Perhaps never before has the world truly appreciated the arts as it has right now, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. As the number of confirmed cases grow — currently 2 million and counting — people are staying at home to curb the spread and the arts have been a comfort to many. Despite the tough times, CEO of Arts House, Sarah Martin, is determined that the show, or rather, the arts, must go on. 

SINGAPORE (Apr 24): From free concerts and performances, to free tutorials online that teach you everything from painting to embroidery, the world is adjusting to the new normal as it grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic. People are finding new ways to cope — and the arts have emerged as a source of comfort to many. When renowned Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli sang to an empty Duomo di Milano (Milan Cathedral), 35 million people tuned in to the concert, streamed on YouTube, within the first 48 hours. The image of Bocelli, who normally performs to jampacked halls, singing with only one pianist in the large, cavernous cathedral, was haunting yet hopeful, especially for millions of Italians who have been among the hardest hit by the virus. On Friday (April 17), a free broadcast of the musical, The Phantom of the Opera, by Andrew Lloyd Webber, gained almost 25 million views in 24 hours, in the aptly-titled “The Shows Must Go On!” series on YouTube by the legendary songwriter and composer.

In late March, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) live-streamed its concert at the Victoria Concert Hall. The concert was originally supposed to meet the restricted audience capacity of 133 persons, with seats spaced one metre apart, but when all concerts and events were suspended from March 26, SSO refunded all tickets and scheduled the free performance on its YouTube and Facebook channels. The SSO, and also the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, has since continued to offer both new and archived concerts for viewing, free, on their social media channels.

Across the world, artists, singers, musicians and more have taken to the virtual world to continue to bring their craft to audiences. After all, the show must go on — and so must the arts.

To this end, Sarah Martin, CEO of Arts House Limited (AHL), is heartened that despite the challenging times, the world of the arts has adapted to reach the millions stuck at home. AHL manages some of Singapore’s most iconic arts spaces and organises the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) annually.

Speaking to Options recently over video call, Martin, who enters her fourth year at the helm of the Arts House, said she has been encouraged by the tenacity of the arts community. “I’m very heartened by the resilience of spirit that they are exhibiting, and these are trying times. A lot of them have not stopped work and, instead, they are conceptualising and challenging their thinking [to turn this] negative into a positive,” she says. “We [have seen] content being presented in different forms but it will still not detract from the live audience experience, it will complement it.”

Carrying on

Indeed, the arts are an unstoppable force, capable of weathering through even the leanest years. After all, across the world, the arts have taken a back seat for decades, and more so in Asia, where they tend to be seen as frivolous and “cannot make money”. As the world pivots towards the sciences and technology, the pursuit of arts is one that has adapted to the times. Today, more attention than ever is being paid to artists and those who operate within the creative space.

Martin, too, has seen the industry in Singapore grow so much that she is constantly amazed by the agility of the arts scene, and by the level of engagement between the arts and their audience. Having started her career in the arts, Sarah was Director of Operations Asia with the World of Music, Art and Dance (Womad) Project Singapore, a branch of Womad in Britain, which is a renowned international arts festival. From 1999 to 2008, Martin immersed herself into the arts scene in Singapore. She then ventured into sports, where she ran the race tracks as Director of Operations for the Singapore Grand Prix (GP) until 2017. After that, she joined AHL as its CEO.

“When I came back to the arts scene, I was very excited about the depth of engagement that was happening. I saw a new generation of artists coming up to the fore, in addition to the groups that have come to a fantastic place of arrival — you know, your Singapore Repertory Theatre, Theatreworks, Wild Rice — and they’ve been in the scene and are markers in the seat,” she says. “At the same time, we have all of these little collectives, you know, emerging artists that are experimenting without the construct of a formal organisation, and I think there is a lot of energy there that is still untapped and bodes well for our future.”

Despite the ongoing challenges, Martin is certain that the Singaporean creative space is on a “very good runway” to an international platform. “Based on the last three years, whether with the National Arts Council and their network, or on your own steam, a lot of artists have forged networks beyond the shores of Singapore,” she says. “And I think this is definitely the way to go; we are an island but this is a global world we live in. I think the networks and exchanges are going to add further richness, to spark experiments and show what is being brought to the fore.”

