Helping Hand for the Arts

The whos, hows and whys of giving to the arts.

BY JO TAN

Like many arts companies in Singapore, Nine Years Theatre (NYT) will literally give you a ‘run’ for your money. The multi-award-winning company’s signature Mandarin stagings of Western theatre classics are fairly dependent on donations from the public.

“We launched our donor programme recently, because shows cost money,” states NYT director Nelson Chia, who has led the company to garner 13 nominations and seven awards at the Life! Theatre Awards in its short frame of existence.

“Our first two years saw us working within limited means to build up our name and have something to show potential donors. Now, we hope to get some onboard. The National Arts Council (NAC) has grant schemes which provide about half of the company’s total operation costs, but there is still another half to account for, through ticket sales or teaching courses, and of course, donations. And if you want to keep ticket sales and teaching fees affordable, you need more donations.”

CORPORATE SUPPORT

However, securing donations is no walk in the park. “Some people have given money to us because they support our bringing classics and literature to the public, but many donors prefer to support companies with a bit more mass appeal,” says Chia. “They also expect to attend peripheral activities like gala nights and fund-raising balls. Should we have a gala night? But then we need wine, right? Wouldn’t that wine money be better spent on paying actors — and seriously, do we want people to donate because they want a glass of red wine, or because they want to watch my play?” he muses.

Thankfully, there are numerous donors who contribute money to the arts even while perfectly sober. “We have many reasons to give to the arts,” says Ivan Lim, director of Corporate Communications at M1, a long-time main sponsor of several cutting-edge annual arts festivals like the M1 Contact Contemporary Dance Festival, M1 Chinese Theatre Festival, and M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. “We have two sorts of sponsorships — there are marketing sponsorships of shows like Cirque du Soleil and Jay Chou concerts, which are big scale and visible, with high ROI [return on investment] and marketing value. But we also have our CSR [corporate social responsbility] sponsorships, where we want to give back to society by helping to grow different aspects of the arts scene, especially the ‘underdogs’,” he explains.

NO MONEY, NO BUNNY M1 sponsors a range of arts festivals, including the M1 Fringe Festival, making it possible for exciting productions like White Rabbit Red Rabbit (starring Dennis Chew and other A-list stars) to be staged. 

PHOTO  M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2016

“When we started sponsoring Contact, the contemporary dance scene in Singapore was not very established, but we thought it was meaningful and we wanted to help it continue. It resonates with M1’s own history when it entered the telco industry as a new company competing with Singtel and such… and now that the scene has grown, it’s also great that when people think of contemporary dance, they think of M1,” adds Lim.

FUND FRIEND

It’s not just corporates that feel this way either. While Phua Cheng Foo can’t claim to have as much money as M1, the 55 year-old has been recognised by NAC as a Friend of the Arts for donating at least $50,000 annually to theatre productions for many years.

“I don’t think I’m a philanthropist. I don’t donate to old-age homes, for example,” says Phua. “It’s my preference to donate to culture because I firmly believe that culture is the country’s soul. I mainly sponsor Toy Factory because I like their work and how they always reflect Singapore and the way Singaporeans speak. In our culture and our language lies our pride, and I want to promote this.”

While Phua offers monetary assistance, his donations, as with many arts donors, also come in kind. Being the owner of Raffles Studio, a local pioneer in graduation photography, he also offers his studio for Toy Factory’s publicity photo shoots, prints their set backdrops and publicity materials, and makes 3D figurines of actors for the company to sell as merchandise. Oftentimes, he even provides accommodation by housing foreign actors in his home!

HELPING HAND Raffles Studio boss Phua Cheng Foo contributes to Toy Factory productions in various ways, including making 3D figurines of the Innamorati cast to sell as merchandise at the musical.  

PHOTO  Toy Factory Productions

CROWDFUNDING POOL

Yet the reality is that donations in kind might end up overshadowing cash donations. Says Nur Khairiyah, collective manager of Hatch Theatrics, “We had a crowdfunding initiative to raise money for our current production, Super Happy Land, which is a collaboration with Osaka’s Theatre Gumbo. Our friends working at Straits Records were willing to give away tote bags as crowdfunding perks, and the baker from Sconemarket also donated 20 boxes of scones. Even actress Karen Tan was more than happy to help by crotcheting up some knitted artworks.

“Actually within the theatre industry itself, help will come if you’re not afraid to ask. Companies like The Necessary Stage and Cake have always been a great help in terms of loaning props and costumes,” she adds.

“But for the crowdfunding itself, even with perks, we only raised a few hundred dollars out of our $2,000 target. I think Singaporeans are open to giving to artists, but not necessarily monetarily.”

Poet Deborah Emmanuel recently embarked on a crowdfunding effort for her second book Rebel Rites, an account of her year-long imprisonment at age 19 under the Drug Rehabilitation Sentence.

“I’ve received many grants from NAC for other projects, but I decided to do crowdfunding with this book because it’s my story and I wanted to take full responsibility for the content. I don’t want it to be answerable to one main backer, I don’t want to change the content for anyone except my editor. And I’ve been very fortunate to have several donors giving up to hundreds of dollars at a time. But as of mid-November, all of these, except one woman, are not Singaporean,” states Emmanuel.

