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the simple life

"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words." Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Funding for local arts

March 12, 2005
Funding for local arts - a plea for discrimination
by Eleanor Wong


LOCAL theatre has taken an alarming downturn. This may sound like a strange thing to say in the wake of recent news on the arts front, like the Singapore Season in London and the budget commitment to extend arts appreciation in Singapore. But I'm worried.

For the first time in several decades of observing and occasionally participating in the theatre community, I'm worried that, due to a confluence of several factors - some systemic, some not; some foreseeable, some not - local theatre is suffering.

Over the past three years, many smaller groups have been forced to close their doors or consolidate.

Even among established groups, most are cutting back, several to the point where I'm reminded of 20 years ago, when a single artistic director was the only person a theatre company could afford to employ full-time.

What has led to this? Is it just a blip on the steady trajectory of progress? If not, what can be done to redress the situation?

Bigger is not better

LET'S start with the factors that couldn't have been anticipated.

First, the economic downturn in 2001. Next, Sars in 2003. Finally, the humanitarian crisis caused by last year's tsunami which will justifiably overshadow most other philanthropic funding projects this year.

These events have affected everyone. But for the local theatre community, they have been magnified and exacerbated by other factors.

Groups are still reeling from severe cutbacks in funding last year by the National Arts Council (NAC).

Perhaps that funding was prioritised to current darlings like the Singapore Season in London. But this may be the wrong year to gamble on a London beachhead or seed a future crop of arts aficionados.

Promoting Singapore work overseas is a step in the right direction. But, meanwhile, artists still working in Singapore must deal with legacy effects of earlier eras.

One is the building of big arts venues. On the face of it, scaling seems to make money sense. But this reflects a poor understanding of the developmental process for truly artistic work and the small absolute size of our arts-buying audience.

Very few works spring to life in perfection. They grow, test themselves and slowly crystallise in collaboration with small, dedicated audiences.

Think of Kuo Pao Kun's early works, works we acknowledge as having played a pivotal role in our theatre history and having great artistic merit. In their initial showings, they probably drew total audiences in the region of 1,000 to 2,000.

A commercial re-run of such classics (when they have become classics) may attract total audiences in the higher thousands, but rarely exceeding 10,000.

It's not that local artistic work can never attract large audiences. It just doesn't happen every day and certainly not without substantial creative investment.

In this context, building large performance venues of 1,000 seats and more forces the entire industry to move towards the commercial entertainment end of the spectrum.

It also pushes the entire industry towards foreign productions which have amortised their development costs in other jurisdictions and are therefore more cost-effective than a local commercially oriented production.

That would be fine if these shows were neutral or possibly beneficial to the local arts scene. But their net impact is negative. They hog mindspace, media attention and word of mouth.

They divert arts dollars from audiences and sponsors. They push up advertising costs by being able to afford more and therefore increase the expectations of media owners.

And they condition audience expectations on production values (I won't say artistic quality).

Bizarrely, we continue to build showcase venues that aren't really optimised for serious artistic work, like The Arts House. And there are rumours that the old Capitol cinema will be converted into a huge hall to stage musicals.

The latest interest in the arts as a driver of creativity, as a way to make Singapore seem funky to foreign talent and investors - this fascination with cultural capital - still judges the arts as important only to the extent that they contribute to some bottom line.

Arts policy-makers measure progress and determine funding by criteria such as number of performances, number of audience members, number of tickets sold. These are blunt measures that say little about the quality of the work, that cannot differentiate between attendance which responds to mere entertainment and that which is drawn to lingering art.

Any enterprise will experience ups and downs, but what if we're approaching a transition point where scaling down has an exponential effect, tipping the whole industry into a prolonged period of aridity?

The symptoms are visible. The cutbacks have begun.

Further, in this environment, the financial risk of mounting an ambitious developmental production becomes incalculable. So we are seeing that many groups are hedging by either sticking with safer work or safer-size venues or productions.

Safer work exacerbates the same trends as big venues. Moving developmental works to safer, smaller venues reduces their reach and increases the chance they will never gather the critical mass of exposure they need.

Redress the balance

TO THEATRE goers and corporate sponsors, I say this is the year to vote your arts dollars generously but judiciously.

Discriminate. Please. In favour of the group or production that offers a true value proposition, not just a fun night out or a large audience for your half-page advertisement.

To the authorities, I say the same and more.

Monitor for signs of further downward spiralling. If necessary, put some longer-term initiatives on hold to staunch the wound.

If you won't increase over- all funding, have the courage to focus your funds on a few groups rather than spread the crumbs and merely draw out the starvation process.

Definitely reconsider the case for more big halls.

And do something to redress the balance you have tipped, wittingly or not, against developmental work.

First, tier the costs of government-related performance venues - charge developmental productions substantially less.

Second, cap ticketing costs - surely Sistic makes enough from its 10 per cent cut of gate takings to offer a lower fee to arts groups?

Third, mandate cheap advertising space in the media for developmental work - give us a reason to celebrate the links between our state and media.

It's not perfect, but the NAC can pre-qualify groups or productions for these concessions.

Let me be clear.

I am entirely in favour of being entertained and I know there is some overlap.

My position is simply this: We can each pay for our own entertainment. But our nation will pay if we don't together pay for our art.

The writer is an associate professor of law at the National University of Singapore and an occasional playwright. Her plays include Mergers And Acquisitions and Wills And Secessions.

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