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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

The Substation: An unstoppable force and an immovable object

By Nabilah Said, with additional reporting by Ke Weiliang

On Saturday, 6 March 2021, almost 300 members of the arts community came together in a Zoom Townhall to discuss the fate of independent arts centre The Substation. The Townhall had been called by the board of directors of The Substation after a month-long back-and-forth involving the institution, the National Arts Council (NAC) and the community concerning the future of The Substation at its current premises, 45 Armenian Street. The proceedings took on a civil tone, under the watchful moderation of Drama Box artistic director Kok Heng Leun and former Substation artistic co-director Audrey Wong. 

Members of the community were there in response to the announcement made on 2 March that The Substation would close, 30 years after being set up by founder and theatre pioneer Kuo Pao Kun. This announcement was made following a period of closed-door negotiations between the Board and the government. The government had publicly confirmed on 8 February that it would be taking back the building from July 2021, to be revamped and reopened as a multidisciplinary arts centre. 

The Substation would be welcomed back as a co-tenant, rather than a single tenant, which meant it could no longer earn rental income, significantly from leasing out its back garden. The Substation receives a Major Company grant from NAC and benefits from heavy government subsidies for the rental of its space. To compensate for the loss of venue, and rental during the renovation period, NAC offered The Substation $100,000 on top of its usual funding as a Major Company (which it was slated to receive up till 2022), far less than the $500,000 the Board had asked for to make up for the loss of rental income. (“NAC could not agree to this,” it said in a statement.)

This reduced budget would have forced the Board to cut its staff size from 11 to 3.5, as well as affect programming. More importantly, the Board argued that the loss of control over its own building would lead to the loss of a fundamental part of its identity and heritage. In the end, ⅔ of the Board voted to close down – or take the “nuclear option”, to borrow the words of one of its members at the Townhall. 

For the Board, the Townhall was a chance to offer some clarity. It came on the heels of a spate of public statements made by both The Substation and the NAC, published in various media outlets – bureaucratic salvos of argument and counter response. This is currently also playing out in Parliament as part of the 2021 Committee of Supply Debates.1Budget debate: MPs question fate of arts spaces like The Substation The Straits Times, 8 March 2021 

One of most contentious exchanges relates to alleged financial imprudence. NAC continues to assert that The Substation relies too much on government grants, spending too little on programming compared to salaries. It also describes the rental The Substation earned from its subtenants as an indirect government subsidy. The Board has retaliated with its own counterarguments, pointing out differences in calculation and clarifying figures. In the Townhall, a board member also shared that The Substation had been making profits before COVID hit, even clinching an award for financial governance,2It won the 2019 Charity Transparency Award, which recognises charities with good disclosure practices. The award is given out by the Charity Council, whose members are appointed by the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth. and that the pandemic had dealt it a big blow. At best, these exchanges felt petty. But the state, forced to defend its position, came off as bullish.

These developments, combined with published commentaries, including Hoe Su Fern’s piece for ArtsEquator and NAC’s Deputy CEO Paul Tan’s on Plural Art Mag, as well as lively discussions on Facebook, brings up a number of questions:

– Has The Substation lost its relevance both to the arts community it aims to serve, and to NAC, whose policies have evolved to serve different economic concerns and cultural priorities? 

– Should The Substation be penalised as being “financially unsustainable” because it relies heavily on government grants (Professor Tommy Koh, in this mournful commentary for The Straits Times, took time to chide the board for not making more money.), and what does unsustainability mean in the context of a pandemic? 

– Would a reasonable comparison to The Substation be an arts centre like the Esplanade, as opposed to other Major Companies, and thus, should it be measured by different KPIs and allowed to rent out its facilities?

