The Substation to close permanently after leaving Armenian Street venue

The Substation is scheduled to move out of the conserved building it has occupied since 1990 for renovations in July.
The Substation is scheduled to move out of the conserved building it has occupied since 1990 for renovations in July.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The Substation's board announced in a statement on Tuesday (March 2) that the contemporary arts venue will close for good after it leaves its 45 Armenian Street space.

"This difficult decision was made after lengthy deliberations and several discussions with the National Arts Council (NAC) and with members of the arts community," the statement added.

The board said the decision was because "while NAC has suggested that The Substation may return to 45 Armenian Street as a co-tenant when renovations are over, NAC made it clear that The Substation will be one of several co-tenants and will not occupy the building in its full capacity".

The Substation is scheduled to move out of the conserved building it has occupied since 1990 for renovations in July. It was founded by late theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun.

The NAC has said that The Substation can return to the venue as a tenant under the Framework for Arts Spaces scheme but that the space will be shared with other arts groups.

The board said that it came to two key conclusions: "Firstly, The Substation will lose a fundamental part of its identity and heritage if it cannot return fully to 45 Armenian Street.

"Secondly, even if it returns as a co-tenant, The Substation will be unable to control the building facilities integral to its operations such as the theatre and gallery.

"This has two implications, namely, the loss of autonomy over the spaces and facilities crucial for its mission, and the loss of income from venue hiring. These factors impact The Substation's ability to operate as an independent arts centre and incubator."

Another contributing factor to the closure is the Covid-19 pandemic, which has made fund-raising especially difficult, the statement added.

Mr Chew Kheng Chuan, 63, chairman of the board, told The Straits Times: “We had begun strenuous fundraising for substantive donations for over a year and had not met with any success. 

“We also reached out to NAC to help us with a lifeline to tide us over these two years. Their response was to offer some help, but it was inadequate and fell significantly short of what we were asking for. We have been deliberating on this matter for almost two years.”

The Substation’s annual budget is between $1 million and $1.2 million a year, with the NAC funding between 30 and 35 per cent. Revenue from rental to other arts groups and live music bar Timbre covers between 35 and 50 per cent while the rest depends on fund-raising. It pays $4,510 a month in rental to NAC. 

The NAC said it was “disappointed” to hear of the board’s decision and called it a “missed opportunity”.

A spokesman said: “The Substation’s request was to return as the sole tenant and to be the only user of the entire space. It had sought autonomy over the whole space, so that it could generate income from venue hire, including the space formerly leased to Timbre. 

“We had explained that it would not be feasible for any arts company to be sustainable if it relies on almost 90 per cent of its income from Government funding, including the commercial tenancy income it derives from leasing out parts of the subsidised premises at 45 Armenian Street allocated by NAC.”

The Substation’s reliance on direct and indirect government funding – an average of 86 per cent of annual income – is the highest among NAC’s 52 major companies.

Mr Chew said the Substation’s last day will likely be in July, when it is due to move out of the building.

Former Substation artistic director T. Sasitharan decried this as “the saddest day in Singapore arts”.

“We have sacrificed The Substation in the name of development economics, urban planning and progress,” said the Intercultural Theatre Institute director, 62.

“The truest, most authentic site of plural, inclusive, independent, interdisciplinary art making in Singapore has fallen victim to the callous logic of bureaucracy. It’s a damning indictment of all of us, as artists, as a people and a society. All our wealth and stature and capability couldn’t save it. What have we become?”

Alvin Tan, 56, artistic director of theatre company The Necessary Stage, called for greater transparency.

“This announcement has come as a shock,” said Tan, who has been coordinating a grassroots effort in the arts community to help save the venue. “I am dismayed because I don’t think enough was done to save The Substation.

“I wish there was more self-examination, transparency and community engagement, especially since The Substation belongs to the arts community and even the Singaporean general public.

“In the process not being transparent, the arts community has been locked out of the challenges The Substation has been facing, rendering us all helpless onlookers.”

Singapore Management University (SMU) assistant professor Hoe Su Fern, 38, said that while she respected the board’s desire to “go out on its own terms”, she was not sure if it was the wisest move.

The SMU arts and culture management programme coordinator added that the statement and decision indicate the current management of The Substation might be the reason behind the venue’s troubled condition.

She pointed out that The Substation’s precarity has been a given throughout its history. “If The Substation has always been known to be that one oddball in the arts that has survived more than 30 years, why is it giving up on itself now, before even giving itself an opportunity to try out new conditions and emerge stronger? 

“The decision by the board demonstrates a clear lack of faith in the joint artistic directors and the arts management team who have been working tirelessly to keep The Substation running, especially within the uncertain conditions presented by a global pandemic.”

The Substation’s current artistic directors, Raka Maitra and Woon Tien Wei, declined to comment on the situation.

Mr Chew acknowledged that the arts community is aggrieved with the decision. “I understand their sentiment,” he said. “We felt that in the end, we as the board were the ones who carried the responsibilities and the burdens of our duty towards the institution and the staff. 

“We are gratefully aware that there may be no other arts institution or organisation in Singapore whose ownership and affiliation is so widely felt by a supportive public. Perhaps we could have initiated a ‘Save The Substation’ public campaign, which we did not.”

But The Substation will be holding a town hall, hopefully by this weekend, to address some of these questions. 

Mr Chew said: “I think at the back of our minds, we did not believe that the deep sympathies of our supportive public could translate sufficiently into the financial support we needed, nor reverse the decisions of the NAC whose actions ultimately decided our fate.”

The Substation will hold a four-week arts festival, SeptFest, from Thursday (March 4) to March 28. Curated by Maitra with the theme In The Margins, it will explore the stories of  marginalised, displaced and forgotten communities in Singapore.