The National Arts Council (NAC) understood the need of housing artists and implemented the Arts Housing Scheme in 1985 to provide arts groups with practice and administrative facilities at a heavily subsidized rent. NAC acquired pre-war buildings and old warehouses and shop-houses along Waterloo Street, Kerbau Road, Smith Street and Trengganu Street.
These became the Waterloo Street Arts Belt, Little India Arts Belt and Chinatown Arts Belt respectively. Other buildings allocated for Art Housing include Selegie Arts Centre, Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre, The Substation, Federation of Arts Societies (former Kampong Eunos Community Centre), 126 Cairnhill Arts Centre, Telok Kurau Studios, Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society, as well as venues within Ulu Pandan and Marine Parade Community Centres.
Warehouses along Robertson Quay have also been converted to house the Arts, and more recently, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts’ old campuses in Middle Road and Wilkie Road have also been listed.
Art practice in Singapore spans many disciplines. The ever-increasing number of local practising artists has ensured that despite the long list of housing venues, NAC’s waiting list for housing is always full.
Young and new artists and groups have found the wait for art housing too long. Many have already been turned away. Some of them have discovered a means to circumvent this and other protocols and obligations of the Art Housing scheme by renting their own spaces. These artists bring with them artistic directions and practice philosophies that are contemporary and challenging to the local art scene, and they are creating a sphere of art practice that truly belongs to the artists themselves.
One new and exciting area that is rapidly attracting these artists is Little India, because of its proximity to the city centre, convenient public transport and most importantly, the availability of apartments suitable as art studios that are stable, legal and most importantly, affordable.
A little street in Singapore, spanning a rough 70 meters, harbours an unplanned collective of artists. Distinctly outside the Little India Arts Belt, a group of artists have set up their independent practice on Perumal Road by coincidence.
Their personal efforts have filled an otherwise forgotten and quiet corner of sub-urban Little India with an air of excitement and creativity. This row of walk-up apartments is administered by private asset management company, Premas International Limited (www.premas.com).
The high ceilings and ventilation openings on the walls suggest these apartments were built before air-conditioning was available. Their spacious rooms also hint at their age. After acquiring the property, Premas covered the walls and ceilings with fresh coats of white paint, re-configured the electrical wiring and plumbing, as well as installed ceiling fans. The artists who saw the place were instantly sold. They just don’t make buildings like these anymore. The fact that Farrer Park MRT station is right across the road also helped.
Other than being independent from the NAC arts housing project, perhaps the next most significant difference is that the artists on Perumal Road practise amongst neighbours who are construction workers, foremen, Indian film producers, Chinese mediums, an Aryuvedic doctor, and Mustafa employees. It makes their practice so much more grounded to “real” life as compared to Art as the privilege of the elite few. It also echoes their belief that Art is ultimately an unabashed expression of life that one lives and not merely frames.