The global context is particularly important for Singapore, as a first-world nation. “Trends that impact the world impact us, and that requires a forum where it can be a safe space for these issues to be raised and talked about. Case in point: climate change,” she adds. For the arts, Martin feels, it is crucial to go beyond just entertainment or the creative pursuit. The arts can play a role in tackling issues in Singaporean society. “There are so many examples whereby the issues of society — from income disparity to climate change, this all impacts Singapore — and arts can play a role in creating awareness. Or, you know, the need for us to hold on to our cultural roots; so how do we make that relevant so that as a society, traditional values that have defined us can carry forward?” she says. “I think the exchanges that we do across the globe will strengthen the art form, and also form it.” Growing the arts Martin has certainly strived to take the industry to new heights, and has big plans for AHL.

Currently, AHL is responsible for managing some of Singapore’s most-loved arts spaces, such as the Arts House in Old Parliament Lane (formerly the Old Parliament House), Aliwal Arts Centre in Bugis, the Goodman Arts Centre, and, since August 2017, the Victoria Theatre and the Victoria Concert Hall. “I am entering my fourth year and it has been a phenomenal ride. In the last three years we’ve tripled the size of our organisation, in terms of team strength, and we went from managing three venues to five. We’ve also entered a new cycle for the National Arts Festival, and with the number of moving parts we’ve had, I thought we would only be able to stabilise these moving parts in five years, but we’ve done it in three and [are] quite surprised and very pleased with the strength of the entire team,” she says. “And this has made AHL ready for the next evolution; it’s positioned to be able to look critically at our assets and strengths to see how we can contribute to the development of the arts landscape.”

Martin has much in store for the AHL. For starters, they are festival makers, with the Singapore International Festival of Arts, as well as multiple programming platforms under its belt, and they will continue to grow in this aspect. One among the many programmes which Martin is working on is the Literary Art Centre for Singapore, at the Arts House on Old Parliament Lane. This is a particularly exciting project for Martin, as it has such historical significance to Singapore.

“In the historical context, words have so much power and in that place, where the government of Singapore was born, [it is significant] for it to be a place of dialogue and exchange, to be a house of words,” she says. The old Parliament House is such a special place, Martin adds. “When you enter those doors, you effectively enter history. You do get the chills, you think, wow, this is history, and this is a very special place. We’re very mindful that the Singapore Writers’ Festival is hosted at the Arts House every year. We’ve celebrated local writers and local artists [there], we’ve held series [of programmes] in multiple languages, being mindful of Singapore’s multicultural context, and it adds richness to the place,” she says. “I’m very mindful that Singapore has passed its 50th [anniversary]. We have a generation of people who are inquisitive, who want exchanges of ideas; they are no longer passive spectators, they don’t want to just read a book but understand the context of it.”

Next evolution

At its heart, Martin feels that AHL is an interesting organisation, with distinctive roles and five venues of very distinct character under its belt. “We are also placemakers at Kampong Glam and the Civic District, and we’ve been routinely activating these places,” she says. However, she sees AHL playing a greater role in placemaking. “The Civic District, I feel, is an untapped area for us as we’ve only been recently given the mandate for it. We are actually exploring a lot of exciting things because we want to connect the past and the future,” she says.

“Additionally, we are going to move strength to strength in festival making. We are also taking a very critical view of how we can contribute to capability development in the arts landscape in Singapore, and the framework of that is being defined right now,” she adds. “If we look at our assets, we have the largest inventory of spaces and we have multiple teams. Using all our assets, we are asking, how can we aid and abet this next generation of artists?”

It will not be an easy task, for sure. Martin is aware that challenges abound, especially in matters of funding and time. “Funding is a very, very real concern. A lot can be done [in the arts] and it’s only restricted by your funding, or your imagination. There are a lot of social causes in Singapore and the arts are not high on the totem pole, but we’ve been very fortunate to have a huge amount of support from the government.” Martin would, ultimately, like for AHL to be a driving force of the development of the arts in the country. “I’d like for AHL to be known as the ultimate ecosystem for the growth of creativity, giving all that we have and can be.”

For the arts scene in general, Martin says, especially in these hard times, her hope is that everybody does survive it. “It will be interesting to see, after the Covid-19 outbreak, what shape and form the arts scene will take.”