Singapore arts centre The Substation to close permanently, board announces

Following news that it would be leaving its premises on Armenian Street

Singapore arts centre The Substation will close permanently, its board announced in a statement on Tuesday (March 2).

This comes less than a month after it was reported that the arts centre would be leaving its premises on Armenian Street, its home of over 30 years, in July 2021. The building will be taken back by the National Arts Council (NAC) for two years of renovation works.

The decision was made following “lengthy deliberations and several discussions with the NAC and with members of the arts community”, The Substation board said.

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The board wrote in its statement that although there were “broader reasons” that have contributed to The Substation’s closure, it disagreed with the NAC’s decision to convert the 45 Armenian Street site into a “multi-tenanted building”. According to the board, that decision will have profound implications for the Substation’s identity, autonomy and operations.

“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 board wrote.

NME has reached out to the NAC for comment.

The board said that The Substation’s inability “to return fully to its place of origin” will deal a detrimental blow to the arts centre’s identity. “The Substation will lose a fundamental part of its identity and heritage if it cannot return fully to 45 Armenian Street,” it wrote.

“From its opening in 1990, the identity of the arts centre has been inextricably linked to the building, generating a unique and creative buzz that has been central to placemaking in Armenian Street for 30 years. There is no other place like it.”

Singapore arts centre the Substation leaving Armenian Street after 30 years
A mural at The Substation in 2012. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

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The board also claimed that even if The Substation was to return to the Armenian Street building as a co-tenant, it would be “unable to control the building facilities integral to its operations such as the theatre and gallery”.

The board wrote, “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.”

The statement also said that the closure was partly due to the economic downturn triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, donors’ ensuing cautiousness with their funds, and some donors’ decision to “refocus their philanthropic outreach” which led to “a lower priority for the arts”.

“NAC did offer grants to help The Substation tide over the next two years and a subsidised office space at Goodman Arts Centre, but this will still result in halving our current budget, entailing a drastic reduction in staff strength and programming.”

Singapore arts centre the Substation leaving Armenian Street after 30 years
The Substation’s founder Kuo Pao Kun in front of the building that would become the arts centre. Courtesy of The Substation

The Substation, which was founded by Singaporean theatre giant and Cultural Medallion winner Kuo Pao Kun in 1990, has served as a performance and community space for Singapore’s independent arts scene. It currently houses a gallery, studio and black box theatre.

The space, known affectionately as The Sub, has a long-running relationship with the country’s independent music scene – especially the rock, hardcore and punk scenes – and has hosted hundreds of gigs, performances and festivals over the decades.

This month’s programming at The Substation includes the centre’s annual SeptFest, which will begin this Thursday (March 4) until March 28.

Chew Kheng Chuan, Chairperson of The Substation and its nine-person board, said the board “feels a deep responsibility to the local arts community to preserve the identity and heritage of The Substation as an independent arts centre”.

“With our closure, we hope that other arts organisations in Singapore will continue to carry the torch to give budding artists a safe space in which to experiment and develop their art.

“We also hope that the NAC will take a chance on young unproven passionate artists, and support the work of independent arts incubator spaces that have been vital to these artists, as it did for The Substation through the prior 30 years.”

Joint artistic director Woon Tien Wei said that he was “deeply sorry to be announcing this outcome” and that he was “saddened by the permanent closure of The Substation”, which he said “signals the shrinking of ‘self-organising’ spaces within our arts ecosystem”.

Woon also said that he saw the shift from the 1985 Arts Housing Policy to the 2010 Framework for Arts Spaces as “a worrying trajectory” for the Singapore arts scene. The Substation had originally been gazetted under the 1985 policy, but had been earmarked to fall within the 2010 framework, under which it would be a co-tenant in the renovated building.

He said, “The Framework for Arts Spaces may be practical for some arts organisations; it alters our sense of ownership of these spaces and affects how arts organisations make places in the future.”

Joint artistic director Raika Maitra said that “the closure of The Substation is to some extent inevitable”, adding, “This is the moment to ask ourselves, honestly, who are we as a society? Who are we as people?”

“There was a time when poetry was luxury. And now, the one place that spoke for all arts and artists has to close, because it has become a luxury. We as people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

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