Singapore’s National Arts Council calls The Substation closure “a missed opportunity”

The government body said it had been ready to work with the arts centre on working towards long-term financial sustainability

Singapore’s National Arts Council (NAC) has issued a statement on the permanent closure of The Substation, which was announced by the arts centre’s board on Tuesday (March 2).

An NAC spokesperson expressed that the statutory board was “disappointed by the announcement from the Board of The Substation on their decision to close the company permanently”. “NAC has emphasised that it would like for The Substation to continue its role as an arts incubator,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

The NAC is a Singapore government body that oversees arts and cultural development in the city-state, funding various endeavours through direct and seed grants. Beneficiaries of these grants have included artists, musicians, and art institutions such as The Substation, the Singapore Repertory Theatre, The Observatory, Dance Ensemble Singapore, and the Singapore Book Council.

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The Substation’s board had partly attributed its decision to shutter the centre to the NAC’s decision to turn the 45 Armenian Street site into a multi-tenanted building after renovations, which are expected to last two years. The board said that under a multi-tenanted scheme, The Substation would no longer “be unable to control the building facilities integral to its operations such as the theatre and gallery”.

However, in its statement, the NAC said that 45 Armenian Street would be “of greater benefit to the broader arts community, when made available to other arts groups”, due to “a landscape where there are now more organisations and practitioners”.

The NAC also noted that The Substation’s strategy of generating income through hiring out its facilities and venues, which the arts centre will be unable to do under a multi-tenanted scheme, was “neither feasible nor sustainable in the longer term”.

According to the NAC, 86 per cent of The Substation’s revenue stems from Singapore government funding, which the statutory board has been helping with since the arts centre’s inception in 1990. This funding comes both directly through grants and indirectly through a rental subsidy for 45 Armenian Street, the NAC said, citing data for the financial years 2017 to 2019. Grants account for 45 per cent of The Substation’s income, and rental subsidies 41 per cent.

Of the 52 organisations receiving the NAC’s Major Company grant, The Substation has the highest reliance on government funding for its income, according to the NAC.

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The NAC said it had hoped that the period spent operating away from 45 Armenian Street would “be a good time for the board to reflect on the company’s current operating model and role in our arts landscape, given the maturing scene in Singapore”.

The NAC said it had offered to work with The Substation to review its artistic and financial strategies in an aim to achieve long-term sustainability while upholding its mission and vision. However, The Substation has declined the support, the statutory board said. “It is a missed opportunity,” the NAC’s statement read.

After the NAC issued its statement, The Substation on March 2 made a social media post answering frequently asked questions from the public. It claims that to consider “alternatives form of operations”, as suggested by the NAC, The Substation would have to change its very mission: “To be an arts centre that provides valuable safe spaces for emerging and experimental artists.”

On March 4 (Thursday), The Substation board chairman KC Chew announced a virtual townhall about the centre’s closure on March 6.

“Our decision to close The Substation after its 30-year run was greeted with understanding and great dismay from many quarters,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “We could of course have anticipated that. And you can imagine it was a most difficult decision for the board to make.

“Many questions are being asked – deeply heartfelt and concerned questions. May I invite you to come to this townhall to share your views, ask your questions, and we will try our best to answer them.”

Sign up for the townhall, which will take place on Zoom and be facilitated by Kok Heng Leun and Audrey Wong, here.

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 took over a former power substation dating back to the 1920s, was established by playwright Kuo Pao Kun in 1990. It has since served as a space for emerging artists and artforms, hosting exhibitions, concerts, theatre productions, and other events by and for the country’s independent arts scene.

For now, The Substation intends to continue operations until July 2021, after which they will permanently vacate their premises. Their current programme focuses on its 30th anniversary celebrations with SeptFest, which will run through March. The centre is also planning a week of farewell events, including the soft launch of an archives collection.

Singaporean musicians have been paying their respects to The Substation and sharing memories of the venue on social media. “You’ve always championed local talent. You will be missed,” wrote Sean Lam of indie folk band Hanging Up The Moon.

Additional reporting by Daniel Peters

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