Budget debate: $20m arts top-up includes new grant for freelancers

Groups like The Theatre Practice, which has been streaming shows online since May last year, can apply for a Business Transformation Grant. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - Arts freelancers and businesses will get more support, as the Government pledges another $20 million to help the sector tide over the pandemic.

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong on Monday (March 8) announced a top-up to the Arts and Culture Resilience Package (ACRP), which will cover the cost of new grants for self-employed workers and business transformation, as well as the extensions of other support. This brings the total package to $75 million.

One new scheme is the Business Transformation Fund, which aims to help arts and culture organisations become more efficient and sustainable.

"This will support the transformation of arts and culture organisations, as well as support their recovery and sustainability, in a post-pandemic situation," Mr Tong told Parliament during his ministry's debate on its spending plans.

Groups can apply for a Business Transformation Grant (BTG), which will defray the cost of initiatives such as experimenting with new programmes or hiring consultants to develop ways of monetising digital content.

The grant will provide up to $30,000 per project for an individual company's efforts to transform its business. Up to $200,000 per project will be available to initiatives involving collaboration between groups, or which have potential for industry spin-offs.

Aside from offering grants, the fund will support MCCY and the National Arts Council (NAC)'s efforts to commission projects and work with industry partners.

One company thinking of applying for the BTG is The Theatre Practice, which has been streaming shows online since May last year. Artistic director Kuo Jian Hong, 54, says the grant would fund research and development for a new "hardware and software solution" to address the needs of artists performing live.

They are working with programmers and engineers to build a system where performers in different locations can be captured remotely and live-streamed more effectively. They aim to roll it this out in September this year and make it available to others in the industry.

"The actors need to see each other on the screen," she adds. "We are building a device that has a camera, that can record sound, that can connect to the Internet, have a monitor and preview system and where a stage manager can send (performers) cues.

"The BTG would allow us to take some risks we couldn't otherwise afford to take. It offers us that mind space that, unfortunately, is a luxury."

Also unveiled on Monday was the Self-Employed Person (SEP) Grant for local freelancers and arts and culture groups who collaborate with them.

Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth Low Yen Ling said up to $50,000 will be awarded per project. She added that such projects could include live performances, digital presentations or skills development.

The NAC will prioritise projects that benefit a larger number of freelancers, are digital or involve capability development.

It plans to launch the SEP and BTG grants by June this year.

Freelancer Mohamad Shaifulbahri, 35, who is the joint artistic director of performing arts company Bhumi Collective, welcomed the news. He added that he might consider applying to use the SEP grant for a project that engages emerging arts producers.

But he hopes the grant recipients will be given "space and time to develop new ideas".

"If not, it will be a rush," he said. "With ACRP 1.0, the feeling was that the Digital Presentation Grant was a stop-gap measure. People felt there were a lot of projects coming out with the DPG that ranged in terms of quality."

The $20 million top-up will also fund extensions of existing support measures.

A second tranche of the ACRP Operating Grant will be given out in July to help groups defray their operating costs. Eligible organisations will receive $35,000 each - down from $50,000 or $75,000.

Venue hire subsidies at 80 per cent will also be extended for three more months till June. Subsidies will also cover more venues, and further extensions will be reviewed later.

During the debate on Monday, MP Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) , asked if the Government could review Covid-19 rules around live arts performances, given the "arguably lower risk" these pose compared to some other activities.

" For instance, restaurants have customers at the same table at close proximity, chatting and laughing for hours without masks on. Restaurants can also move their chairs and tables around to maximise their capacity.

"In contrast, theatres and concert halls have fixed seats. When social distancing measures are applied, some are down to 25 per cent capacity, but their audiences are required to sit silently, with masks on during the entire performance."

Ms Low replied that the Government acknowledges the arts community is keen to have larger audiences in their performing arts spaces, but "we cannot afford to let our guard down".

She added: "Comprehensive vaccination coverage will enable us to re-open further, while SMMs (safe management measures), testing and contract tracing will continue to be necessary.

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"While applications can be made for outdoor performances, live performances that involve unmasked performers carry some risk."

In his speech, Mr Tong added that the Cultural Matching Fund, which matches donations to eligible arts and heritage charities dollar for dollar, will undergo a review with the aim of a top-up next year.

The fund, set up by MCCY in 2013, provides dollar-for-dollar matching of private cash donations to eligible arts and heritage charities, to encourage private giving to the sector.

Between 2014 and 2019, it matched $265 million worth of donations raised by more than 100 groups. It was topped up by $150 million in 2017.

More details will be announced next year.

Also raised during the debate was the issue of arts spaces in Singapore. Ms Lim noted the "unease" felt by the community over arts organisations losing their spaces or autonomy over buildings they had long managed.

She highlighted The Substation, which last week announced it would close permanently after the NAC takes back its Armenian Street building for renovations and converts it into a multi-tenanted arts centre.

In response, Ms Low said: "Our arts spaces have grown over the years. NAC seeks to ensure that these are used optimally and efficiently; that we provide fair access and inclusive opportunities for as many as possible in the community - especially new groups and younger practitioners; and that these spaces are regularly updated and upgraded to remain relevant to prevailing needs."

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