The Arts is a Luxury We can Afford

Audrey Lim, presenter, producer and President of the Visual Arts Development Association advocates for investing into artists and the arts
Published: 26 September 2023

The Stripper Index has been making the rounds on Twitter again. If you missed it, this index lauds the strip club as a leading recession indicator. The economy is wobbly if exotic dancers, who rely on daily cash tips to make a living, are seeing lower earnings. The original online oracle (@boticellibimbo) is a stripper and graduate student from Columbia University. Heralding the current unofficial recession via a tweet in May 2022, she shared that she would check stock alerts to decide whether or not it would be worthwhile going to work that night. Her recent tweets bring hopeful tidings for the American economy—her old clients are back in the clubs, flush with discretionary dollars for their favourite dancers.

As an arts advocate and longtime self-employed person in the entertainment sphere, it's heartening to hear of consumers directly and enthusiastically supporting their local artists, especially in an economic downturn. After that ignominious Sunday Times survey was published in June 2020, where 71 per cent of respondents picked “Artist” as the most non-essential pandemic job, I’d like to see a little more appreciation and yes, money, coming our way.


I’m not an economist but wiser minds agreed that we've been at risk for a technical recession since February 2020, when Covid-19 did its thing. We remember the lockdown and the things that kept us sane. We ran with our music blasting; we streamed shows; we connected with other isolated humans online and we doom-scrolled beautiful photos on the ’gram. All these mental health essentials that the average person relied on to survive the Circuit Breaker, they continue to rely on to enhance their present lived experience daily. Strangely, it seems that many (at least 71 per cent of the people who took The Sunday Times survey) don’t realise that the progenitor of the music, the shows, the video games and the images that they consume, is an artist.

Being a creative isn't the same as having a hobby. And having a “cool” job in the arts doesn't insulate you from needing to pay bills. Whatever economists want to call the downturn we’re in, it’s hitting artists especially hard. Art does not appear, fully formed, from the ether. Even if the gear needed to create art is a fixed cost, the experimentation needed to get to a finished art product is a frighteningly variable cost… and the bills pile up fast.

At the start of the troubles in 2020, peer-to-peer sale sites like Carousell were awash with photographers selling camera lenses and musicians offloading instruments. It was sobering to realise that artists were flogging the tools of their trade. As an erstwhile lawyer, I will now take a Harvey Spectre dance break: Even if someone were legally declared bankrupt and creditors are at the gate, the law recognises the need for the bankrupt to earn a living. The bankrupt’s tools of their trade cannot form part of the bankrupt’s estate (aka what is allowed to be sold to satisfy their creditors), otherwise the bankrupt can't earn any income at all. Many artists, like gig musicians, were prevented from earning any professional income during Covid-19 but the bills still needed to be paid. Making the decision to sell their gear and being unable to buy their way back in, led to highly talented creatives exiting the industry in favour of quicker cash generating options like food delivery. We might be paying for this creative brain drain for a while.


As much as we wryly bemoan the alleged cultural desert we live in, Singapore does have an artistic brain trust to defend. The Forbes 30 Under 30 list regularly features Singapore musicians, including an act I used to manage, The Sam Willows. Nathania Ong is presently treading the boards on the West End playing Eponine in London’s second longestrunning musical Les Miserables. Sam See has headlined comedy shows in 25 countries and is a regular on the Edinburgh comedy circuit. Sonny Liew’s graphic novel, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, won a slew of awards, including the Eisner Award for Best Writer/ Artist. Shavonne Wong is an award-winning fashion photographer who pivoted to creating her own models and minting them as NFTs, amassing celebrity fans that include Idris Elba.

"But NFTs aren’t real art!”, I hear some naysayers gripe. In October 2022, the Singapore High Court published the first written judgment in Asia that protected a non-fungible token (NFT). It was a case involving one of the more famous NFTs, a Bored Ape, and in it, the Singapore Courts acknowledged that NFTs can properly be regarded as property. Cryptobros and a Discord of NFT art collectors throughout the island breathed a collective sigh of relief at the recognition of their investment as real property.

Both digital and traditional Singapore artists are pushing boundaries and working hard. And these efforts have been recognised by independent, international bodies. I paraphrase the television show franchise and declare, Singapore Has Talent, and these talents deserve to be appreciated.


In 2014, I hopped on a train to the old Hougang bus interchange for the 100 Bands Music Festival. Beyond the eponymous 100 indie music acts that were scheduled to play, there were also booths for food and merchandise. One of the visual artists exhibiting at the music festival was selling limited prints of her work, including a piece she had created as the album cover for the debut EP of post-prog rock band, 7nightsatsea. Today, that same original work by Allison M Low, “Warboat”, goes for SGD1,431 on her Australia gallery’s website. Back in that heaving, humid bus depot festival of 2014, I bought three of Allison’s prints for less than 10 per cent of that, purely because I thought they were cool.

If there is a non-braggy point to this anecdote, it isn’t (just) that diamond-handing the art pieces for nine years has got me an on-paper 10-times return. Granted, what I bought is a limited edition print and what she’s now selling is the original. I bought the pieces because I liked them and have genuinely loved being around them all this time, even as I moved from my parents’ place to my own. Do I get a small frisson every time I see the artist’s name in the media and the public sphere, knowing she’s on the ascent? Yes. It’s nice knowing an international art gallery is managing her and a growing chunk of the world agrees with my subjective art preferences. But more than that, it’s gratifying to know that my 2014 decision to invest even a tiny amount in a specific artist has turned out to be a “sound” investment. Most importantly, I still think the pieces are cool.


Art creation is not free, so stop being cheap. The next time you go to a bar and make a song request, send the band a tip. The next time you forward your friend a TikTok or a reel, follow the creator and subscribe to their Patreon. While you’re waiting for your little man to walk forward on the screen to get you on the Taylor Swift registration list, take a moment to browse all the other live events that are happening in Singapore; round up the friend group and attend a show. Or go to a gallery or watch a recital. Whatever you choose, please pay for the pleasure of enjoying the fruits of the artist’s labour. There are so many ways for consumers to make like @boticellibimbo’s clients and make a direct and immediate cash contribution to your local arts scene. Pick the one that works best for you and invest in the creative and cultural scene you want to have. Creators are standing by to make money moves.

related posts