The Pandemic Year Of Arts

Singapore's theatres closed a year ago. Where is the arts scene now?

Kuo Jian Hong, artistic director of The Theatre Practice at Waterloo street on March 5, 2021. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - On this day a year ago, The Theatre Practice was busy preparing for the opening of its promenade theatre piece Four Horse Road. But the spectre of Covid-19 was already looming.

Artistic director Kuo Jian Hong, 54, recalls: "We were racing to be one step ahead."

The theatre group had a task force that measured every single location to ensure participants could stand 1m apart. They cut down audience sizes and redesigned routes. Suspecting the axe might fall soon, they also frantically recorded rehearsals. "We were fighting to keep some semblance of the work that everybody did together," says Kuo.

The March 24 announcement that entertainment venues would have to close came 10 minutes before the full dress rehearsal. Kuo wanted to keep the news from the cast, but the second she walked backstage, the actors knew. She told them to hold it together. "They were quite heartbroken."

Even then, she recalls, "everybody was still holding on to the idea that maybe in a couple of weeks, we would be back."

It would be nearly eight months before performing arts venues opened again.

Financial hit

The lengthy closure hit the performing arts community hard. No live shows meant no income for culture workers like freelance production manager Ng Siaw Hui, 29, who lost $10,000 in income that was to have lasted her five months.

The $9,000 from the Government's Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (Sirs) kept her afloat till phase two, when she worked part-time at a pet cafe. By December, with shows returning, she was back in rehearsals. Her schedule is now fully booked with theatre work till August.

But she is one of the lucky ones, she says - other freelancers had to leave the arts scene and find full-time employment elsewhere.

Ivan Heng, 57, artistic director of theatre company Wild Rice, says some of his freelance crew ended up working on small-scale construction projects.

The venue closure came as a double whammy for Wild Rice, which was ramping up to its first season in its new theatre before the pandemic hit. It had expanded its staff from 16 to 26 to run the venue.

Arts companies say the Job Support Scheme helped defray some of the manpower costs, which for large companies like the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) run into millions annually.

On March 26 last year, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat announced the Arts And Culture Resilience Package (ACRP), a $55 million top up in arts funding, in addition to the $1.6 million already set aside for the National Arts Council's (NAC) Capability Development Grant Scheme for the Arts and other subsidies.

Audience members at Wild Rice @ Funan during a staging of Where Are You? PHOTO: WILD RICE

NAC deputy chief executive (planning and corporate development) Paul Tan, 50, says the $1.6 million has been spent and 80 per cent of the $55 million will be used by the end of the financial year (FY20) to generate more work for arts practitioners.

To date, the ACRP has created more than 13,000 work and training opportunities for arts practitioners and generated more than 1,400 digitalisation projects and programmes. The venue hire subsidy, which covers 80 per cent of the rental, has been used more than 300 times.

A $20 million top-up announced in Parliament on March 8 will support the extensions of the ACRP Operating Grant, which gave companies a one-time sum of $50,000 or $75,000, and the venue hire subsidy, as well as two new grants, the Business Transformation Grant and the Self-Employed Persons Grant.

But as the Digital Presentation Grant and the Capability Development Scheme for the Arts have ended and the rental subsidy is due to end in June, some groups are apprehensive about the year ahead.

Sriwana, a non-profit Malay arts group with some 80 volunteers, is bracing for tough times. Artistic director Fauziah Hanom Yusof, 58, admits: "We are panicking."

The troupe's biggest overhead is its studio space at Goodman Arts Centre, for which it pays $2,500 a month. The lease ends next year and it is looking for space. "But rental is a killer."

It depends on NAC's Presentation and Participation grants to fund a third of production costs. Box office sales account for 50 per cent and grants from other charitable foundations and donations make up the balance. But venue capacities are limited by safe management measures. Fauziah says: "We cannot even fend for ourselves because live performances are restricted."

Performing arts shows are an expensive proposition. The 10 shows Wild Rice has staged since reopening have been seen by more than 12,000 people, but are operating at a loss.

A traditional dance performance by Sriwana dancers held at Black Box Goodman Arts Centre. PHOTO: SRIWANA

Heng says: "We had to open the theatre as soon as possible even if it didn't make any financial sense, because it's about morale. We've created more than 300 jobs in the past four months."

Contemporary art gallery Chan + Hori closed its Gillman Barracks space in June, which curator Khairuddin Hori, 47, says saved the company overhead costs of more than $20,000 a month.

Pandemic lessons

Digital has become the new frontier for the arts in the past year. While the consensus is that it will not take the place of live experiences, arts groups say they benefited from enforced digitalisation.

Objectifs co-founder and director Emmeline Yong, 44, says: "The pandemic made us rethink some new possibilities. We were a bit old-fashioned. This forced us very quickly to adapt."

The film and photography centre launched a digital library, which streamed short films at a nominal fee, as well as its Film Club online. Objectifs programme director Chelsea Chua, 38, says the online panels attracted between 40 and 70 people each time. "You wouldn't see these numbers at a physical talk."

