By Professor Tommy Koh: A Farewell to Arts: The Substation’s Legacy

March 06, 2021

The announcement by the board of directors of arts venue The Substation on 2 March 2021, to close the company permanently has caused much unhappiness in the arts community.
Why did the board take such a drastic decision? In July, the building at 45 Armenian Street will be taken back by the National Arts Council (NAC) to undergo a two-year renovation.
The Substation wants the building back after the renovation. NAC does not agree, as it would like the building to be made available to other arts groups, as well as The Substation. In other words, the dispute is over whether The Substation will be the sole tenant or a co-tenant of the renovated building.
In view of this impasse, the directors of The Substation have decided to shut down the company permanently.
As a long-time supporter of The Substation and its patron, I understand and accept their decision.

Electrical start
The building was originally built in 1926 as an electric substation. It ceased operations in the late 1970s and was left vacant.
In 1986, Singapore’s leading playwright and theatre director Kuo Pao Kun proposed to the Government to convert the building into an arts centre.
The Government accepted the proposal and spent over $1 million converting and retrofitting the building. On Sept 16, 1990, The Substation was opened and Pao Kun was appointed its first artistic director. It was incorporated as a company to run the centre. Pao Kun requested that I be its patron and I accepted.

Vision and mission
What was Pao Kun’s vision for The Substation?
First, he envisaged it as an independent home for the arts. Artistic freedom and integrity were very important to him. He therefore insisted that The Substation should be independent and not be affiliated to any other organisation.
For instance, when the police prosecuted performance artist Joseph Ng for his controversial act of snipping off his pubic hair in 1994 in front of a small audience, to protest against the persecution of gay men, The Substation defended him.
Second, Pao Kun wanted The Substation to promote multi-disciplinary collaboration and to break down the silos in which most artists lived and worked. This resulted in some successful collaborations between visual artists, musicians and dramatists.
Third, he wanted The Substation to encourage experimentation and the exploration of new ideas, new art forms and new ways of making art. He was not afraid of failure. He used to say that a worthy failure is more valuable than a mediocre success. His philosophy was not to be afraid of failure, because failure was often the mother of success.
Fourth, The Substation would be a haven for young artists. There, young artists could find the time and space to learn, to mature, to provoke, to inspire and be inspired. Young artists would be protected from the pressure of money and the obsession with key performance indicators.
Fifth, The Substation would champion the fringe, the maverick and the non-conformist. It would fight against the commercialisation and bureaucratisation of the arts. It would defend the validity of art practices of multidisciplinary artists such as Tang Da Wu and Zai Kuning, and performance artists such as Lee Wen and Amanda Heng.

The first five years
I look back on the first five years of 1990 to 1995 as the golden years of The Substation. That period overlapped with my stint as the founding chairman of the National Arts Council (1991 to 1996).
The Substation was like a beehive for artists and art lovers. Artists young and old, of different language streams, and practitioners of different forms of art would gather at its small coffee shop or garden in the evening. The place had a buzz. Many young theatre companies, such as The Necessary Stage (TNS), made their debut there.
Every September, The Substation would organise a month-long festival, consisting of exhibitions by visual artists, drama and dance performances and thought-provoking forums. With Pao Kun at the helm, The Substation attracted both local and international attention and support. It had no competition in Singapore in the 1990s.

The Last 25 Years
In 1995, Pao Kun left The Substation to return to his first love of writing and directing. He was succeeded by Thirunalan Sasitharan, Audrey Wong, Lee Weng Choy, Noor Effendy Ibrahim, Alan Oei, and Raka Maitra and Woon Tien Wei, who are currently artistic co-directors.
They are good people. They have tried their best to keep up the good work of the centre. I am sure they will not be offended if I were to say that no subsequent artistic director could match Pao Kun’s charisma, stature, credibility and convening power. Pao Kun, who died in 2002, was a hard act to follow.
Although The Substation had no competition when it began, it has many competitors today.
The two arts colleges, the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and the Lasalle College of the Arts, have grown in strength and quality. Several theatre companies, like Wild Rice, have acquired their own premises. There are also The Arts House and the Goodman Arts Centre.
In 2005, The Substation made a serious error. It rented out its coffee shop and much-loved garden to live music bar Timbre in order to get rental income for the space. But without the coffee shop, there was no place for artists to meet. Without the garden, out-door concerts and other events could no longer be held. This contributed significantly to the decline of the centre.
The other issue is The Substation’s finances. It is surprising that, after an existence of 30 years, its annual budget is only about $1 million, mostly derived from government grants and rentals. Even before the impact of Covid-19, the failure to raise funds from other sources is partly a reflection on the leaders and partly due to the declining relevance of the centre.

Achievements beyond arts
What has The Substation achieved? It has nurtured many recipients of the Cultural Medallion and Young Artists Award. Eminent theatre practitioners, such as Wild Rice founding artistic director Ivan Heng, TNS artistic director Alvin Tan, and TheatreWorks artistic director Ong Keng Seng were mentored by Pao Kun at The Substation.
But, just as importantly, The Substation has played a vital role in the art journeys of many other less well-known artists. Without it, they would not have become the successful artists they are today.
Finally, what will be missed most is its values and culture. The Substation is about the freedom to innovate, to experiment, to challenge the establishment and conventional wisdom. It is about the process of art-making and less about its outcome. The Substation is an incubator of young artistic talent.
I hope there will always be a place in Singapore which understands, values and supports this mission.
It is with a heavy heart that I say farewell to this unique, independent, multi-disciplinary arts centre.
The spirit of Pao Kun and The Substation will never die. It will live on in the many artists whose lives have been touched by it.

Looking ahead, I hope the two arts colleges and the new arts university will attempt to fill the void left by the demise of The Substation.

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