The arts centre argument is an interesting one. In fact, all of these are interconnected. The Substation is an anomaly and a holdover of the Arts Housing Scheme. The newer Framework for Arts Spaces, introduced in 2011, offers subsidised rates to arts groups, which attempts to address the lack of affordable rehearsal and performance spaces in Singapore. In substance, The Substation, by renting out its spaces to emerging and smaller arts groups, has already been doing what the Framework aims to do, perhaps decades in advance. But in form, it is meant to behave and operate like a Major Company, not an arts centre. “The Esplanade plays a different role than Major Companies in our arts and culture landscape, and is provided with funding and held accountable for outcomes which are not asked of Major Companies. The Substation should appropriately be compared against other Major Companies,” said NAC in a March 6 statement to the media. 

By being its own unique animal, is The Substation being punished for a lag in policy? 

 NAC did not respond to queries about possible gaps in the Major Company scheme or whether it has plans to review the scheme. The last time it was reviewed was in 2016, when it was still known as the Major Grant scheme.3Introduced in 2017, the newer Major Company scheme allows companies to apply for funding under three “tracks” – Artmaking (a pre-existing track), Bridging and Intermediary. The Substation falls under the Intermediary track, which focuses on supporting artists and/or the sector, such as through residencies and mentorships. But policymaking, or tweaking in this case, takes time. In the interim, it begs the question if the Board folded its cards too quickly.  

There is also the question of exactly how much income The Substation should reasonably be expected to make – especially if its primary activities are not “marketable” in terms of dollars and cents – and whom it can earn it from. NAC says that “it is not feasible” for it “to continue to provide subsidised premises to The Substation, which is then re-let out on commercial terms”. So if a sole tenant of an arts venue located in the city cannot earn commercial rental income, do we then go back to the age-old question of whether the government should subsidise the arts? 

There is a large dose of irony to what is happening with The Substation, especially during a pandemic when the government’s coffers are being opened precisely to save the arts4The Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) announced a $20 million top-up to the Arts and Culture Resilience Package (ACRP) at the Committee of Supply Debate on 8 March 2021., with funds to keep staff on the payroll, support independent artists, and move artmaking online. 

But do we throw a gilded lifebuoy to save a giant, or thousands of smaller floats to salvage the many? 

If this either-or option appears too simplistic, it is a leaf taken out of the state’s playbook. In response to The Substation’s multiple statements, the public’s letters to the media and even questions posed in Parliament, the government has not swayed from its position that it wants to ensure that spaces are being used “optimally and efficiently”, to “provide fair access and inclusive opportunities for as many as possible in the community”. Most recently, the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong stated on record that the majority of 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”. 

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? The correct answer is nothing, because this is a false paradox. In the case of The Substation, the previously immovable object is now subject to a revamp, with a 30-year-old institution as possible collateral damage. And its Board doesn’t seem likely to reverse its position, although individual members might have changed their minds after the Townhall. 

Is this about a crisis of imagination? If not those in authority with the means and power to do so, then who should lead the way in reimagining and recontextualising the space for The Substation?

 

Halfway through the Townhall on Saturday, artistic director of The Theatre Practice, Kuo Jian Hong – who is also the daughter of the late Kuo – changed the tone of the proceedings by pointing out that the community was there because “there is still something to fight for”. Elaborating on her stance, she says: 

“There is a process we need to go through, especially if we believe that the last 30 years meant something. […]  I am not advocating that Substation must continue, or in what form, with space, without space, shared space…. all permutations should be considered. Only after we have seriously discussed and exhausted these possibilities, then perhaps we can decide to close it. But the decision should be done with the involvement of the community. This needs to be an empowering process, not disempowering. My father used to say to me that there is art in disengagement. If and when it closes, it should be an art.”

A Zoom poll revealed that a large proportion of the attendees was in favour of The Substation continuing. A lively chatbox, and various voices brought up possible suggestions for a future Substation. These included: reconstituting as a cooperative, a social franchise or a model like AWARE Singapore, which has a Board and paid membership. Artist Jason Wee brought up the possibility of adding elected members of the community to the Board.

