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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

How they got their stART: ArtsWok, Paper Monkey Theatre and Bhumi Collective

In unprecedented times like a pandemic, artists, like everyone else, are focused on survival. Horizons for planning are more short-term. Even as we enter 2021 with cautious optimism, it is hard to think about longer term goals and aspirations. Yet, the continued survival of our arts organisations is crucial to building and sustaining a thriving arts ecosystem in Singapore. One pandemic should not be allowed to break the community, especially with our small arts organisations contributing to the diversity of the arts scene.

It is with this in mind that the National Arts Council (NAC) and the private sector joined hands to kick off the Sustain the Arts (stART) Fund initiative, with the aim of giving small arts organisations a head start towards long-term sustainability. First announced in March 2020, the stART Fund was officially launched on 13 January 2021 in a physical and livestreamed event with Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Mr Edwin Tong, as the guest of honour, alongside donors and beneficiaries. To date, about $4 million has been raised, and close to 20 arts groups have received funding support of between $20,000 and $50,000.

From the generous contributions of companies and individuals in the private sector, the stART Fund will boost small arts groups’ efforts towards establishing robust governance structures and support impactful programmes that add to Singapore’s diverse arts landscape. Beyond financial support, the Fund also provides capability development opportunities for its recipients, equipping them with valuable skill sets such as fundraising, and knowledge to build a self-sustaining future. Founding Donors to the Fund include Tote Board and Mr Danny Yong.

ArtsEquator speaks to three companies, ArtsWok Collaborative, Paper Monkey Theatre and Bhumi Collective, about their development journey over the years, their long-term goals and how the stART Fund has helped them.

Ngiam Su-Lin, Executive Director, ArtsWok Collaborative

Tell us about how ArtsWok started.

It was co-founded by Ko Siew Huey and I in 2012. We were friends from before with different competencies – I did theatre, she did film. We were at a certain crossroad in our lives where we wanted to marry our experiences within the arts, creative and community sectors. Passion and mission-wise, we wanted to do civic engagement work. We wanted better for our communities – we wanted them to feel like they were empowered, to recognise their agency to create the kind of changes that they want and to experiment with new models and approaches as we could see that the same old methods aren’t really working.

What was your first project?

It was with Drama Box for IPS Prism. This was in 2012, where we looked at governance and Singapore in the next 10 years. It was a very exciting, more interdisciplinary project. At the time we called it “immersive arts experience”, and we were looking at squarely civic engagement issues. So that’s where we started. And then quickly after that, we started Both Sides, Now, a long-term project

How has the company grown?

When we started out, we were operating out of our own homes. We did a lot of meetings in McDonald’s, and of course, hawker centres and stuff. That’s just the way it was. And then we got our space at Goodman (Arts Centre) in 2017. We’ve been a team of five since 2018. We have three programme managers, one communications manager, and myself.

Another thing was that the first time we applied for Seed Grant, we didn’t get it. We were Seed Grant recipients in 2015 to 2017 and then 2018 to 2020 was our first cycle of the Major Company funding.

What has been a stumbling block to your growth?

We want to expand the team. In terms of training, education, there’s a lot more that can be done. For example, how do we get non-artists to use arts-based processes in their work, be it social workers, community workers, health workers or urban planners? I think there are certain creative processes that can be employed in other sectors. Then there are regional and international ties, all of which have been neglected. If we’re not able to get funding going forward, if things are going to be really bad, then potentially it can be a stumbling block to our growth, because it’ll be hard to jump to the next level.

Have you had to use grants during this time? How have they helped?

We used the Digital Presentation Grants for M1 Peer Pleasure. Other than that, we automatically qualify for the Job Support Scheme, because we’re already a registered non-profit. Then there’s the stART Fund, which is not exactly COVID-related, but it enabled us to become an Institution of a Public Character (IPC) so that we can get tax deduction receipts and all of that. Hopefully more people will donate, because (donors that give to an IPC) can get tax exemptions. From a governance perspective, it looks better when you’re an IPC. People can trust you and your operations.

We got our IPC status in October 2020. We’ve seen more new donors since launching our online fundraising campaign at the end of last year, so I definitely think it makes a difference. For now, we’re okay. It really is the future that is more uncertain.

 

Benjamin Ho, Artistic Director, Paper Monkey Theatre

Tell us about how Paper Monkey Theatre started.

Around 2008, someone told me that if I’m very serious about doing children’s work, I should set up a group. There were not many children’s theatre groups at that time, so there was a void that needed to be filled. I started off with nothing. I went to the Intercultural Theatre Institute – at the time, the school was temporarily closed for a revamp – and asked if we could rent one of their classrooms as our office. I dug into my savings and started doing shows. When we started off, nobody got paid.

How has the company evolved?

We used to perform in very small theatrettes. Now, we perform in the Esplanade. Our budget used to be very little, from $10,000 to $20,000. Now, the budget for one show can be up to $100,000. For our first show, Duckie Can’t Swim, I remember we used an ironing board for the stage because it could be easily collapsed and brought around. Now, we have eight puppeteers. Our puppets are made in Taiwan. It’s still fun, just that the responsibility is bigger.

