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  • Apr 15, 2015

Exodus at Gillman Barracks

Block 47 at Singapore’s Gillman Barracks, which many of the current tenants will depart after their leases expire this May. Courtesy Gillman Barracks. 

Gillman Barracks, Singapore’s expansive 20th-century military barracks turned contemporary “arts cluster,” has some spaces to fill.

The development of the government-backed complex of 14 buildings was an ambitious step in the city-state’s ongoing quest to attain international art hub status. Since opening in September 2012, the site has grown to house 17 galleries and a handful of restaurants; in October 2013, the nonprofit Nanyang Technological University Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (NTU CCA) arrived to much fanfare with leading curator Ute Meta Bauer at the helm and a blockbuster touring exhibition in tow. “No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia,” from New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, ran from May through July of last year.

But for the six galleries in the NTU CCA-adjacent, low-rise brick strip on the Malan Road portion of the precinct, even their neighbor’s star power could not guarantee success.

Gillman Barracks has confirmed that Philippines-based gallery Silverlens, Equator Art Projects from Indonesia, Korea’s Space Cottonseed and Tomio Koyama Gallery of Japan will not renew their leases in the Malan Road section known as Block 47. Another of the original galleries there, Ota Fine Arts, headquartered in Tokyo, has relocated to a larger space on Gillman Barrack’s desirable Lock Road stretch. The sixth original tenant of Block 47, Singaporean gallery Future Perfect—winner of this year’s Prudential Eye Award for Best Gallery Supporting Emerging Asian Contemporary Art—may follow suit. “Our position [in Block 47] is untenable,” says curator David Teh. “We’d be happy to relocate within Gillman Barracks, but we’ll have to see whether there are suitable spaces.” The gallery will announce its decision later this year. "This is not only a huge loss for Gillman Barracks, but also for the NTU CCA Singapore," says Ute Meta Bauer. "[The galleries] had invested and contributed substantially by bringing excellent exhibitions to Singapore through their quality programming and by introducing some of the most interesting artists working in Asia today." 

The pioneering early tenants who took a leap of faith by opening spaces at Gillman Barracks have lamented several seemingly avoidable hurdles that have prevented the endeavor’s success, including the plodding installation of signage and construction that dragged on for months after the art compound had opened. The building of shaded walkways between structures—a critical comfort in Singapore’s oppressive heat—were delayed. Well-conceived art programs were sometimes held during the day, rather than in the evening when the temperature is more forgiving. And in a city known for its culinary scene, Gillman Barracks is still developing its dining options. Recently, nearly three years in, the compound's first permanent casual café, Red Baron, was opened. 

But perhaps the greatest challenge for Gillman Barracks has been, and continues to be, introducing emerging Southeast Asian artists in Singapore, whose risk-averse local collector base and sky-high rent leave many galleries in a precarious position.

“Gillman Barracks has greatly improved the standard of commercial exhibition-making in Singapore,” says Future Perfect’s David Teh. “But another important goal is to provide a commercial platform for emerging forms of practice in Southeast Asia. There’s still a gulf separating this activity from the market, and bridging it has to be a top priority if Singapore is to consolidate its position as a regional center." Adventurous programming, he added, has not reaped sales.

Manila-based gallery The Drawing Room, situated in the more desirable Lock Road portion of Gillman Barracks, has also declined to renew its lease. Citing the demands of a grueling schedule on the art-fair circuit, institutional collaborations and artist promotion, curatorial associate Sidd Perez indicated that the addition of a Singapore location was simply too much. “Not renewing the lease is primarily a business decision,” she said. “A three-year program was ample time to get to know what Singapore can provide.” The gallery hopes to remain active in Singapore through pop-up and offsite exhibitions.

Still, several galleries have flourished. Like Ota Fine Arts, Berlin’s Arndt gallery, which thrived with its 2014 program of popular Chinese artists, has expanded its space. Michael Janssen Gallery mounted a lauded inaugural solo show of Singaporean artist Jeremy Sharma’s sculptural foam and paintings.

Newcomers have not shied away, either. China’s Pearl Lam Galleries and Yavuz Gallery from Singapore both opened spaces at Gillman Barracks within the last year. Singapore’s Economic Development Board, which built and manages Gillman Barracks along with JTC Corporation and the National Arts Council, plans to announce additional new tenants in May. 

At the same time, a bumper crop of art fairs in Singapore is helping to introduce the local community to burgeoning artists from their own backyard, as well as draw experienced collectors from overseas. Art Stage Singapore, Singapore Art Fair, and Affordable Art Fair Singapore attract tens of thousands of visitors throughout the year. When Gillman Barracks, a 20-minute drive from downtown, lined up its Art After Dark collateral event during Singapore Art Week in January, 6,000 visitors were in attendance.

“Gillman can work,” says curator and art critic Tony Godfrey, of the departing Equator Art Projects. “The site is now, after redesign, looking very beautiful. Attendance is going up.” Furthering Godfrey's optimistic outlook Bauer adds, "Gillman Barracks should not waiver from its goals. It simply takes time to develop an international art eco-system that is also financially sustainable." 

What’s next for the complex, and whether Singapore’s bold bid for the attention of international collectors will reach dreamed-of heights, remains to be seen. Approaching its third anniversary this September, Gillman Barracks is still a work in progress.

Siobhan Bent is Hong Kong desk editor at ArtAsiaPacific.