Arts community and home-grown businesses rally to help freelancers hit by Covid-19 with commissions, grants

(From top left, clockwise) Musician Amanda Ong, Actor Dwayne Lau, Deaf illustrator Isaac Liang and Athena Hong Xin Ying. PHOTOS: AMANDA ONG, DWAYNE LAU, CAROUSELL, THE TENG COMPANY

SINGAPORE - Amid the financial doom and gloom caused by Covid-19, there are a few bright sparks for arts freelancers who have lost jobs and incomes.

Grassroots level initiatives are giving financial aid to those in need, while home-grown businesses, from small enterprises to big companies, are offering modest commissions and scholarships.

One of the first people to step up at the beginning of the crisis was adjunct lecturer and freelance writer Ng Swee San, 55. She has lost some $13,000 in cancelled gigs, but dug into her savings for $1,400 to commission work from freelancers in late March.

She says she was motivated to "pay needy creatives fast". She paid four freelancers $50 each for a half-page pitch, two of whom were paid $500 each to produce a two-minute video.

Ng adds: "I set tight deadlines and specified that creators should not spend more than a certain number of hours on the project. And I promised to pay within seven days of delivery."

As a freelancer herself, she wanted "to try to set good industry practices to pay for pitches, and to pay fairly and have realistic expectations. Don't pay $500 and expect the artist to dedicate two weeks of his life solely to your work."

One of the works, a dengue awareness video by Yvonne Loh featuring stop-motion animation of stuffed Merlions and other toys, was shared by Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli on Facebook.

After Ng's initial effort, friends and strangers donated money to the cause, so she had another $1,500 to offer.

One of the beneficiaries is film-maker and multidisciplinary artist Gracie Song, 26. Her short film Bat Soup, a quirky black-and-white tale about a female vampire on the hunt, has earned more than 1,300 views on YouTube since it was posted on April 10.

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Song says: "Although it was a small amount, the commission helped as it has been a trying time financially. Projects were either cancelled or postponed, so there isn't any money coming in except from small editing jobs and government payouts.

"I'm really grateful, not just because of the money, which is helpful, but also for the efforts in supporting and reaching out to media freelancers like me."

Ng's efforts to support freelancers partly inspired Carousell to reach out to its maker community, says co-founder Marcus Tan, 39. The local start-up has lent its marketplace infrastructure and marketing support to a campaign, Made In SG, so creatives can sell their work and services on its online platform.

Ng Swee San spent $1,400 to commission work from freelancers in late March. ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

Mr Tan says Ng and film industry veteran Nicholas Chee helped him pinpoint a gap which Carousell could fill: "While creatives were able to access resources and support schemes, they still required a platform to sell their crafts and services to get a viable source of income."

Made In SG was born. Partnering with the government agency Singapore Brand Office, Carousell launched the call on April 10 and gave 200 applicants three months' worth of CarouBiz Starter Packs worth $190 each. These packs offer sellers data and ways to boost listings.

More than 1,300 #MadeInSG listings have been posted since the campaign began. They include items like artwork from deaf illustrator Isaac Liang, woven necklaces from actor Dwayne Lau and music by musician Amanda Ong.

Carousell's #MadeInSG listings include items like (from left) artwork from deaf illustrator Isaac Liang, woven necklaces from actor Dwayne Lau and music by musician Amanda Ong. PHOTOS: CAROUSELL, DWAYNE LAU, AMANDA ONG

Mr Tan adds: "With projects being indefinitely postponed and cancelled, and sources of income dwindling, Carousell has the opportunity to serve these members of our community with a platform that allows them to continue engaging audiences and allows for an alternative source of income, even amid the Covid-19 crisis."

Legal firm Covenant Chambers is also supporting livelihoods by giving out small commissions of between $200 and $600. Mr Lemuel Teo, 29, its community engagement manager, says the company has received about 15 inquiries since the initiative was announced in late March.

About eight artists are in the recording and production stages now. The performances range from song recitals and poetry readings to instrumental works and monologues, and will be posted on social media channels. Two artists have written new works for their commissions.

Mr Teo says: "Members of the arts sector might be easily overlooked as attention and resources are channelled towards other sectors. We hope to be able to support some of them by commissioning video-recorded performances celebrating hope in these troubled times."

Quick financial aid for arts freelancers was also the aim of Pasar Glamour Art Aid, which exceeded its initial target of $100,000 when "donations started flooding in", says Pasar Glamour co-founder Janice Koh. Pasar Glamour, whose other co-founders are fellow theatre veterans Petrina Kow and Pam Oei, has raised more than $136,000, which will go towards helping 147 arts workers with $500 grants to pay for pressing bills.

"We are grateful and so heartened that there are many people in Singapore who feel it is important to support the arts industry at this time," Koh says.

Actor Hang Qian Chou, 38, is one of Art Aid's beneficiaries. Married with twin toddlers, he says: "I'm paying cash for the monthly instalment on my three-room flat's mortgage loan, since I typically don't get Central Provident Fund payouts working as a freelancer, and this $500 will go towards the next payment."

The fund has received 179 applications, fewer than expected, but Koh says government relief measures such as the Temporary Relief Fund and the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme might have helped tide over arts workers' immediate needs.

She adds: "We are not optimistic that the performing arts scene is going to recover quickly. As such, Pasar Glamour intends to announce a second round of grant applications for those who either missed the earlier deadline or have lost jobs in the later half of this year."

Despite the cash-strapped present, arts companies are still devoting resources to prepping for the future.

Property company Mapletree Investments recently increased the number of scholarships it gives out in collaboration with Chinese music group The Teng Company from four to six.

Each two-year Mapletree-Teng Academy Scholarship is valued at $10,000 and allows students to receive one-on-one instrumental lessons, sit Chinese music grading and British music education body ABRSM music theory examinations as well as participate in competitions.

Teng co-founder Yang Ji Wei, 39, notes that the company received 37 applications this year, 20 more than last year, indicating "there was a demand for this specialised scholarship".

Mr Wan Kwong Weng, 48, Mapletree's group chief corporate officer, says: "Due to the strong slate of candidates, we are happy to expand to six to enable more aspiring young musicians to pursue their passion in Chinese music."

Athena Hong (left) and Kee Teng Hwee, two of the recipients of the Mapletree-Teng Academy Scholarship. PHOTOS: THE TENG COMPANY

Theatre company Wild Rice, despite a projected revenue loss of more than $1 million due to cancelled shows, fast-tracked its new director residency programme which was planned for 2021/22.

Founding artistic director Ivan Heng will mentor successful applicants, who will each earn a $10,000 grant to create a three-show run for the company's Studio Theatre.

Heng, 56, says: "I felt that beyond money, what our artists needed was hope and work; to create with purpose and have something to look forward to. We believe in the future and it's imperative to invest in it now."

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