Contemporary art gallery Chan + Hori closed its Gillman Barracks space in June. PHOTO: CHAN+HORI CONTEMPORARY

SCO's digital viewership climbed dramatically in the past year as it bumped up online content. But executive director Terence Ho, 51, echoes the common lament that digital content is hard to monetise. "You need the platform, and the payment gateway."

All the arts companies who put content online report good viewership for free programmes, but paying customers are few and far between. Mr Ho points out, however, that those who pay tend to stick around for the whole show rather than channel surf, so the SCO's strategy now is to bundle physical and digital tickets to try to expand its audience base.

Monetisation aside, digital options can offer solutions to physical limitations, as Esplanade chief executive Yvonne Tham, 46, notes. The arts centre's school programmes are oversubscribed and it has introduced digital passes to allow more access.

But she worries about how the pandemic year will shape tastes and accentuate divides. Eight to 15-year-olds, for example, have had "two very intense years of TikTok".

"Their exposure to creativity is going to be very much shaped by that," she says, adding that school excursions need to start again so children from lower-income families can be exposed to the arts.

On the bright side

During the crisis, arts groups with more resources offered helping hands. Objectifs opened its chapel space to eight women artists to use as an incubator space and supported photographer Darren Soh's fundraising effort which raised almost $60,000 for migrant worker causes.

Objectifs, a centre for Photography & Film along Waterloo Street. PHOTO: ST FILE

The Esplanade is encouraging skills acquisition. It has consolidated its technical training courses under an Esplanade Academy umbrella, introduced new training programmes for arts practitioners and is also considering practical arts management courses.

Its new waterfront theatre will tentatively receive its Temporary Occupation Permit this year and open next year. "A lot of work is being incubated," Ms Tham says.

Sriwana's Fauziah sums up the community's attitude in the face of more challenges this year: "We'll make it through lah. Somehow we'll make it through."


Timeline of a pandemic year in the arts

2020

March 22: Singapore Biennale closes with a dip in the number of visitors - more than 400,000 compared with 2016's more than 614,000 - due to social distancing measures. It is the first major arts event to move all its content online, extending the shelf life of the show.

March 23: Arts House Limited announces a hiatus for Singapore International Festival of Arts 2020. The Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) cancels the staging of the blockbuster hit War Horse. In the same week, Teater Ekamatra's Berak is cancelled and Dream Academy's Vote Kumar and Singapore Book Council's flagship festival, the Asian Festival of Children's Content, are postponed.

March 24: The authorities announce that all entertainment venues, including theatres, will have to close on March 26, 11.59pm until April 30.

March 26: Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat announces a $55 million top-up in arts funding, in addition to $1.6 million set aside earlier in March for the National Arts Council's (NAC) Capability Development Scheme for the Arts and other subsidies.

April 3: A circuit breaker period, to begin on April 7 and end on May 4, is announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Libraries and museums close for the duration.

April 22: Actress Sharul Channa's one-woman show, Am I Old?, is the first live Zoom theatre experience.

May 4: Chan + Hori Contemporary announces it will close its Gillman Barracks gallery on June 30.

June 19: Singapore enters phase two. Commercial art destinations such as Gillman Barracks, Art Porters and Mulan Gallery reopen, but theatres and other performing venues remain closed.

June 26: Museums are the first arts institutions to reopen with safe management measures.

July 1: Libraries reopen with shorter hours and capacity limits.

July 3: Heritage institutions such as the Malay Heritage Centre, Indian Heritage Centre and Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall reopen.

Aug 14: NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, anchor tenant of Gillman Barracks, says it will close its exhibition space and residency studios in 2021.

Aug 21: The Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth announces plans to conduct small-scale trials for live performances.

Sept 4: The National Gallery Singapore and Singapore Art Museum launch two new shows under their Proposals For Novel Ways Of Being initiative, the first major institutional response to the pandemic. It brings together 170 artists under 12 institutions for a series of shows which run into February 2021.

Sept 11: Performance pilots begin at venues managed by the NAC, Esplanade, Singapore Chinese Orchestra, Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre and Arts House Limited.

Oct 6: SRT launches ticket sales for Tuesdays With Morrie, scheduled to preview on Nov 1. Wild Rice follows suit on Oct 15 with An Actress Prepares, opening on Nov 4. Tickets sell out in four days.

Oct 15: Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong announces a one-time operating grant of either $75,000 or $50,000 for arts and culture organisations, which will benefit more than 300 groups.

Oct 28: The NAC announces live performances will be allowed at some venues from Nov 1. Audiences are limited to two groups of 50.

November: The Esplanade resumes ticketed live performances for Baybeats, Kalaa Utsavam - Indian Festival Of Arts and a new lunchtime concert series.

2021

Jan 13: NAC launches the Sustain the Arts Fund to help small arts groups with programme costs and skills training.

Feb 27: The National Museum of Singapore opens Picturing The Pandemic: A Visual Record Of Covid-19 In Singapore. The first of its Collecting Contemporary Singapore series brings together 272 photographs, a short film and 16 donated artefacts to record the impact of the virus on Singapore.

March 8: The arts and culture sector gets a $20 million top-up to the Arts and Culture Resilience Package, Mr Tong announces in Parliament during the Budget debate.

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