“We do legal vandalism. A pictures speaks a thousand words, A motion is a thousand pictures. An emotion to a thousand motion. What we do is not just to paint but to spread emotions to one another. We hope to make society more colourful both visually and emotionally.”
Founder of Social Creatives
Social Creatives is non-profit arts social enterprise that specialises in community art, creating public murals and refurbishing the homes of the needy. Started in 2007 by a then 19 year-old Faris, the organization has now grown into a successful social enterprise with over 19,000 past and present volunteers. It received IPC (Institute of Public Character) Charity status in 2009, and has also set up a 2500sqf museum and studio in Millenia Walk during recent years. As of 2012, the organisation has reached valuation of $1.2 million. Melding entrepreneurship with artistic and charitable endeavours, Social Creatives also conducts corporate team building, harnessing the efforts of their corporate clients to aid in returning art to the heartlands.
What is Social Creatives about?
Social Creatives makes Singapore colourful, both visually and emotionally. We believe that Singapore is very lego-like, so we transform blank, boring walls into void deck art galleries. Our public murals are painted by different groups of people, including people who are visually handicapped and youths on probation order. We also manage a museum space at Millenia Walk. Essentially what we do is bring people together, from the able to the less able, from different countries and with different abilities, to make Singapore more colourful and a more inclusive nation. We’ve also painted murals in the Institute of Mental Health, Geylang Home for the Aged, and many other social service organisations. The first form of communication and art was cave drawings. Drawing with colours are paintings. Painting on walls: That’s what we do, promoting the back to basics approach when it comes to art. We’re not doing something new; we’re doing something that is fundamental. In the middle of the word “earth” is the word “art”. Art should be engraved into society; art should be a connecting factor. Social Creatives is the only organization that does public murals on a sustainable basis. We strive for a colourful Singapore and an inclusive society. The way we do public art is through a multi-hands approach rather than solely individual expression. Our views are that vandalism laws are outdated because they have not been changed since 1985. We feel first time offenders should be given a probation or corrective work order rather than face caning, if male. We also feel that Social Creatives is not doing enough to assist the issue because we lack empowerment and resources. Recently, the government issued 210million dollars for community arts and culture engagement. However, most of the amount went to other government bodies instead of independent organizations like us. So we feel that efforts should be more grounded and public art should be an area of focus.
Are these murals all commissioned?
We are a non-profit organisation, but we adopt a social enterprise mechanism to be sustainable. So basically we have both income projects and non-income projects. The non-income projects can sometimes be adopted as income projects, because the income projects are usually things like corporate team building, adoption of artworks, art jammings and workshops. The non-income projects include painting of one-room flats, public murals, and void deck art galleries. So these two types of projects are interchangeable and work with one another.
What are the main problems you have faced in setting up Social Creatives?
The challenges and problems can be categorized into “inter” and “intra”. From the internal point of view, meaning my own personal weaknesses, the fact is that I started Social Creatives. This coming July we will be entering our 5th financial year. There were a lot of things that I didn’t know, that I didn’t learn about in school. These include having a board of directors and working around the economical recession. A lot of things I learnt from on-the-job training. That’s on the personal part. But of course there are other challenges in terms of cash flow and revenue. There are pros and cons to being a social enterprise. There is a lot of hype now about the good aspects of social entrepreneurship, but there are also a lot of opportunity costs involved. One of the challenges is that public understanding is very limited. People do not understand how we can both make money and be a charity. In a way people are undereducated about social enterprises. The second thing would be that income comes in at different times. I have a horrible work-life balance and a non-existent social life. On top of that, on a more macro, policy level, you may see that community art is sandwiched between the different categories of art and community. Is it community work or is it art? In 2008, there was a department called Creative Community Singapore that gave funding of up to $200,000. We fall nicely into their structures. But the department closed down a year after. Since then, the government body that looks into art said Social Creatives is more community based. On the other hand, the Ministry that oversees community said Social Creatives is more art based. So we’re always sandwiched. Our IPC charity status falls under “Religious and Others”, which deprives us from direct assistance schemes. There is no perfect organisation. We do have our critics. It was especially hard during our first few years, which was during the recession. We were paid us late. We paid people late, we made some people angry, so and so forth. But look, we’ve been around for five years; we’ve got a shop space.