Wee, who runs independent space Grey Projects, adds:

“There was (such) an overwhelming show of hands from folks willing to do some work for the Sub at the Townhall, with many ideas mooted at the Townhall for a future that does not involve closure. I am suggesting a way in which this future can formally incorporate these ideas, by a board election that will encourage candidates to elaborate and make firm commitment on those plans, while the current board can continue its crisis leadership.” 

At the present moment, The Substation exists as a holy trinity of space, spirit and memory5Artist-researcher Koh Nguang How’s Facebook album is worth checking out.6In the 2015 exhibition Making Spaces, artist-curator Debbie Ding went on a deepdive into The Substation’s archive, including looking at its people, its spaces and even unrealised projects. She says on her website: “When we talk about The Substation and its past, present and future, there seems to be a tendency to try to anthropomorphise the space – as if a space could have desires, or have a will of its own, just as we all do as individuals. But it is not the projected desires of an imaginary construct or space that we need to consider here. It is instead our own desires that we must examine: what do we want to make of this space?”. A quick glance at the flurry of tribute posts flooding Facebook when its closure was announced makes this very clear. 

It may have lost some of its shine, but for some the building is still a jewel of the vicinity – a stubborn survivor amid gentrification, urban development and cultural placemaking that have claimed its former neighbours. And those who agree with the Board say that the building cannot be severed from its independent spirit, and its storied history. 

On the question of whether 45 Armenian Street is integral to retaining the spirit of Substation, Dr Charlene Rajendran, co-director of Asian Dramaturgs’ Network says: 

“If there’s not going to be an immediate space, and there’s going to be a curtailing of funding, is experimentation possible, as a way of reimagining what The Substation might be able to do? […] The questions that arise are how to experiment with thinking space, imaginative space, and artmaking that occurs in different kinds of spaces.” 

But there are others who are already resigned to its fate, in quiet whispers online bemoaning the more bureaucratic and polished identity of The Substation in recent years. For many of this latter segment, The Substation’s spirit died the day the its garden was leased out.

What was clear from the Townhall is that while the Board may be convinced that it has executed its fiduciary duty to the organisation, it might have overlooked its duty to the community. Or perhaps it did not anticipate that there would be so many people who would not only care, but volunteer to save The Substation at the eleventh hour. One Board member used the word “exorcised” to describe how the community had been awakened to the events surrounding The Substation. Ironically, did it take losing The Substation for the community to “come home”?  

Those who have offered to help include Haresh Sharma, resident playwright of The Necessary Stage, independent creative and community organiser Shaiful Risan, and Dr. Mohamed Shahril Bin Mohamed Salleh, the artistic director of Vox Camerata. Dr. Mohamed Shahril says that he volunteered to be part of the secretariat looking into the future plans of the arts centre because he believes “in being an engaged citizen and an active agent of positive change”. He adds:

Currently we have yet to get a better understanding of what is or is not possible. […] For me, the secretariat provides the structure and the space to pool resources and ideas, to facilitate meaningful and constructive conversations, and then to follow through by generating evidence-based representations to the public as well as government institutions.”   

In a Facebook post, Haresh volunteered to be on the new Board, and paid tribute to the efforts of The Substation’s arts managers and administrators. He recalls being part of a new Board of the Singapore International Film Festival in 2018, working with the staff to create a new vision for the festival during a time of leadership transition. Haresh thinks the same can be achieved at The Substation.7Interestingly, in this video made in 2017 for the 25th anniversary of The Substation, also for the Making Spaces exhibition, Haresh shares that he was asked to work as an administrator at The Substation back in 1990, but didn’t so he could devote himself to The Necessary Stage. The theatre company’s play, Those Who Can’t Teach, was performed as part of its opening programmes. In the same video, filmmaker Wee Lilin says: “I hope that it will always stay in Armenian Street because the location is wonderful and iconic […] if Substation would not exist, I think it would be a huge blow, that I don’t think the arts community can actually recover from the loss […] it’s far more important than people think and perceive it to be.” He adds: 

“I hope that a new board, together with The Substation manager and directors, can reignite the conversations with stakeholders and negotiations with NAC. Maybe a new version of the Substation will emerge, a new imagining that still embraces the original ideals.” 