In 2011, we applied for arts housing at Goodman Arts Centre and got it. We were one of the very first arts groups to get the Seed Grant. We’re now on our second cycle of the Major Grant.

What’s been a low point for the company?

Around 2016, our company lost about $20,000 to $30,000. Being a young group, we didn’t have much savings or donors to back us up. So I practically worked seven days a week for one and a half years to earn money to patch the hole.

As a freelancer, I can earn better. I don’t have endless paperwork, income tax, staff salary or rental. But I couldn’t fold the business, because this was our baby. The turning point came when the Esplanade invited me to do shows – three-year projects, which meant a guaranteed income. And we also started a programme with schools.

What’s been a challenge for the company?

Some people think children’s theatre is easy to do. They don’t realise there’re many costs involved. And I refuse to cut corners. I had a principal once tell me that the children don’t care about the quality (of the production). “Just do and let the children enjoy”. I said, “it passes your threshold (of quality), it doesn’t pass mine”. I think it goes back to when I was a kid, seeing theatre for the first time and seeing magic happen.

I always say that we are spending adult money but earning children’s money. For a very long time, tickets were only $15. It was only in the past few years that we increased it to $25 and $30 because I couldn’t (sustain it).

How does the stART Fund benefit you?

It’s not a very easy process to become an IPC. Now we can employ a manager to help us get everything done, so that I can focus on the artistic side. With the IPC status, I will have much more bargaining power to tell people why they should donate to me, because it’ll be tax exempted. And with donations, we can apply for the Cultural Matching Fund. If the public donates $10,000, the government will give me $10,000. This $20,000 can actually cover one month’s operation for my small business. It’s a big difference.

Attaining an IPC status would be a very significant milestone for us, our mission has always been to provide a unique theatre experience that spotlights our culture and values through traditional Asian puppetry. With aid from the stART Fund, gaining this recognition will help Paper Monkey to have a visible presence to further cultivate a love for this artform among future generations, enabling us to carry out initiatives like online fundraising, and to build on our communication channels with our stakeholders and the public.

 

 

Mohamad Shaifulbahri, Joint Artistic Director, Bhumi Collective

Tell us about how Bhumi Collective started.

The company came about when we were in the UK. Soultari Amin Farid and I were studying there, and we decided that we would do a show called bhumi at the Edinburgh Fringe. At that time, in 2016, we hadn’t planned to start a company. Because we needed a presenting company name, so we decided to call ourselves – at that point, “The Bhumi Collective”.

Then we got a commission in the same year to do the Singapore International Festival of Music, with a work titled Ikan Girl. This was all within two or three months of starting out. About a year later, we discussed whether this was something we were serious about. In June 2018, we registered Bhumi Collective as a company limited by guarantee.

How has the company evolved?

I guess the core of what we do hasn’t really changed. We’re still very interested in representation, diversity, identity and all those issues. We set off wanting to be a company that was looking more towards the UK side of things. We were looking at what was then called the BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) community of artists.

Over time, we’ve pivoted towards Singapore and the experience of doing work in two different places. We grew more confident in trying to be a company that can look at international collaborations and opportunities, not just for Singaporean and overseas artists to engage and interact and collaborate with one another, but also to see how we can support Singaporean/Southeast Asian artists to be further represented at international platforms. So I think that’s pivoted in the last few years.

What’s the company structure like?

Amin and I are directors of the company. And we also have a company manager. We all get paid on a project basis.

We were unsuccessful in our application for the last Seed Grant cycle. Organisationally, we are still okay, but we want to bring in more producers to support the level of work that we can do, because we’re also a producing company and we work with different artists. In a perfect world, we’d have different projects happening in different places at the same time. Of course, in a more traditional sense of things, we obviously would want to have people with marketing and fundraising backgrounds to focus specifically on supporting the growth of the company.

Why is the stART Fund important to you?

For us, we’re getting it to transit towards becoming a charity. For a lot of us in the arts, it lends credibility. If you think about the journey of arts companies, you might start off as an unregistered collective, but you can’t access certain types of funding from foundations because you’re not a registered entity. When you become a registered entity, you can start doing so, but you cannot solicit fundraising. So charity accreditation suggests that we are not only a legitimate organisation, but also one that is trustworthy and has decent governance.

To me, the fund is a way for people to support the day-to-day capabilities of arts organisations. It’s quite important. They are supporting the levelling up of arts organisations founded in Singapore, that are trying to take their ambitions and hopes to the next level, that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do so. I hope that’s something people they see value in.


You can give to the Sustain the Arts Fund, or stART Fund here. All eligible donations will be matched dollar for dollar by the Cultural Matching Fund. All donations will also be eligible for 250% tax deduction. Find more info here.

This article is sponsored by the National Arts Council.

All photos courtesy of the companies.

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