SINGAPORE - The exit of art superstar Takashi Murakami from Gillman Barracks has cast a pall over the visual arts cluster as it looks ahead to its one-year anniversary in September.
For a development that aspires to be an iconic international destination for contemporary art, the withdrawal of Mr Murakami's gallery Kaikai Kiki, touted earlier as a key attraction of the enclave, is hardly a positive endorsement.
The commercial arts cluster off Alexandra Road was developed by the Economic Development Board (EDB) in 2011, together with JTC Corporation and the National Arts Council. The aim was to set up an arts business hub that would further develop Singapore's visual arts scene and establish the state as Asia's art capital.
In an e-mail interview with The Straits Times, Mr Murakami said that although Gillman Barracks is a "conducive environment" for artists to grow and experiment, Kaikai Kiki "decided to re-strategise plans". But Mr Murakami also said he continued to regard Singapore as a potential location for the Kaikai Kiki gallery because of the country's growing importance as an Asian arts hub.
In his statement to The Straits Times, Mr Murakami asserted that the decision not to open Kaikai Kiki in Singapore was not a no-confidence vote on Gillman Barracks. But coming after complaints among some galleries in the cluster, Kaikai Kiki's unexpected departure does raise questions about the precinct's viability.
Some problems that galleries at Gillman Barracks have flagged since its opening last year persist. Food and beverage options remain limited and crowds are usually thin. Moving among the 14 galleries sprawled over the 6.4ha site can also be tricky in Singapore's unforgiving weather. There are no sheltered walkways, for example.
Such concerns are valid. The area is not meant to be a spartan art camp, but a high-end art enclave.
Built in 1936, the site used to house the British forces and, in the 1970s, units of the Singapore Armed Forces. Since the 1990s, the buildings have been used for commercial purposes. Prior to becoming an arts cluster, it was a sleepy outpost for a hodge-podge of businesses, including eateries, a furniture shop and a wellness centre.