SINGAPORE – Take a walk down Prinsep Street and you might notice a stack of shipping containers nestled between two nondescript buildings.
This hip photography space, known as Deck, sailed onto the scene six years ago, and has since then organised the Singapore International Photography Festival, as well as more than 350 workshops and exhibitions with acclaimed artists such as Robert Zhao, Chou Ching-Hui, Nobuyoshi Araki and Daido Moriyama.
None of this could have happened without help from the community. Years ago, when the area was a plot of empty land, individuals and companies chipped in with money and help in kind.
Laud Architects designed the building pro bono, out of 20 used shipping containers donated by Pacific International Lines.
Bok Seng Group helped with logistics, and construction firm Tong Hai Yang sponsored the toilets.
The lights came from local electronics firm Aztech, and City Developments Limited and Hong Leong Foundation donated cash.
Most of the second-floor library’s 4,200 books are from local and overseas donors. Deck’s co-founders Gwen Lee and Jay Lau – who were part of the team behind 2902 Gallery at the now-defunct Old School arts enclave in Mount Sophia – dug into their own pockets too.
“When we embraced this piece of land, there was no electricity, no water, no sewage (system). We had to bring in the electricity, the water, and build up the toilets, everything, from scratch,” recalls Ms Lee, 44, who is Deck’s artistic director.
Today, there is a sense of deja vu in the air: another major fundraising and building project is under way.
In March next year, Deck’s container structure will be demolished to make way for a $2.8 million permanent building of brick, mortar and steel.
The new two-storey centre – to take up 1,400 sq m – will be three times the size of the old one, with a design that pays homage to its origins.
Facilities include a larger main gallery, a library and research centre (including an artist studio and reading room), and a multi-purpose black box that doubles as a dark room.
A media gallery will showcase forms of new media art such as digital sound art and virtual reality and moving image installations.
The new building will be ready by late next year, with Lego-style prefabricated construction speeding up the process.
The decision to build a permanent space came about after Deck – which had held the parcel of land on a series of two-year leases – managed to secure a much longer lease.
“A lot of people might ask, why not check out possible spaces you can rent from the National Arts Council, or work with existing industrial buildings?” says Lee.
But this would mean moving, and they want Deck to sink its roots deep into the neighbourhood.
The centre’s location, after all, is highly strategic – between Lasalle College of the Arts and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, and across the road from Singapore Management University’s student quarters.
“People recognise us as being on Prinsep Street. We want to build on it, deepen our roots, and get people to know that this organisation is going to grow with them.
“Perhaps undergraduates from the art schools, when they graduate, can pitch their works at Deck. Later on, as they grow, they can hold their mid-career showcases here.”
This month, Deck has launched a year-long campaign on Giving.sg to raise $500,000 from the public.
Donations will be matched dollar for dollar by the National Arts Council’s (NAC) Cultural Matching Fund.
Deck’s Major Company grant from the NAC helps defray its programming and manpower expenses, but does not support building and infrastructural costs.
There will also be various fund-raising events such as workshops, talks, as well as an auction in November.
Lee adds that space in Singapore is often seen as something temporal. “What does this mean for art spaces and for Deck?” she muses.
Renting a space under the NAC’s Arts Housing Scheme, would be shorter-term than they would like, and subject to certain conditions.
“It is very pragmatic thinking – our resources are limited and we have to make sure (spaces are rotated) to ensure new generations of artists have a space to establish themselves. But it also leaves mid-career artists and mid-career arts organisations in a limbo.”
“Perhaps there are other ways that an art space can be built – sustainably and having this deep connection with the community beyond the arts council’s housing or the structures that they have.”
Photographer Kevin WY Lee, 47, who had a solo show at Deck two years ago, says photography as an art form in Singapore is “almost a niche within a niche”.
Having a space like Deck is vital – not least because it provides a space for younger or less established photographers who might not feature prominently in commercial galleries, he says. “If you look at what Gwen has done, it’s really commendable. She has quite an eclectic taste, which is good to have in Singapore.”
Ms Lee reaches for a forest metaphor when asked what she hopes will change in the arts scene.
“I hope the community will embrace (the fact that) the arts and arts spaces can grow in a very organic way with the community at heart – as opposed to a very highly structured policy making system that only embraces the big institutions.
“It’s not just (about) the big trees. In an ecosystem, low-lying shrubs support a different species of creature… which (ultimately) support those creatures that the big trees need, too.”
• Donate at this website. For more information on upcoming events, visit Deck’s website. Deck in 120A Prinsep Street is extending its opening hours till 9pm daily (except Monday) till Sept 27.
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