What are the realities of working in the arts in Singapore?

What are the realities of working in the arts in Singapore?


Text: Adibah Isa

Image: Natalie Tan,
Tan Ngiap Heng

Sean Tobin of M1 Fringe Festival and Natalie Tan of Aliwal Arts Centre talk about schmoozing, managing a diverse portfolio and leaving your personal things at the door

If you've a taste for the progressive, the underrepresented or the alternative, you'd have heard of Sean Tobin and Natalie Tan. The former heads the artistic direction of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, while the latter is the centre manager at Aliwal Arts Centre, which hosts the Aliwal Urban Art Festival and the Aliwal Arts Night Crawl. Tobin, who hails from West Australia, first moved to Singapore in 1993, and has been part of Act 3 International, TOUCH Arts and The Necessary Stage. He also heads SOTA's faculty of theatre, and has directed productions such as Sing Song, Tongues, and The Perfection of 10.

While club kids might recognise Tan in her DJ days as Natalie Pixiedub, the Singaporean is also credited with commissioning exhibitions that have cast a light on skateboarding ('Cannot Be Bo(a)rdered') and fitness as a sub-culture ('No Regrets For Our Youth'). The former exhibit has even travelled to Kuala Lumpur's Urbanscapes Festival as well as Paris' Urban Art Fair in 2016 and 2017 respectively. If you've always wanted to venture into a career in the Singapore arts, listen to our podcast below.

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What are the opportunities and limitations that youths can expect from a career in the arts?
Natalie Tan (NT): Because of the number of people here versus the population of arts-going people, there are not enough jobs in the industry to really sustain, so you might not able to have a career, but you can participate by being a volunteer. Join a theatre company or do it over the weekend.
Sean Tobin (ST): If you're a person who manages really well, then there's a lot of potential to freelance meaningfully. You just have to be prepared to balance works that are more commercial and works that are more idealistic. Sometimes the work that might be more meaningful is either volunteer-based or idealistic. It's about managing a diverse portfolio.

Natalie TanSean Tobin
How important is who you know versus what you know?
NT: If you're managing a festival and you know about quality artists and works, you can do better things. Who you know can be important, and what you know definitely is important — if not, you can't curate a good program.
ST: Both are important in different ways. The danger with that expression is that it implies a certain utilitarian way of saying things about using people to get to certain places. Network is very important. Be a good person to work with. The arts is very social, and people do not want to be around a diva and someone who can't communicate or cooperate. They want skill. Your network will be useful, but it's not a case of schmoozing around. Be good at what you do.

What do you look for when you're employing a volunteer or someone to work under your wing?
NT: Honesty is very important. Someone who's not flaky, and not afraid to work hard. In our industry, you really have to work very hard. And someone who gets it.
ST: I like people who can communicate, I like honesty, openness, people who are people-oriented, bold and ready to try something different.

Check out Aliwal Arts Centre for upcoming events and workshops.
Read more stories in our Career Special