Reactions to the Shuttering of NTU CCA Singapore’s Exhibition and Residency Spaces
By HG Masters
Just over seven years is all the time that the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (NTU CCA) had for its exhibition program as the “anchor tenant” in the mixed-use art complex Gillman Barracks. From 2014 through earlier this year, NTU CCA also hosted more than 175 artist-residents from over 40 countries. After its final show of filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha, at the end of February 2021, the organization will be pared down to a single administrative office, an online archive, and a final publication about its projects to date, with a handful of staff remaining to work on future research projects and the possibilities of exhibitions at other NTU locations.
Following news that Singapore and the wider region was losing this unique hybrid space where intellectual and artistic research was designed to intersect, ArtAsiaPacific reached out to figures in the art community to get their reactions.
A GREAT LOSS
Many reflected on the importance of NTU CCA’s programming and residencies for the vitality of the arts in the region, and noted that the potential for the Centre to create further impact has been cut short.
Melanie Pocock, curator at Birmingham's Ikon Gallery, and formerly assistant curator at LASALLE’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in Singapore, singled out the government’s constantly shifting levels of interest and commitment to arts and culture as an issue:
“Commitment is not just about money, but time. It can take years—decades, even—for non-profit centres like the NTU CCA to become sustainable. Singapore has great artists and a burgeoning generation of curators and writers. What they need is long-term support and the time to develop. What seems to be lacking is a commitment to diversity—that is, sustaining an art ecology composed of multiple institutions of different shapes and sizes. In such an ecology, institutions like the NTU CCA often need more government support. Its achievements are qualitative, and feed into larger developments. Without it, the latter will inevitably suffer.”
Emi Eu, director of the printmaking-focused STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery and co-founder of the S.E.A. Focus fair, which takes place at Gillman Barracks, said NTU CCA’s closure was “a great disappointment and a serious blow to the arts in Singapore.” She noted that the Centre’s research and scholarship was “of the highest order” and praised founding director Ute Meta Bauer as a leader who has “helped to enhance Singapore’s reputation as a regional gateway for the arts in Southeast Asia as well as a conduit for creative exchange.”
NTU CCA was not only instrumental to Singapore’s reputation, but also to the contemporary art networks that expanded in the past decade in the region. A commercial gallerist for more than 20 years, Valentine Willie operated an outpost in Singapore in the years before Gillman Barracks opened, from 2008 to 2012. Now creative director of the non-profit Ilham Gallery, which opened in 2015 in Kuala Lumpur, Willie offered his perspective on what had been NTU CCA’s significance.
“NTU CCA is a unique institution in the region, with Ute [Meta Bauer] bringing together international artists and curators in dialogues with young artists and curators from the region on issues far removed from the quotidian. They will be sorely missed.
In fairness to the local government, that such an institution even exists is a credit to their ambition and vision. What is surprising though is that NTU CCA is obviously a not-for-profit outfit and a mass audience was not the aim, thus the economic impact of Covid-19 should not have been a factor. So it is unfortunate that NTU and the government should have withdrawn its support at a time more than ever when we need a forum like NTU CCA to engage with art practitioners across the globe on the future beyond the commercial art world. It is a sad day indeed.”
Artists lamented that the NTU CCA residency program would be closed. Yee I-Lann, based between in Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia, was among the first class of artists who participated.
“I am so sad to hear NTU CCA will be closing its physical exhibition spaces and residency program at Gillman Barracks. The news came as a shock. I was a recipient of the residency program in 2015. It was an utterly enriching time for me and greatly appreciated. I know this to be a shared sentiment by many Singaporean, regional and international artist peers, curators, writers, exhibition-makers, arts workers, thinkers.
What NTU CCA nurtured at Gillman Barracks was a located, networked village space for diverse creative people to share a tikar (mat) together to commune, to talk, to play, to hang out, to instigate and stimulate big thinking. The tangible and intangible worth of this casual and deliberate exchange amongst arts folk and wider audiences cannot be undervalued and is precisely what the world needs more of at this deeply uncertain time. The contemporary arts is well aware of epoch change and works hard to find ways to address issues and find paths to move forward for societies. The closing of this young vital collective ‘brain’ creates a far-reaching vacuum and is such a loss for Singapore and our region.”
The residency program brought artists together. Heman Chong, who was a resident in 2016–17, reflected on the program’s importance as a nexus for people working in art and cultural fields:
“Over the past six years, a large number of artists, curators, thinkers and writers from all around the world have benefitted greatly from the residency program at NTU CCA. These temporary communities cradled different sets of ground up dialogues to occur over longer periods of time, producing connections and collaborations that were deepened outside of the usual art world accelerated time. The proliferation of conferences, open studios, lectures, parties, performances, informal sharing sessions at NTU CCA felt like an open-ended school of art and culture. It is this slowness that is absolutely lacking in so many scenes around the world, and is especially important in Singapore where ground up initiatives are rare and indeed, short-lived. Singapore has proven time and again that it is only interested in art and culture when it can be harnessed to produce immediate, short term returns in capital via tourist dollars and making the city a more appealing workplace for privileged white collar expats. Unfortunately, NTU CCA is not the first nor will be the last small-to-mid-sized cultural institution to fall foul of this relentless agenda. The only way out is to admit this blind spot and to begin to invest in institutions that can cultivate and protect interdisciplinary cultural practices.”
