Substation funding

Arts community expresses concern over NAC's response

The Substation's 45 Armenian Street premises will be returned to the National Arts Council in July for renovation works. More than 240 members of the arts community here have signed a statement saying that many of them do not have faith that the "safe, inclusive space" will continue to be extended if the building returns to the custodianship of the council. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

More than 240 members of the arts community have signed a statement to express concern about how the National Arts Council (NAC) has framed The Substation's funding issues.

The statement, made public on Friday, came after a series of public exchanges between NAC and The Substation.

The signatories include Cultural Medallion recipients Alvin Tan, Ivan Heng and Ong Keng Sen as well as film-maker Kirsten Tan.

The Substation board had announced that the arts venue would close after its historic 45 Armenian Street building is returned to the council in July for renovation works. It said it could not accept having to share the space with multiple arts groups upon its return.

The council had said that with the growth in the arts scene, making The Substation space available to other arts groups would allow the broader arts community to benefit.

The arts community's statement said misconceptions about arts funding would have adverse effects on the overall arts ecosystem and how its practitioners are perceived and valued.

It queried NAC's inclusion of "indirect government funding" as an indicator of financial sustainability. NAC had said The Substation's heavy reliance on direct and indirect government funding would not be sustainable in the long term.

The statement said that as early as 1994, a "commercial element" was present in arts housing spaces, with some arts organisations contractually obliged to find and manage commercial tenants in areas zoned for retail or commercial use.

The focus on quantitative metrics "fails to account for the multidimensional value of arts programming, and the long-term impact and value of arts centres such as The Substation", said the statement.

It added that NAC had used "an inconsistent and confusing mix of numbers and percentages".

It took issue with the limitations of current funding schemes, noting that while The Substation's identity has been that of a multidisciplinary arts centre, the fact that it is funded under the Major Company Scheme has placed it on the same plane of expectations as major companies.

This is despite it "playing a distinctively different role, and delivering different - and no less valuable - outcomes for the arts ecosystem".

The statement pointed out that from fiscal years 2017 to 2019, the Major Company grant monies accounted for up to 34 per cent of The Substation's total expenditure.

This is within the requirements of the scheme, which funds between 50 per cent and 70 per cent of a major company's total qualifying costs.

The statement said The Substation has traditionally shared its rental subvention and benefits with artists and arts groups, offering them in-kind venue support or use of facilities at highly subsidised rates.

It also said that while The Substation is "a safe space for artistic experimentation", many in the community "do not have faith that this safe, inclusive space will continue to be extended should 45 Armenian Street be returned to the custodianship of NAC".

NAC declined to comment in response to queries and directed the media to a page on its website that stated existing policies and mission statements.

The website said the council is committed to supporting the work of major companies that are leaders in the maturing arts landscape.

It said that to be more sustainable in the long term, it is important for artists and arts companies to diversify their sources of income, and that Singapore's arts sector needs a viable mix of public funding, private sector partnerships and revenue from organisations' activities and programmes.

It said NAC takes a holistic view of all government funding, including "income tied to our subsidised spaces".

It also said that for tenanted spaces, the Framework for Arts Spaces is intended to benefit new and existing players through a merit-based process. "NAC also remains committed to ensuring the upgrading of infrastructure and to secure the resources required as such costs should not be borne by arts tenants."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 21, 2021, with the headline Arts community expresses concern over NAC's response. Subscribe