Budget debate: MPs question fate of arts spaces like The Substation

The Substation has said it will close in July, after the National Arts Council takes back the building it was leasing. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - The topic of arts spaces reared its head in Parliament on Monday (March 8), on the back of news that independent arts centre The Substation will soon close for good.

During the debate on the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth's spending plans, Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) 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 will not be able to return in its entirety to 45 Armenian Street after the National Arts Council's (NAC) renovations of the building are complete, as one such example.

In response, Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth Low Yen Ling 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."

The Substation, set up by theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun in 1990, has long been an incubator for artists and is known for its experimental, multidisciplinary spirit.

Last week, the institution said it will close in July, after the NAC takes the building back for a two-year renovation project and converts it into a multi-tenanted arts centre.

NAC had said The Substation could return to the venue as a co-tenant under the Framework for Arts Spaces scheme, sharing the space with various arts groups.

On Monday, Ms Lim asked if the Government agreed that there was value in arts centres being managed by artists, rather than all being government-run, "as these would add to the richness of the ecosystem and also make the arts authentic and sustainable".

"Does (Ms Low) not agree that there is no reason why a centre managed by artists cannot also accommodate many users?" she said. "The current concern and dismay about the status of The Substation is a case in point, because many budding artists got their first breaks, or were incubated, in this artist-managed space."

Responding to Ms Low's remark that the NAC had previously organised dialogues with the arts community, she added: "Some of us have received feedback that although there were indeed sessions, the feeling was that decisions had already been made regarding certain spaces; there wasn't advance information about what would happen.

"I would like to ask if the Government will look into assessing whether the current dialogue format could be improved, so as to convince the arts community that their concerns are being taken seriously, and that the Government is coming with an open mind to these discussions."

Ms Low reiterated that the NAC has "proactively engaged" The Substation and its board since 2017 and "offered support in various ways and different permutations and scenarios".

"Following the renovation, which was already scheduled for a few years ahead of time, we hope that the place will continue to support the work of young and unproven practitioners and be a haven for collaboration in the arts and culture community."

She said the Government will "continue to involve and consult our various stakeholders whether in administering grants or even supporting our community with infrastructure and space".

Mr Sitoh Yih Pin (Potong Pasir) later asked Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong if more arts groups would benefit from the space after the renovations.

Mr Tong said: "The intention behind this renovation of 45 Armenian Street is precisely to allow more, newer, emerging younger arts groups to come and share the space."

He added: "In the period of time that we've looked, in the last couple of years at the very minimum, the majority of users or usage of The Substation was not by The Substation, it was by third-party users... The view was taken that the arts community would be better served if The Substation post-renovation would return as a multi-tenanted option."

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