Questions still remain about the fate of The Substation. The most urgent ones are: Can decisions be reversed? Is the government, who has been espousing values of inclusivity, and stressing co-creation and a more consultative style of governance, open to listening to the community when it is speaking? Does a new entity have to be formed and if so, who will fund it? 

And some lingering stray thoughts: If The Substation were to formally leave Armenian Street, would NAC co-opt the name “Substation” or the building’s links to Kuo Pao Kun? And now that Timbre at Substation has apparently closed (per this photo, and it is also no longer listed on the company’s website), what will happen to the garden after the building is renovated? 

It now comes down to the labour of artists, arts and cultural workers and activists. The Facebook group “The Substation Venue (future)” has seen a burst in membership since the Townhall. No doubt there are discussions happening on other platforms too, and plans to organise focus group discussions. With so many people’s interests at stake, this collective dreaming will certainly take time. The arts community is a complicated constituency, with different interests, demands and eccentricities. And then, there is also the need to ensure inclusivity and diversity.8It was noteworthy that when Shaiful was waiting to speak at the Townhall, someone in the chat wrote: “Is it possible to let Shaiful speak? We need more diverse voices at this discussion.”

Shaiful tells ArtsEquator that if The Substation needs to move, then whether it can be truly diverse and accessible boils down to finding the right space. Practical considerations would need to be made, such as whether it is close to bus stops and MRT stations, whether it is in the city or in the fringes, whether there is high footfall, amongst others. He is unsure about whether The Substation could work outside of Armenian Street and says:

You can claim to be as diverse as you want, but it would shut off some folks if it was in an atas area and other folks if it was in the ghetto. Inclusivity is a multi-tiered prism and The Substation’s strategic location, built in a particular era, made it work. One has to also be attuned to placemaking master plans to see if The Substation could work elsewhere.” 

The Townhall on Saturday ended on a note that recalled the art scene’s succession woes. It was suggested that further steps be led by theatre veterans Kok Heng Leun and Alvin Tan, as they are known to have strong links with the younger generation. Deciding the future of The Substation is thus intractable from charting the future of the arts in Singapore.

What of The Substation at 45 Armenian Street? In its three decades of existence as a fierce independent arts centre, scores of artists have gone through its doors – it is associated with no less than 13 Cultural Medallion winners, 20 Young Artist Award recipients and many more talented artists; it has closed streets for outdoor festivals and durian parties; and packed hundreds of sweaty bodies, young and old, in its legendary garden. 

In 1990, Kuo Pao Kun set the Singapore arts scene on a certain trajectory, creating ripples that continue to reverberate today. Along the way, its various artistic directors, arts managers, and tireless staff have kept it going, creating their own safe harbours and weathering their own storms. 

The next few months might decide whether hope sinks or hope floats.

 

Check out ArtsEquator’s comprehensive timeline that charts the events surrounding The Substation and the redevelopment of  45 Armenian Street.


Nabilah Said is the editor of ArtsEquator.

Ke Weiliang is a Singaporean arts practitioner-critic who graduated from LASALLE College of the Arts in 2019 with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Arts Management. As a practitioner, Weiliang’s creative practice is currently centred around explorations of how relationships and intimacy can be cultivated over scattered, physically distanced interpersonal interactions. He was recently an artist-in-residence of Centre 42’s inaugural The Vault: Lite programme. As a critic, he writes regularly for ArtsEquator, and is the founding editor of Gee Dock Convos. He is also the founding administrator of Channel NewsTheatre.

With thanks to Kathy Rowland for her editorial input.

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