Do you think it’s worth it to sacrifice so much for your work with the organisation?
When you paint a one room flat, and you see the seniors crying tears of joy after they see their rooms because now they have something to look forward to when they go home; when you paint a mural at the Institute of Mental Health and the manager tells you that the moods of the patients changed positively, then you realize that art can in fact transform lives. We did some murals at SMU where we got youths on probation to paint them. They were trained by an assistant professor from NTU, a painter. We got 4 year olds to paint pieces of Vincent Van Gogh tributes in Macpherson. When you get someone to paint places in Singapore, you connect them to Singapore. That’s what we’re lacking here – a sense of connection to our nation. These are all the intrinsic components. Then there are the extrinsic components. We secured a half a million-dollar space in Millennia Walk, and every year Nippon paint gives us about 150k worth of paints. In our 3rd Financial Year, we entered the black in our financial report. We’ve officially broke even and made a surplus of 120k. Of course there are areas in which we could do better. But these are the areas of good that make us continue what we’re doing. I have a very different view compared to other founders of institutions and organizations. My view of sustainability is that the founder does not cling onto the organization and vice versa. What I hope to do is take a backseat after 2 to 3 years. To allow Social Creatives to grow without its founder. For transparency and governance issues as well. I’ll just sit in the board of directors, much like I’m currently doing, but let go of the chief executive position. When you have a new CEO with fresh ideas and perspectives, and can take the organization to greater heights, that’s when the organization becomes sustainable. Transformative leadership.
When you paint a one room flat, and you see the seniors crying tears of joy after they see their rooms because now they have something to look forward to when they go home - then you realize that art can in fact transform lives.
Do you think Social Creatives is ready now for a change in leadership?
No, we don’t have enough money. I would also like to learn more about succession planning as well as merger and acquisitions in the non-profit sector.
What has been the public’s reaction to the work of Social Creatives?
They want more, but they do not have enough money. We receive a lot of invitations from social service and community groups for us to create murals on their grounds. They’re non-profit groups so they’re not paid, and likewise we can’t expect them to pay. We have more demand than supply.
You were 19 years old when you started Social Creatives. What made you want to start this organization at such a young age?
When I was younger I was dyslexic. I did horribly for my PSLE, I got an aggregate of 162. I did okay for the O Levels, and I went to Temasek Poly to study tourism. During my poly days, I felt very sandwiched by the education system. I was in the “Normal” stream, and there seemed to be too much structure in society. It’s much better to act on them than just complain and create empty vessels. This is my way of taking action and making society more colourful both visually and emotionally.
Why did you choose art of all things?
We do art with a purpose to transform lives and transform Singapore. Art isn’t actually the point of Social Creatives. Art is the medium and not the outcome. Our main cause is geared to national development. We want Singapore to open up, and be an inclusive nation. A less atas nation. And if you think about it, art is the most atas thing. So we’re trying to bring art back to the ground, to serve its first purpose, which is to connect members of the community together. I can’t paint for nuts.
Who usually comes up with the ideas for the murals?
For all our projects, we have a triangular system between mentor artist, budding artist and non-artist. Mentor artists are usually professional artists or representatives from art galleries etc. Budding artists are youths or art students. Non-artists are community groups, corporate groups, or layman volunteers.
Do you have any advice for the young people out there?
When I first started Social Creatives, I went around asking for a lot of advice from people already in the industry. I guess what is important is that the government represents most of the community. We’re always talking about promoting ground-up initiatives. But the reality is that ground up initiatives can only reach a certain level. We require support from the top to bring it to greater heights and take it to the next level. It’s very difficult to constantly reach up unless there is a hand reaching down.
– Profiled by Natalee Ho