Isabella Chiam is an actress, theatre-maker and theatre practitioner based in Singapore. She is a freelance arts practitioner as well as an associate artist under The Theatre Practice, Singapore’s longest-standing professional bilingual theatre institution. In August 2021, The Theatre Practice launched “It’s Not About The Numbers,” a new series of six, live in-person works for single or small audiences. The Last Gardener, a workshop that invites participants on a gardening journey of comfort, hope and healing, was one the works presented as part of this new series. Through our interview with Isabella, we were able to gain insights into the precarious working conditions of the arts industry in Singapore, as well as the various challenges faced by artists in striving for artistic exploration.
Given the inherent risks and unpredictability associated with the cultural industries, freelance creative workers are subjected to additional layers of risk when operating in the arts world. The first risk comes from the inherent uncertainty of the creative industries, coupled with the risk of precarious employment. The organisation of work within the cultural sectors is typically characterised by extremely active and intense periods of work, as well as forced periods of inactivity, which explains the structural uncertainty of employment in non-traditional sectors. Freelance creative workers are therefore subject to economically precarious conditions and their artistic production process is constantly subjected to the financial risk of precarious employment as well as changing trends within the industry.
In the case of The Last Gardener, the risk involved can be largely attributed to time constraints as well as artistic risk-taking. Part of the workshop experience involved Isabella giving the audience plants that she had personally hand grown. She shared that gardening is very unpredictable, yet she had to ensure that her plants were still alive when the workshop happened. Isabella also took on a conceptual risk through the presentation format of The Last Gardener. Compared to a typical theatre performance, the workshop was a lot more intimate and allowed for direct 2-way communication between the artist and the audience. Given that this format of presenting artistic performances was relatively new at the point of its launch, the nature of The Last Gardener had “thresholds that [rose] to the level of impediments, real and imagined” (Gurian, 2012). Isabella shared that audiences had no idea what to expect from The Last Gardener and were initially unsure as to what the workshop was about.
Image credit: The Theatre Practice.
However, despite pervasive insecurity and precariousness being the norm for freelance creative workers, their creative output possesses a high degree of symbolic value. What government institutions and arts organisations can do for creative workers is to cultivate a supportive environment that is optimal for the artist to focus on producing quality arts experiences. In the words of Isabella herself, “If someone takes up these aspects, [the artists’] brain can focus on the creative aspect of the project. But [the arts manager] also must understand how an artist functions, how things work, and bridge the artist with the government and the organisation. They should free up the artist to do the things needed for the storytelling.” Isabella commended The Theatre Practice for providing logistical support, overseeing the marketing aspect and liaising between various stakeholders, thereby allowing Isabella the space to focus solely on the creative output.
With social distancing measures restricting the size of physical gathering, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the fragility of the creative business model. Venue-based sectors such as the arts and culture were amongst the hardest hit by social distancing measures. Even when in-person shows were allowed, the new safe management measures and the introduction of PCR and ART tests affected the format and ticketing of performances. Many independent artists and small companies found themselves struggling to recover financially and they required recovery time and financial assistance to work around the new restrictions. Government institutions were quick to introduce financial grants to sustain the arts and culture sector during this turbulent period, which encouraged arts organisations to pivot to the digital space. However, the pandemic brought to light the question of the relevance and effectiveness of current key performance indicators (KPIs), used in grant applications and assessments. The second risk therefore involves the conflict between fulfilling KPIs and creative exploration.
KPIs have always posed a challenge to artists and their ability to explore creatively. Currently, there is greater interest, especially by the government, in quantifiable areas, and a lack of focus on the more qualitative aspects (Ellis, 2002). However, how “good” or successful a piece of creative work is should not always be measured by numbers or quantifiable metrics, as numbers alone cannot determine the impact or value of the work. In some instances, a piece of work may have had a small audience, but had a profound impact on them. By forcing artists to hit certain KPIs to maintain their funding, artists eventually end up producing works that aim to achieve KPIs but do not reach their full potential.
In the case of The Last Gardener, the series was a tailored fit for the COVID-19 restrictions and Safe Management Measures (SMM) guidelines, exemplifying the idea of embracing risk rather than simply managing it (Ellis, 2002). As it was meant for a much smaller audience, the show was a lot more intimate. Consequently, the audience felt more comfortable opening up and sharing more personal details with Isabella. The intimacy of the workshop thus allowed for the opening up of the audience to have conversation about personal topics. In this instance, we can see that the impact of The Last Gardener was different from larger-scale shows. In this show, the impact was more about how the intimacy allowed for a 2-way exchange between Isabella and the audience. However, Isabella also did acknowledge that financially, it would be challenging for them to embark on a second run of The Last Gardener in future, due to the small scale. For it to be profitable, they would either have to do countless shows every day for weeks, or increase audience numbers. But doing so would also affect the intended impact of the show, since scaling up would reduce the intimacy that a small audience size creates. Nonetheless, the arts is still a business, and ultimately, this financial challenge is something they need to overcome.
