Old School building and a bungalow near the city centre now house art galleries, studios and other such businesses
‘CREATIVE clusters’ was a term first used a few years ago to encourage synergies between artistic creativity, entrepreneurship and technological innovation. Today, it’s happening in the physical space as well.
Creative hubs are popping up along the fringes of the city centre: a photography studio opens next to a graphics design outfit, a fashion designer is a few doors down from an architectural firm, or an events management company is a stone’s throw from a cult fashion house.
One interesting cluster is taking shape at Mount Sophia, among the newest spaces that is being transformed by the creative arts. The venue is the former Methodist Girls’ School (MGS) building at 11 Mount Sophia – now simply known as Old School. Its tagline explains its new use: digs for new school thinkers. The most obvious physical change to the school is a spanking new coat of white paint, but the overall look of the 1920s building is still reminiscent of the time it operated as MGS.
The former school has been leased from the Singapore Land Authority by 11@Mount Sophia Pte Ltd, whose directors are entrepreneur (and comic lover) Ken Chong, architect Andrew Lau and another businessman who prefers to remain anonymous. Because of the three business partners’ passion for the arts, they’ve sub-leased the six blocks to over 30 companies comprising art galleries, creative studios, artists’ studios, a couple of eateries, and even an art film theatre.
On the fine arts side, there are studios for artists like Lim Poh Tek, Baet Yeok Kuan and cultural medallion winner Chua Ek Kay. Then, there’s the international Osage gallery group (Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai) which will have an 8,800-square-foot showroom there.
Among the commercial arts tenants are graphic arts, interior design and architectural firms, with advertising agency Saatchi Lab taking up the entire second floor of one block. There are also a few photography studios, and digital-imaging companies like Infinite Imaging. One of Singapore’s most famous fashion designers, Wykidd Song, has located his new made-to-measure business there.
Most of the tenants seem to have found out about Old School through the grapevine, as Tjin Lee of Mercury Marketing & Communications relates. ‘We’d heard about the space and inquired about it, but it was only when a photographer friend recommended us to the landlord that the doors magically opened to us,’ she quips.
A former MGS girl herself, she feels it’s a bit ‘weird’ to be going back to her alma mater, but at least the two classroom spaces she has taken won’t be filled with desks and chairs. ‘We know the photographers who have studios there, so it’ll be fun to be neighbours with them. We’re looking forward to working at a place with creative buzz,’ adds Ms Lee.
Old School’s setting – with its open, green spaces – is what appealed to Saatchi Lab. ‘This place is quite different, not so commercial – which is what an advertising agency looks for. Here, we get to look out of the window and see trees, and squirrels and birds,’ says Doris Tan, the agency’s general manager. The ‘charming’ space appealed to fashion photographer Wee Khim, who was previously based at Henderson Industrial Park. ‘I was looking at Dempsey at first, until this came up,’ he says. His studio occupies the school’s former hall. ‘It’s a bit of a dream studio for me,’ he says. This is the first time he’s had a space like this, working alongside creative neighbours in a green, open setting. ‘The environment is certainly more conducive.’
Wykidd Song thinks Old School is a great idea as creative companies like to be in a more relaxed, unconventional environment. He says he can ‘feel something happening here’. Then, there are the practical pluses. ‘It’s having the luxury of space, while being close to the city, at a less costly rent.’
He’s taken up two classrooms, or 1,400 square feet of space, for his showroom, lounge area and workshop – a far cry from the time he started Song + Kelly in a 500-sq-ft room in an HDB estate in Chinatown.
Over at Mount Emily – within walking distance – another creative cluster has sprung up, next to the Hangout Hotel.
Emily Hill, a stately conservation bungalow, represents a spontaneous gathering together of artists and businesses that want to work with the arts, explains Emily Hills’s spokeswoman.
The founding members who got together to lease the bungalow from the National Arts Council are glass artist Tan Sock Fong, Solideas, a new art glass studio of which Sock Fong is co-founder, renowned sculptor Sun Yu-li, art gallery Monsoonasia Gallery and Theatre Training and Research Programme.
‘The first concern was simply working space. None of us could take this whole place on our own, but we all loved it and wanted to work here. So that’s the first reason for this creative cluster. Also, members found ourselves already working together in various ways, and went forward with the idea of facilitating collaborations between arts and business,’ she says. ‘One important part of that is to build capacity in the arts sector, which Emily Hill has started doing through its Art WORK series of workshops, including topics like ‘The Art of Negotiation’, ‘Introduction to Intellectual Property’, etc’.
While the founding arts members occupy about 80 per cent of the space at Emily Hill, the other tenants are Showtime Productions, run by jazz musician Jeremy Monteiro; Colin K Okashimo & Associates, a landscape architecture firm which has retained its main office elsewhere, but rented a studio here ‘for contemplation and inspiration’; TeamAct EduServices, a company providing educational experiences for young people; and Oakdale, a visual communications company.
The only F&B outlet is Wild Oats bar and cafe, owned by former lawyer Willin Low, who first opened the Wild Rocket restaurant at the hotel next door. ‘The creative cluster makes sense to us simply because all the tenants are open to the idea of collaboration and are keen to work together,’ says the spokeswoman.
Will such creative clusters work in the long run? As long as the balance between businesses and the arts is maintained, reckons Ho Kee Lam, the CEO of Traffic Pte Ltd which manages Red Dot Traffic, a colonial building in Maxwell Road which used to be the Traffic Police’s headquarters until 1999. ‘The anchor tenant for this building is actually Red Dot Museum, the second in the world after the first one in Germany. ‘We decided to create a cluster of creative businesses around the museum and the design awards we have, as we hoped it would stimulate the product design sector,’ Mr Ho explains.
Red Dot Traffic opened in 2005, and put the spotlight on building clusters of creative companies. Its 30-plus tenants are advertising agencies, schools and design studios. ‘We also wanted to offer these creative companies a chance to have their office situated closer to the city centre,’ he says.
But Red Dot Traffic’s hope is that it will draw more product and industrial design tenants in the future. ‘It could be because we didn’t market this strongly enough. And secondly, a number of creatives still don’t see the value of being situated in the city,’ says Mr Ho. Red Dot Traffic is keeping the balance at 80-20, with a minimum 20 per cent of its tenants having to be from the creative industries.
With rents for office space sky-rocketing, it also helps that places like Old School are offering rental rates that are 20 to 30 per cent below market rate for the area. That’s certainly an attractive carrot for key creative businesses to relocate there.
It definitely looks like creative clustering in unconventional spaces is the new school of thought these days.
Source: Business Times 26 Oct 07