“I can’t generalise, but I’ve done spoken-word gigs here where people came up after the show to say, ‘That is so amazing, thank you’. But they didn’t want to buy my books. When I was in Australia though, many more audience members bought books. Personally, if I hear a poem that I am moved by, I want to read the words to understand the allusions or metaphors. But I don’t know if audiences here don’t feel obliged to pursue a deeper understanding, or invest in the artist that they enjoyed.”

NYT’s Chia has his take on this. “Perhaps because of Singapore’s underlying economic philosophy, people think that like any product, art is just a fun thing to be consumed and forgotten,” he says. “But some art is meant to be difficult, to challenge and then develop its audience and society’s perceptions in general. Investing in this art is a way of giving back to society.”

COOL MOVE The M1-sponsored M1 Contact Contemporary Dance Festival has seen a range of cutting-edge productions.

PHOTO T.H.E Dance Company

I DID IT MY WAY For her upcoming book Rebel Rites, poet/author Deborah Emmanuel created her own crowdfunding campaign.

GROWING THE AUDIENCE

M1’s Lim himself is a prime example of an audience member whose tastes have been developed. “You know, the festivals we sponsor can be quite cutting-edge and unconventional. I think I am quite suaku [not well-informed]. I remember the first time we sponsored Contact and we went to catch the contemporary dance pieces, I didn’t understand a fair bit of it. So when [festival director] Kuik Swee Boon asked us what we thought, I was like, ‘Uhhhuhhhh….’!” he recalls with a laugh.

“But over the years, I appreciate the different festival offerings more and more, and at the same time, I see the festivals gaining recognition and the audiences growing. I’m happy we’re all growing as audiences together, and it’s rewarding to have been part of making this possible.”

Vanessa Koh, 19, is another example of how an arts lover can be groomed. “My parents used to donate money to different theatre companies, especially children’s theatre, and they would bring me to watch these shows,” says the effervescent liberal arts undergraduate currently enrolled at Yale-NUS College. “So as a child, I was already drawn towards different types of arts.”

Koh has even become an arts giver herself. Instead of money, she gives her time. “When I was in secondary school, I applied to join the Drama Club and didn’t get in,” she says with a laugh. “So I just sat down and googled opportunities to get involved with the arts. Since then, I’ve been volunteering for five years with more than 30 productions, as front-of-house or even crew, with Singapore Dance Theatre’s Ballet Under the Stars, various musicals and student productions which are very, very grateful because they really need the manpower.

“It has become a real hobby with me — I’ve even volunteered when things were very hectic at school. Sometimes, people do get stressed and snap at me, and I feel I’m being taken for granted. But I’ve made a lot of friends through volunteering. We have become friends through our common love of the arts,” she says.  “Paid or not, the whole atmosphere of the theatre just makes me happy.”

Super Happy Land opens at the Malay Heritage Centre on 17 December.

TOUGH ACT Nine Years Theatre often stages works intended to challenge the audience to some degree, including its production of bleak classic The Lower Depths by Maxim Gorky. 

PHOTO  Nine Years Theatre

PLAYING HER PART Arts volunteer Vanessa Koh (left) poses with friends she made during her volunteering stints. 

PHOTO Vanessa Koh

Being There

Ways you can support the arts.

BE AN ANGEL

Arts companies often have donor programmes detailed in their websites. Donating is often as simple as making online contributions through portals like give2arts.sg. This usually comes with perks like free tickets, acknowledgement in programme booklets and tax deductions if the company is recognised as an Institution of a Public Character. Some companies also offer invitations to exclusive events, backstage tours, merchandise and more. Even individual artists are rolling out crowdfunding campaigns with portals like pozible or indiegogo, offering a range of rewards.

BE A VOLUNTEER

No cash to spare? Offer manpower! Arts events often need assistance with everything from preparing and disseminating publicity materials to welcoming guests at the Front of House, to backstage crewing. You might even be given a very visible role, like volunteer docent at a museum, or as a volunteer parade performer swanning around in fantastical costumes, like at the recent Singapore Night Festival. Find out more about arts events you are interested in, and write in to ask how you can help, or visit www.sgcares.org to find volunteer opportunities based on your availability and areas of interest.

BE A CHAMPION

Where artists used to flourish or flounder based on the whims of one or two reviewers, social media means this is no longer the case. If you like an artist’s work, share the news or tweet and post about it to generate interest among others in your network.

BE A REGULAR AUDIENCE MEMBER

Perhaps more important than donations is for audiences to commit to being, well, an audience. Theatre companies like Pangdemonium have rolled out season tickets where you enjoy discounted admission to all their theatre productions for the year. With presold tickets, the arts company doesn’t have to take chances on selling enough tickets to justify expenses.

BE CREATIVE

Baking cookies to be sold at fundraisers, loaning vintage outfits or furniture to be used as costumes and sets, offering your IT skills to create websites and increase outreach… there are many ways you can help artists. If you think an artist or arts group could benefit from something you can offer, it’s best to just reach out.

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