As mentioned earlier, The Last Gardener is also part of the It’s Not About Numbers series. It was a platform intended to allow artists to experiment and exercise full creativity without consideration for traditional KPIs.
Artists in Singapore are always expected to reach major KPIs, which are often massive and quantifiable. For It’s Not About The Numbers, and consequently The Last Gardener, the small audience and absence of pressure of KPIs allows the artist to focus not on the numbers, but really on creating their work as true to their artistic intentions as possible.
To reduce the pressure of KPI on artists, the arts manager should encourage the artist to take risks. In the context of The Last Gardener, The Theatre Practice was the one that helped Isabella navigate the risks and uncertainty of COVID-19 by innovatively coming up with the series that was only possible in COVID-19. The artist can then feel free and comfortable to take the risks needed to explore creatively.
Through our interview with Isabella, we learnt the importance of collaboration and networks in the arts industry. The greatest challenge posed to freelancing in the arts in Singapore is the risk. The creative industry is already very risky and uncertain, and freelancing adds another layer of uncertainty to an already uncertain career. Thus it is important that we support their creative process and help encourage them to not be afraid of failing. This is where the importance of collaboration and provision of resources in the arts comes in. Isabella stressed the value of having good relationships and support systems to an artist. It is valuable to have relationships with someone who has the resources they need, such as funding, advice and venues, which are extremely crucial for someone working in the arts industry. Additionally, having friends who understand your perspective and can support you, and on top of that, also happen to lead organisations, allowing them to effect change in the industry, benefits you as an artist.
Collaboration is also often necessary in the creation of a piece of work, and the creative process often involves multiple stakeholders, with the term “artist” referring to beyond just one individual, since the artist himself is just one member of a collaborative team (Edmonds, 2010). Creativity is becoming increasingly co-creative (Bilton and Cummings, 2015), and having a strong network of connections thus allows the artist to tap on people as resources to help them in their artistic creation and exploration. In fact, the arts industry could be described as an ecosystem, made up of “overlapping networks that are mediated by intermediaries and facilitated by the movement of freelancers and informal interaction” (Hoe, 2022).
Another key learning point is that we should reframe the way we look at risk. Most of the time, there is an emphasis on risk management, which might be seen as a “negative framing of what is fundamental and necessary to the arts – taking risks” (Caust, 2005). In spite of the negative sentiment toward risk, we cannot deny that risk must be embraced, because of the necessary relationship it has with the arts (Ellis, 2002). Looking at it on the flip side, it can also be seen as opportunity. There is a need for opportunity recognition, and doing so requires one to be alert to opportunities that may arise (Beckman, 2022). For example, The Last Gardener was still held amidst the pandemic and managed to get around the safe-distancing measures to bring the arts to the audience, by scaling down the audience size and setting it up as more of a hands-on, interactive workshop instead of just a performance. Likewise, The Theatre Practice was also able to adapt to the situation by quickly turning to digital theatre, which helped the company to withstand the impact of COVID-19.
Lastly, the government also has a crucial role to play in encouraging risk-taking. Shifting focus away from KPIs when funding the arts could lessen the pressure on artists, encouraging greater creative exploration instead. According to curator Kristy Edmunds, executive and artistic director at UCLA’s Centre for the Art of Performance, asking for the outcome of the creative work first, causes the artistic process to be missed out on, and the artist will also be pressurised to adapt and change their work such that it fulfils the outcomes asked for by the government (Hindle, 2019). Shifting focus away from KPIs would benefit the arts industry greatly as the artists will be able to pursue what they are passionate about instead of just projects that are meant to hit KPIs, but do not challenge them creatively as an artist. Hence, having the government support creative exploration through shifting the focus away on meeting KPIs is important.
Ultimately, the interview with Isabella Chiam illuminates the precarious position of artists in Singapore and the struggles that artists face in pursuing a career in the creative industry. Isabella recognises that the current environment is not sufficiently process-focused, nor the most conducive for the practising artists. Creating a supportive environment for artists requires institutional and structural reforms that fix underlying problems within the cultural industries in Singapore. Meaningful change will arise from listening closely to the community and understanding their needs, which can be translated into policies that work and support the people who need it most.
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