Also a participant in the 2016–17 residency program, artist Ho Rui An decried the short-term thinking of those who had set the project in motion little more than a decade ago considering the success it had already achieved:
“NTU CCA is the only institution of its scale in Singapore that takes an internationalist approach to making exhibitions and supporting artistic research. In a time that we are reckoning with how our worlds are more interconnected than ever, the cessation of the Centre’s exhibition and residency operations is an unfathomable loss. I’ve come to expect policymakers in Singapore to make their decisions on little more than technocratic calculation, which is why this decision is all the more perplexing, given the amount of cultural capital that the Centre has generated for Singapore since its opening. There have been countless occasions in the past few years when I would meet an artist or curator or researcher for the first time in another city only to realise that they have participated in or are about to participate in a programme organised by NTU CCA. Such is the scale and diversity of the network the Centre has built. Given the longitudinal nature of its programmes, those who participate in them, especially its residencies, are also likely to leave Singapore with a more nuanced understanding of it than what any marketing campaign can buy.
Through engagement with the Centre’s programmes, local audiences also get a better sense of how to situate ourselves in relation to developments elsewhere in the world. All these put Singapore in a better place when it comes to articulating our positionalities to an international audience. For a country with all the resources and track record for building strong and durable public institutions, it’s disheartening that when it comes to cultural institutions, policymakers still can’t see beyond their short-run cost-benefit analyses so as to fully grasp the necessarily slow time of cultural work.”
A FOREBODING SIGN?
Some wondered what the Economic Development Board’s (EDB) removal of funding for NTU CCA means for the future of the Gillman Barracks project. Opened in 2012 and designed to make Singapore into a regional destination for contemporary art, the precinct has seen multiple waves of gallery exoduses. During the pandemic, in June, one of the 13 remaining galleries, Chan + Hori Contemporary, closed its space to become a consultancy. Eugene Tan, now director of both the National Gallery Singapore and the Singapore Art Museum, who oversaw the development of Gillman Barracks at the EDB starting in 2010, declined to comment for this story.
The newest arrival to Gillman Barracks, gallerist Richard Koh—who also maintains spaces in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok—told AAP that the news came “just when Gillman Barracks is slowly getting on its feet,” and that it has caused him to wonder whether “Gillman’s days as an art cluster are numbered.” He noted that it was a big loss for the art scene, and described the news as “really a pity as art, in all its forms, is not just about numbers or returns.”
Artist and curator Jason Wee, who runs the nonprofit Grey Projects, one of the 12 Singapore arts organizations, including the National Gallery Singapore, STPI, and NTU CCA, participating in the collective program “Novel Ways of Being,” situated NTU CCA’s situation in the wider context of Singapore’s cultural agenda:
“NTU CCA is invaluable in soldering the work that Singapore artists do to circulations of ideas and plans outside this island that other Singapore spaces are not apprised of. The CCA does this through its residency programs, offering contact opportunities between Singapore artists, and curators and institutional directors who come to engage with the CCA.
The loss of CCA is not simply a district issue involving only the Barracks, but a national one, involving questions about the strength of Singapore’s cultural influence abroad, and its commitment to becoming a leading voice in debates and productions with its international counterparts. With a new incoming arts minister, this moment could either prove to be a shrinking of Singapore’s cultural ambitions, our post-Covid horizons limited to 'Singapore arts for Singaporeans,' or the minister could decisively show Singapore to be committed to cultural leadership in the creation and sustenance of contemporary art research spaces, spaces such as the CCA that are still unusual in South and Southeast Asia.”
Still others, like artist Genevieve Chua, pointed to larger problems facing organizations attempting to survive without the funding of the state: “Strategies to encourage arts philanthropy in the private sector are long [over]due in Singapore. There are too many bureaucratic strings attached when any arts company here is too heavily funded by the state.”
Curator Louis Ho noted that Singapore is seeing several institutions close, some temporarily, all at once, including the Singapore Art Museum and The Substation, but that on the whole perhaps there is some potential for new initiatives:
“One of the greatest strengths of Singapore’s art scene, after all, has been its infrastructure—a symptom of the economic, bureaucratic and organizational capacities that the country is famed for—and the shrinking of that infrastructure now is proving worrisome for some in the community. However, the challenges of this particular moment also present interesting possibilities, in my opinion: what a more localized, unencumbered art scene might look like, left to its own devices and without recourse to international circuits (because of the dramatic slowdown in cross-border movement), or the deliberate and methodical flourishes and frills that have attended efforts to grow the landscape here. It almost seems as if this might be a lab experiment, an attempt to nurture a microbial culture in isolation . . . That’s not a reassuring analogy by any means, but there you have it. We’ll have to make do, and the making do might well, I suspect, prove a bane for some, but a boom for others.”
In a media statement, Joseph Liow, dean of NTU’s College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, blamed NTU CCA’s closure on the Covid-19 pandemic, saying “the current environment is not easy” and “CCA is going through a period of transition and transformation of its longer-term capabilities for the post Covid-19 recovery.” However, in reality, NTU CCA’s financial restructuring had been on the table since before Covid-19. After March 2021, Liow said NTU CCA will “[look] at diversifying the locations of its exhibition and other activities, and increasing its presence at NTU main campus and other NTU locations.” Whether that actually happens remains to be seen.
HG Masters is the deputy editor and deputy publisher of ArtAsiaPacific.
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