Corrie Tan

Housing a home for the arts

A performance by Cake Theatrical Productions with an outdoor projection show by Brian Gothong Tan, part of The Arts House's 10th anniversary celebrations last month. But a new management also brings fresh questions about what will become of Singapore
A performance by Cake Theatrical Productions with an outdoor projection show by Brian Gothong Tan, part of The Arts House's 10th anniversary celebrations last month. But a new management also brings fresh questions about what will become of Singapore's arts spaces.ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

A recent series of performances at The Arts House to celebrate its 10th anniversary turned the historic building's facade into a palette of colour and light.

But as various shows and exhibitions unfolded in the inner sanctums of the former Parliament House, they also trained the spotlight on the nature of urban arts spaces: like the cities they inhabit, they rarely stay still.

As of April 1, The Arts House, which opened in 2004 after a $15 million refurbishment, has come under new management.

The chameleonic arts centre at Empress Place has long struggled to find an identity and connect with audiences and the arts community. This is quite unlike its two neighbouring arts centres - the Esplanade, with its blockbuster performances, and the Substation with its platform for raw, edgy works.

Formerly run by The Old Parliament House Ltd, The Arts House has now been merged with independent company Arts Festival Limited. The new entity, Arts House Ltd, is helmed by Ms Lee Chor Lin, its chief executive officer.

Will the new management be able to breathe new life into the building?

Arts House Ltd will not only manage The Arts House but will also be responsible for the newly revamped Singapore International Festival of Arts, the Goodman Arts Centre in Mountbatten, and the Aliwal Arts Centre in Kampong Glam. These centres are collections of studios offered at subsidised rental rates to artists and arts companies.

But with a new chapter also comes fresh questions about what will become of these arts spaces under different leadership.

The change promises The Arts House an anchor festival and major programme element which it did not have before. The Arts House will provide the Singapore International Festival of Arts a home in a prime location close to major museums such as the upcoming National Gallery Singapore, and performing arts venues such as the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall.

The physical building will give a sense of rootedness to an arts festival that has had something of a tumultuous start as it begins to stand on its own feet, beyond the fold of the National Arts Council.

Last month, festival chief executive Ms Lee and festival director Ong Keng Sen were involved in a strongly worded dispute over how the organisation's artistic vision was being presented to the public through its brochures and programme guides. They have since come to a resolution, but having a home provides a greater sense of permanence to what has felt like a bit of a floating collective in danger of disintegrating over their differences.

What feels abrupt about this latest move is the exit of The Arts House's founding CEO Colin Goh, a much-loved figure. He will head a new non-profit company running two programmes started by The Arts House - an international arts and business exchange, and a performing academy for children.

Mr Goh and his team have managed, for the past 10 years, to be fiercely entrepreneurial in sustaining The Arts House, maintaining a surplus despite a modest budget of just over $2 million a year.

The problem has been the lack of artistic direction. The Arts House was initially designated as a space for broadly multidisciplinary work. It was also seen as a risk-taking platform for under- the-radar, or new, work through a heavily subsidised rental scheme, emulating the model of the Hong Kong Fringe Club.

This morphed into a focus on the literary arts. The change came in the form of a directive from parent organisation the National Arts Council, after The Arts House organised two successful editions of the Singapore Writers Festival in 2007 and 2009. Some Singapore writers have expressed concern that the new merger spells yet another abrupt U-turn, just as The Arts House was beginning to assert itself as a literary presence.

There is a difference between renting out spaces for anyone to use, and programming work that nurtures artist and audience alike.

The new management, however, has a broad reach, including under its wing not just an international festival but also a broad swathe of the local arts community residing in its centres. The Arts House building could be an incubator for works in progress by festival artists or local festival commissions. It could also be a space for audiences and artists to encounter each other for the first time - through talks, workshops or meet-the-artist sessions.

But beyond its role as festival organiser, Arts House Ltd could also make better use of the current public performing spaces at the Goodman and Aliwal centres. This could be done by giving them a year-round curated line-up of programmes, beyond their current capacity as convenient locations for resident arts groups to stage shows.

Arts House Ltd could also knit together its varied portfolio by having a dedicated team of programmers - who can transform the buildings under their care into producing houses which regularly commission new work. This also means being plugged into the arts scene and monitoring an artist's growth and oeuvre.

One could draw a parallel with what is happening on a smaller scale during The Studios sessions at the Esplanade, which span a few months of each year. This has come into its own as a hotbed for Singapore groups and individuals wanting to try something different or test an ambitious work.

London's Royal Court Theatre is another successful model of an organisation geared towards putting out bold new work. It has championed the likes of prominent playwrights Caryl Churchill, Mark Ravenhill and Nick Payne.

I hope the new Arts House Ltd will not channel its energies into simply sustaining the annual arts festival. It would be far better if it worked to become greater than the sum of its diverse parts.

In this way, Arts House Ltd could give the arts in Singapore not just a house, but also a home.

corriet@sph.com.sg