"The development here is a 'cost-recovery' project, according to Mr Su - it is not meant to reap huge profits, but serves more of JTC Corp's social mission, he explained." These were words by then assistant CEO at JTC Corp, Mr Phillip Su, in a 2008 Straits Times interview about the artist enclave at Wessex Estate.
However, it seems that things are set to change.
According to one resident artist, it has been made known that the rent for local artists will no longer be at a subsidised rate and will follow market rates by next year. This will put many local artists in a bind. Rental will soon be double or more than what they were paying. When asked why this was so, the artist was told by the JTC staff that "the Art Village idea has been dissolved."
The estate is part of JTC Corp's 200ha One-North Innovation and Research hub, which contains the Fusionopolis, Biopolis and upcoming Mediapolis developments. The charming blocks of colonial style apartments within Wessex estate, which were originally used as barracks for British soldiers, were offered as residential and studio space for local and foreign artists. This was in the hopes of developing the artist village which stands today. By 2008, artists and creative minds made up 40% of the tenants there and included prominent figures in the local art scene like Zai Kuning and cultural medallion winner Han Sai Por, both of whom have since left. Han Sai Por's studio was torn down in a redevelopment exercise.
The remaining artist community at Wessex has continued to create and showcase their creations and space to the public. The yearly Art Walk, where the art studios open for public viewing, will take place as usual on the 24th and 25th this month. On other days, studios are available for visits by appointment as well. The artist village has also collaborated with the National Arts Council in the Singapore Art Show where the artists from Wessex estate engage the public through their various art forms.
In 2010, the estate was featured in an article by the Shanghai Daily, which compared the enclave to Shanghai's own "havens for artists - struggling and established" and New York's SoHo.
Even with the increase in rent, and the seemingly dwindling interest by JTC to further support the artist village idea (JTC's website currently describes Wessex as "an excellent housing option for the working population in one-north" with "[priority given] to applicants working in the Biomedical Sciences, Infocomm Technology, Media, Physical Sciences and Engineering industries within the one-north development"), some who can afford it will stay on for the sheer love of the environment.
It is not hard to see what they mean. The place is virtually untouched by the withering touch of urbanization. A single, unmarked road winds through a ceaseless stretch of lush greenery, interrupted only by shallow dips into grassy fields and dotted with the black and white apartment buildings and a village square where there are quaint cafes and galleries. "Ambience adds to the quality of creation," a resident artist we spoke to replied when asked why she would rather put up with the higher rent than move to a more affordable space.
But what of the artists who cannot afford the space?
In his show From Lorong Gambas to Ninmanhaemin earlier this year, Zai Kuning created an installation assembled from objects he had collected from what remained of Han Sai Por's studio in Wessex. The show touched on the sense of displacement he felt as an artist in Singapore and the lack of conducive space and respect towards the art communities, even those which have achieved large scale accolades for their works.
When we speak of the human experience, there are aspects that we can easily put into words and figures, but it is often the parts that cannot be easily expressed that leave the deepest impression when articulated. The pragmatist may question the practical role of art in society, but that is like asking for the price of love, or the practical value of having feelings.
In the process of answering the call to promote the arts to a larger local audience, we must not forget that the artists too are citizens who have very distinct rights that need to be protected in order for the arts community to develop to its fullest potential, in turn creating powerful pieces that can help cohesively push our cultural narrative forward.
In another publichouse.sg article, Elaine Ee discussed the importance of space to the artist's creative process. "At the heart of art creation are good, suitable artists’ spaces—that are of the right size, with the right environment and that are affordable. And that are offered purely for the purpose of artistic creation, open to all arts practitioners, without the expectation of a return on investment."
Providing an affordable space for artists should not be a development that panders to the whims of economic returns. It IS an investment, but in the cultural landscape of a country.
The artist village at Wessex is (or was) such an investment, providing a safe space for artists to explore and hone their craft away from the distracting hustle and bustle of day to day life. It also acknowledged the importance of the artist in the innovative process which the One-North development hopes to represent, providing what JTC itself once hoped to be 'the soul of the neighbourhood'. What will become of this soul now?