkiflee, visual artist and curator
“I really appreciate (Centre 42’s) ability to transform into a multi-use, dimensional space that allows for a flow of audience between sites and spaces… Each space within C42 holds a myriad of performance possibilities and I do hope it stays that way. I don’t really see a space for literary practitioners there, but then again, do we need a physical space? Readings can be easily held at any number of sites, whereas independent and young theatre groups are far more deserving of the space that C42 offers.”
– Marc Nair, writer/photographer
“As a painter, I don’t need much, just a space with ample lighting, ventilation, electricity, running water, and a toilet… From what I understand, 42 Waterloo Street appears to be more useful for theatre, performative arts, and practices that involve collaboration. Thus, I wouldn’t consider it relevant to my painting practice. However, if I have any larger scale/ collaborative/ socially-engaged project in the future, this may be a useful space.”
– Esmond Loh, painter
“As a spoken word artist, I need different spaces for different phases of a project. If I’m in the early stages of writing and researching, I will need a desk, ideally strong internet connectivity and somewhere generally quiet… If I am rehearsing, then space needs to be larger… At this point in time, I remain unconvinced that a renovation would ‘better serve arts freelancers’ … Until more information is provided, I cannot confidently say that the new development would serve my needs better than the current model C42 uses.”
– Cheyenne Alexandria Phillips, poet
Terms like “community” and “ground-up initiatives” have often been bandied about by policymakers, but Centre 42’s hard-won efforts in just six short years have managed to create something special to many in the Singapore arts scene, and have the potential to be built upon further. To some, it is an invaluable source of support and friendship. 23-year-old playwright Nur Sabrina Dzulkifli, for example, shares that it has seen her literally grow up, calling it “the first place I turn to when I’m looking for something to feed my artistic soul”. Others have attended or participated in its numerous readings, performances and events, including its wildly successful annual programme, Late-Night Texting, which saw close to 6,000 people visiting the space over one weekend last year.
Can both the ARH and Centre 42 continue to thrive within one blue house? Perhaps that’s the co-working situation that the community is most worried about.
Centre 42 is valued as an independent intermediary in the arts scene that can more nimbly react to the needs of artists and arts practitioners in a way that a bureaucratic organisation may not be able to. Once the ARH is also in residence – essentially acting as a live-in landlord, and it would be hard for some to separate the ARH from the NAC – the community wonders how the dynamics of the space will change and how this will affect the work of artists.
Some of these questions may still be up for discussion and debate. ArtsEquator understands that NAC is planning to hold some closed-door consultations this week, and we hope for more clarity and transparency in this matter. While the issue on the table appears to be, on one level, about space and resources, it is more importantly an illustration of how the complexities of competing needs can only be resolved by ongoing conversation rather than top-down directives.
At the end of the day, it is about making (and remaking) a house into a home. This house has a long history – it has survived a war – and it stands sentinel, waiting to see what will come of its future.
Nabilah Said is the editor of ArtsEquator and Kathy Rowland is its managing editor. ArtsEquator is supported by the National Arts Council and has collaborated with Centre 42.