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Why RICE CEO Colin Goh champions Singapore’s homegrown artists

He started RICE, a non-profit organisation that provides free arts training to socially disadvantaged children in hopes of resolving the issue of employability in the Singapore art scene.

In 1991, Colin Goh was a young aspiring producer determined to have a career in the arts. The first gig he organised was a rock concert featuring local bands. About 280 people showed up – of which 200 were policemen. The actual audience was so small that Mr Goh and his fellow organisers had to join the crowd and cheer loudly to make the bands feel better. But that’s when Mr Goh realised: “There are not enough Singaporeans supporting homegrown arts.”

Fast forward to 2018 and Mr Goh is arguably one of the most successful arts producers in Singapore. He leads the RICE Company Limited, a not-for-profit organisation formed in 2014 that provides free arts training to socially disadvantaged children. It receives no funding from the government and at first subsisted mainly on commissioned projects from supporters and money from The Business Times’ Budding Artists Fund, which receives donations from loyal patrons such as Citi, HSBC and UOB.

Yet the RICE Company has been managed so successfully that it has expanded from one arts centre to several, including The Little Arts Academy (three campuses designed for the young), 10 Square @ Orchard Central (for older kids) and The Pavilion @ Far East Square (an exhibition and performance space).

The latest addition to its portfolio is the Temenggong 18/20, two beautiful colonial black-and-white bungalows on Temenggong Road designed for artistic discourses, residencies and other forms of creative exchanges.

Compared to many young arts organisations struggling to stay afloat – not just in Singapore but anywhere in the world – the RICE Company is a paradigm of success. But Mr Goh says he is still figuring out ways to support Singapore artists. His ultimate dream, before he retires, is to create a multi-regional, multi-disciplinary platform that would allow artists to sustain themselves through their practices.

Within a few years, you’ve managed to expand the RICE Company’s arts spaces from one to several. How did you do that?

Prior to the RICE Company, I was CEO of The Old Parliament House and, before that, general manager of Chijmes. I’ve learnt the hard way that it’s very hard for the arts to support itself – especially in Singapore where costs are high. The way to support it is to capitalise on the assets that one has and expand one’s revenue streams. At the Old Parliament House (now called The Arts House), for instance, we monetised our property and physical assets through the rental of spaces, project work and other means. The money we earned we put back into the artists’ projects we supported.

So now with the RICE Company, we’ve created arts centres with spaces that can be rented out to various communities. When the kids aren’t using the studios, they can be used by groups such as the senior’s group the University of the Third Age for painting and calligraphy, for instance. Right now the RICE Company has many revenue streams. We get money from rentals, commissions, projects, donations, sponsorships and other sources. That money then gets pumped back into our programmes for our kids. I’m still thinking of new ways to increase our revenue stream.

What’s the overarching vision for these art spaces?

What I’ve always wanted to resolve is the issue of employability. It’s an issue that confronts many arts schools and training centres. Currently, we have some 800 young people, most of whom come from underprivileged backgrounds, undergoing various forms of arts training in our spaces. The arts can help give them greater confidence and a sense of purpose. But some of them really want to pursue the arts for the rest of their lives because that’s their passion. And I want to make sure they will be employable as adults.

To that end, I want the RICE Company to create an end-to-end experience, in which we take them in when they’re as young as six, train them in the art forms they have an aptitude for, and then ultimately provide a platform through which they can sustain themselves as artists. They shouldn’t have to graduate from our training centres with nothing to go on to. So before I retire, I want to create a platform that will help Singapore artists showcase their talent here and abroad, and also have foreign artists come to Singapore to introduce their art as well.

Considering many arts companies – both young and established, in Singapore and elsewhere – struggle to make ends meet, what advice would you give them?

There are so many good small arts companies out there. And if I were one of them, I’d find ways to band together to aggregate the back-end work. I think there’s a lot of asset duplication in the back end. If the companies can find a way to keep the artistic and production sides separate from the administrative side, they could all rely on one centralised administration that takes charge of marketing, compliance, and so on. They could potentially reduce their operating costs by 30 per cent. It’s especially workable for arts clusters such as the Goodman Arts Centre. Of course, there’ll be challenges for such a centralised system, but I think it’s workable.

(RELATED: Ong Keng Sen: How arts in Singapore can be funded without compromising independence)

Getting people to donate to the arts can be an uphill task. When most people think of giving to charity, they often think of giving to health, education and community causes. The arts is still seen by some as non-essential. How do you convince these people to support the arts?

I always begin with the idea that no one should be denied the opportunity to experience the arts – and thankfully that is an idea that many people agree with. I also tell them that artists continue to be the most creative people there are, that the ideas that they put forth are worthy of being seen and discussed, that they can inspire the lives and work of other people too. For someone like me, the arts has an addictive quality. I find that it always expands my perspective. So I try to persuade people that they too can have a similar experience. It takes time but eventually you can persuade some people to enjoy and support the arts too.

(RELATED: Why Anthonia Hui is among Singapore’s biggest patrons of the arts)

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photo: BT/SPH