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In a restored 1921 warehouse next to the Singapore River sits the Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI), a creative workshop that’s redefining 21st-century print and paper-making. Boasting a contemporary-art gallery, paper mill, workshop and residential suites for visiting artists, the four-storey space has become a playground for collaboration.

“We’re not satisfied by just doing editions and multiples,” says Rita Targui, STPI’s gallery director. “We’re always trying to experiment.” Her ideas echo through the cavernous exhibition area and paper mill. It takes about an hour to walk the whole space; STPI has the largest print workshop in Southeast Asia.

Established in 2002 by US master printer Kenneth Tyler, STPI is unlike any other printer in the region for its sole use of paper to make fine art. The Singapore government’s financial boost to the arts in the 2000s helped. It’s the same clear-eyed initiative that helped fund the National Gallery Singapore (opened in 2015) and the Singapore Art Museum (1996).

“Singapore is small but connected,” says Japanese chief printer and project leader Eitaro Ogawa. “It needs to welcome new ideas, people and cultures and keep in contact with what’s outside Singapore.” Ogawa leads STPI’s team of 13 trained specialists, who assist visiting artists under STPI’s residency programme.

Established painters, sculptors and other visual artists, from Japan’s Shinro Ohtake to Turner prize-winning UK sculptor Richard Deacon, arrive at the workshop to learn the creative potential of print. Their subsequent experiments with the tools and machinery result in the eye-catching art forms shown by STPI at international art fairs such as Art Basel.

Take paper made out of herbs and spices by South Korean artist Haegue Yang, whose working samples line the walls of the chilly ground-floor paper mill. Temperatures are kept at a cool 17c to protect buckets of organic pulp (paper’s raw ingredient) against Singapore’s tropical humidity. The monstrous steel presses that occupy most of the space are rare resources that keep artists coming back.

“Artists see the value of our residency programme,” says Targui. “They become the best ambassadors for us.” The facility combines an industrial manufacturing space with the artists’ studio. Run out of material? Pop downstairs to make your own with whatever takes your fancy.

Efforts are being made to widen print’s accessibility to a young Singaporean visual-arts community. “We’ve come a long way and it’s growing; art education and appreciation is still in its infancy,” says Targui. That is why STPI invites the city to its January exhibitions by Singaporean artists, and to attend its public programmes and workshops.

Unlike the publicly funded museums that make up the rest of Singapore’s visual-arts world, STPI is a hybrid at the frontier of the nation’s creative push. “There’s a minimal base funding of about 30 per cent [from the government]; the rest comes from the sale of our artworks,” says Targui. This gives the institution an artistic autonomy despite its start as a government institution. But it is a lot of hard work to entice Singapore’s small collector base.

Yet STPI’s domestic success is tied to its international clout. It is still famous names such as special exhibitions of paper works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Zao Wou-Ki that draw the crowds and the institution is better known overseas. As it toasts its 15th anniversary in 2017, STPI stands at the vanguard of Singapore’s creative industry. The next challenge is to convince the public of its value. Slowly but surely STPI is introducing the Singaporean audience to a diverse line-up as well as taking Singaporean artists overseas.

Q&A – Emi Eu

Director, STPI, Singapore

Emi Eu was born in South Korea, studied in New York and has worked at galleries in Venice. Today she runs STPI, which straddles three areas of the art ecosystem: a studio for artists-in-residence, a museum for exhibitions and a gallery to advocate and represent.

How supportive is the government to STPI?
The government has always been open to the project but it’s a conservative government and so wouldn’t spend much to collect contemporary and modern art. For instance, they bought a 1,500-piece archive from Kenneth Tyler for S$10m (€6.6m) in 1997. It’s an amazing collection that would be worth five times more now.

How does the institute sustain itself?
We rely on the annual base funding of S$1.2m (€787,000) – about 30 per cent of annual costs – and self-sustain the rest. In addition to our rent-free venue owned by the government, they offer us more funding, such as subsidies to art fairs where we have to bring a quota of work from Southeast Asian artists. We’re profitable from selling artworks but we’re not a gallery that’s just about sales. We see ourselves as a bridge connecting Southeast Asian artists to the West.

Who are your collectors?
We attract buyers with museum-quality collections and more holistic collectors who are willing to purchase additional work for their collection to give a historical perspective to the artists’ career. Given limited resources, we focus on the best fairs where we meet the best collectors, best artists and best museum professionals.

How do you think you’re viewed abroad?
At first nobody would collect, let alone buy. I mean, paper in Singapore? Because we can’t make editions or multiples for some complex projects we’ve single-handedly created a mid-range market that works well for paper because it has a lower price point than work on canvas. Artists talk to other artists. That’s the most effective way to grow our reputation.

Your biggest challenge?
The government saw this as a way to nurture a group of professions that didn’t exist in Singapore. We have created a new generation of arts jobs and I think people see the gallery as a substantial industry. But our programme is demanding and it’s not easy to find people of the right calibre. Art is a tangible thing and a palpable industry but it’s also a luxury service industry where we have to speak the right language to artists, contractors, collectors, museum owners and the press. I used to think that the lack of arts professionals in Asia was because we are “new” but I’ve realised that it’s a global phenomenon.

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