Gillman Barracks is sleepy rather than bustling

Extended opening hours and new shows for anniversary

The outlying cluster off Alexandra Road now comprises 14 galleries and three dining spots. It is developed by the Economic Development Board (EDB) together with JTC Corporation and the National Arts Council.

Visitors to the enclave have lamented the absence of sheltered walkways linking the sprawling grounds, a dearth of conspicuous signs providing direction and limited offerings for refreshment.

Echoing a common sentiment among visitors, Mr Albert Lee, 41, general manager of a medical device company, says: "The galleries are too far apart for me to enjoy the walk in Singapore's warm weather and there is nothing in between - a cafe or a shop - that doesn't make it feel like I am just trekking between buildings."

The recent introduction of parking charges on the grounds has made Gillman Barracks even less welcoming with attendance at some galleries reduced by half to fewer than 30 people a day. But things at the arts belt may soon look up.

For one thing, signpost banners will be raised in time for its first anniversary this month and more signage will be added thereafter to the 6.4ha site.

New food and beverage outlets offering wallet-friendly fare will open in a few months' time to augment the current roster of swish restaurants Masons and The Naked Finn, and music lounge Timbre. Sheltered walkways are also in the pipeline.

Dr Eugene Tan, 39, programme director of special projects at EDB's lifestyle programme office, tells Life! it originally resisted "overbuilding" and tried to keep the former army barracks as they were.

"We felt it was an experience to be walking among nature in between your experience of art galleries," he says. "But we now recognise that a few more walkways would be useful."

As for the introduction of carpark charges, the move was to ensure the parking lots are used by gallery visitors, says Dr Tan. Trucks from construction sites nearby had earlier taken advantage of the free parking. Galleries, however, can give free parking coupons at their discretion to guests and parking remains free on weekends, when visitorship trends up.

Of Gillman Barracks' first year, DrTan says: "We're happy with the way it's going. That said, improvements are being made and we're recognising all the feedback that's come our way."

Veteran art gallerist Helina Chan, 50, of contemporary art gallery iPreciation in Cuscaden Road, says Gillman Barracks could also benefit from art-related retail businesses such as art bookshops and art supplies stores, which will offer the public more art-related reasons to visit.

The EDB is currently exploring retail options that will complement the site.

Art industry observers are unanimous that Gillman Barracks requires a well rounded arts environ, from galleries to shops to cafes, to attract a diverse audience. Citing the example of Beijing's popular, if slightly commercial, 798 Art District, Lasalle College of the Arts lecturer Seng Yu Jin, 34, says its attractive mix of galleries, artist studios, art bookshops, design stores and boutique cafes ensures there is "something for everyone, even those who are not initially interested in contemporary art".

By comparison, Gillman Barracks' narrow offering of art galleries and a few food and beverage outlets limits its reach to a niche group of art collectors.

All the proposed changes will make the former military barracks, which was launched after a $10-million makeover, more attractive to not just the art cognoscenti, but also the wider public.

Reaching out to the public is important to Gillman Barracks and "cannot be ignored" even if it does not contribute directly to the business of the galleries, says Mr Venka Purushothaman, 48, vice-president of Lasalle College of the Arts. "Places are devoid of any potential without the social energies that people provide - they breathe life into space. Even art needs people to come alive."

Periodic public tours of Gillman Barracks, which have drawn about 800people to date, prove this point. Tours were held at last year's opening celebrations and during this year's Art Stage fair.

They are organised by the non-profit art group Art Outreach and offer a friendly introduction to contemporary art by covering selected galleries and works of art on display.

Ms Melanie Hui, 31, vice-president of an investment group who went on a tour, says: "Going to galleries can be slightly intimidating, but it's less so when you are part of a group and with highly conceptual art being explained to you."

Galleries have similarly made tweaks to their exhibitions and programmes to whet the appetite of the masses. Mizuma Gallery, for example, recently staged a solo exhibition by Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano who is famed for his illustrations for the popular Final Fantasy video game series.

The gallery's executive director Sueo Mizuma, 67, says the show brought a lot of visitors and made him "realise that the gallery's programming is very important" if it wants to appeal to Singaporeans. At the Future Perfect gallery, a recent series of experimental art films drew a full house every day for its three-night run.

Gallery director David Teh, 36, says: "It was not the cognoscenti. People in Singapore are hungry for this stuff, hungry for something different."

The enclave's Centre for Contemporary Art is likewise mindful of its role in engaging Singaporeans. Run by the Nanyang Technological University, it is an anchor for the cluster, occupying five out of 15 blocks in the site. It is due to launch next month and will focus on research, exhibitions and artist residency programmes.

The centre's spokesman says it is "committed to engaging the wider public through its varied educational programmes, featuring exhibitions, public lectures, symposia and workshops". Since January, it has hosted a series of talks and seminars, including one on the sidelines of the Art Stage art fair.

Art documentary film producer and writer Patricia Chen, 45, says talks and short courses on art will be a draw, but they need to be accessible to the public.

"The one organised at the opening of Gillman Barracks was a disaster. It was way too academic with presenters reading from scripts and using art jargon that even the art-schooled cannot understand," she says.

Galleries in Gillman Barracks are hopeful that the opening of the centre will lead to opportunities for creative collaborations between both parties and, in turn, revitalise the place.

The centre's spokesman concurs. He says international artists represented by the galleries may, for example, participate in its artist residency programme or show works in its exhibition spaces.

Both parties could also jointly organise talks and workshops on contemporary art.

Indeed, the success of the arts cluster will hinge on a strong spirit of collaboration among the government agencies, galleries and interested businesses to organise activities that will draw visitors.

EDB's lifestyle programme director Kow Ree Na, 36, who takes over from DrTan when he leaves the agency next month to helm the National Art Gallery Singapore, says the agency has always been open to working with galleries, event organisers and individuals to hold complementary events in the cluster.

An EDB veteran, Ms Kow has been involved in Gillman Barracks since its inception in 2010 as well as other visual art-related projects initiated by the EDB. Echoing a similar sentiment, gallery owner Sundaram Tagore, 53, of the eponymous gallery in the enclave, says: "In the first stage, there was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and interest in the launch of Gillman Barracks.

"Now, a year later, it's incumbent on us to maintain that enthusiasm and interest." General practitioner and art collector K.C. Wong, 43, who has been to Gillman Barracks but only for drinks at night, says: "It needs to have more interesting offerings besides just galleries for me to want to spend a day there."

lijie@sph.com.sg

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