Wednesday 16 January 2019
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The Big Read in short: Making a living out of the arts

SINGAPORE — Unlike a typical office worker, Mr Ben Loong leads a life off the beaten track. From 9pm to 3am every day, the 30-year-old plies the roads as a Grab driver. After getting some shuteye, he usually heads down to art galleries around the island to do odd jobs, such as painting and partitioning walls. Some days, he spends time working on art projects in these galleries. For instance, he spent the last month at Pearl Lam Galleries in Gillman Barracks working on his art exhibit. His work is among those to be featured as part of the upcoming Singapore Art Week’s Art After Dark series. The seventh edition of Singapore Art Week, which runs from Jan 19 to 27, will feature art installations and exhibitions across the island, along with art workshops, talks and film screenings. For Mr Loong, the sense of satisfaction in seeing his work up on a gallery wall keeps him going. He earns up to S$400 a month driving a private-hire car to supplement his income from his art and other odd jobs. Together, these are just enough to cover his rent and expenses. Mr Loong’s experience is not unique among artists in Singapore. Ceramic artist Ummu Nabilah, 24, has a day job as an art teacher and then stays up till 2am working on pottery. She makes a few hundred dollars in profit from the sale of each batch of 15 pottery items, with each piece costing up to S$30. The profit is just enough for her to invest in the materials for her next batch of pottery. She maintains that as long as she works hard enough, and if she manages her money well, she will eventually be able to focus fully on her ceramic art career. Industry experts and veterans told TODAY that while it remains very difficult for artists to pursue their artistic careers full-time, the arts scene in Singapore has improved over the last decade, with more opportunities for artists to sustain themselves financially. MAKING THE ARTS ACCESSIBLE TO ALL In October last year, Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community, and Youth, announced the launch of Our SG Arts Plan, which laid out the focus areas for the arts scene over the next five years. The plan would allow the Government to provide better support for arts professionals and make the arts more accessible to all, she said. The plan built on the Arts and Culture Strategic Review released in 2012 which detailed the arts and cultural landscape for Singapore until 2025. The Government has also introduced several initiatives over the last decade to raise the profile of the arts, such as launching the School of the Arts (Sota) in 2008. Despite questions over the effectiveness of Sota’s programmes in preparing students for a career in the arts, a steady increase in its enrolment numbers over the years show that there remains a demand for an arts-oriented education programme here. Outside of the education sector, the Government has made efforts to increase Singaporeans’ participation in arts events — with mixed results. While there had been a jump in the number of people visiting national museums, heritage institutes and non-ticketed art performances between 2015 and 2016, the National Arts Council (NAC) recorded an overall drop in Singaporeans’ engagement in the arts. Still, the Government has continued to be generous in its funding, setting aside S$412.8 million to support arts and heritage. Donations to arts and heritage causes had more than doubled from $29.7 million in 2013 to $61.3 million in 2016. THANKS FOR THE GRANTS BUT… Many artists interviewed by TODAY acknowledged that the Government is a lot more generous than those in many other countries in funding the arts sector. However, they expressed concerns over the stringent criteria to qualify for NAC grants and the key performance indicators that they have to meet. Mr Kamil Haque, 36, founder and artistic director of Haque Centre of Acting Creativity, said that the red tape involved in qualifying for grants made it difficult for young artists to sustain their interest and pursue the arts full-time. SHIFTS IN TECHNOLOGY, ATTITUDES Despite these concerns, industry players acknowledged that there have been more opportunities for young artists to pursue their careers. For instance, major technological changes in the past 10 years have opened up many platforms for artists to showcase their works and expand their reach globally. The Internet has also changed the way consumers buy art. The Artling’s director, Ms Kim Tay, said that being an online gallery allowed it to reach a broader audience and its artists and designers could gain exposure beyond their own countries. The rise of the gig economy, too, has created more opportunities for artists to find alternative sources of income, as a safeguard against the irregularity and, in some cases, the low pay, of projects they undertake. Along with these, a shift in societal attitudes has created a more favourable environment for younger artists to pursue their careers. Dr Venka Purushothaman, provost of Lasalle College of the Arts, noted that over the last 15 years, there has been increasing support by parents for their child’s pursuit of the arts, compared with the generation before. This growing support, painter Eric Chan said, can be attributed to a greater awareness of the arts in Singapore, and it is welcomed by budding artists. The 44-year-old said: “They can just go in and do it. They don’t have to worry so much about whether they are going to survive.”

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