Budget 2022: Arts and culture sector want long-term sustainability

A recent art exhibition at community arts hub PORT in Ipoh, which adapted to the pandemic and continued most of its annual arts programmes in the past two years virtually. Photo: Handout

Budget 2022 has given a much-needed boost for the arts and culture industry which has been severely hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Finance Minister Tengku Datuk Seri Zafrul Abdul Aziz announced a grant allocation of RM50mil for the arts and culture industry.

Agencies such as the Cultural Economy Development Agency (Cendana), the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (Finas) and MyCreative Ventures will also receive RM188mil to continue several recovery initiatives.

While the allocation is a positive step in rebuilding the battered arts and culture scene, performing arts practitioners are unclear about how the grant will help them.

“It is certainly encouraging to hear that RM50mil has been allocated to the arts compared to RM15mil last year but whether we will end up benefiting from this increased allocation is another question altogether,” says Ian Chow, group general manager of the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac).

He adds that performing arts venues such as KLPac seem to be an afterthought in a (government) funding landscape that is “very much geared towards programmes and presentations”.

“We as a country do not seem to be willing to invest in infrastructure, venues and institutions and so we are forever trapped in a very short-term cycle – present a show, wrap up and think of the next show.

“There is absolutely no consideration or even understanding of the needs of an arts centre and how it is different from a regular theatre group.

“For example, we can only access one Cendana grant at any one time and the maximum allocation of previous grants is nowhere near the funding needs of an arts centre of our size.”

“Imagine, a venue of our size is getting the same amount of funding as an arts group without a venue and full-time staff to maintain,” says Chow.

Penang House of Music director Paul Augustin says the grants offered must consider the long-term future of places that are working hard to preserve intangible cultural heritage. Photo: FilepicPenang House of Music director Paul Augustin says the grants offered must consider the long-term future of places that are working hard to preserve intangible cultural heritage. Photo: Filepic

The sentiment is echoed by Penang House of Music director Paul Augustin.

"A generous budget for arts and culture is welcome news. But the grants offered must consider the long-term future of places that are working hard to preserve intangible cultural heritage. A recovery grant might buy the Penang House of Music time to survive for a few more months. But we have to look at the post-pandemic big picture and see where heritage and culture stands on a global level. The Government has to take affirmative steps to examine the big questions facing our cultural heritage... we can open our borders and offer tourists the usual food, sea and nice resorts. But when people ask us about our music history, or for that matter, anything deeper than what is found in the tourist brochure, we struggle to explain and answer.

“Our role in documenting Malaysian music history has widened through the years, we have an exhibition space, but what we have done during the various lockdowns was to accelerate our digital archiving, increase research work and plan for an educational series encompassing music, heritage and culture. What we need urgently is to sustain the programmes, we have the platform... with additional funding, we can continue to move forward and piece together the nation's wonderful story in music," says Augustin.

More details needed

“As usual, things are unclear so until we see more details on the areas of distribution and timeline, we will wait and see," says Tan Cher Kian, Instant Cafe Theatre's producer.

“I am particularly interested to know more about the RM50mil matching grant as it’s something new that seems to be divided between arts and culture and animation. That's how unclear it is. I’m waiting to see more detail on that and how it will help arts organisations to recover post-Covid."

In Kuching, cultural arts outfit Borneo Bengkel has come into its own during the pandemic with a series of digital programmes and audio-visual projects. This tech-savvy arts collective, often punching above its weight, has the potential to reach a broader audience and to put contemporary Sarawak on the map.

“We have serious thoughts on how the RM50mil will be allocated, as often the focus is heavily geared towards the capital (city) or urban creatives, rather than focusing on states and rural communities which need more infrastructure and investment in creative practitioners. How accessible are these funds for rural makers who have limited digital access?" reads a statement from Borneo Bengkel.

“Will there be an allocation for workshops to help train artists in more rural areas, to train them in how to write good grant proposals, etc? So they can also have access to the budget. RM50mil for the whole nation (plus RM188mil for the government's creative arms) feels small, considering how during the lockdown we all relied heavily on television, music and the arts to keep us occupied.

“We need to look beyond valuing the arts as GDP, and understand its significance in community cohesion and mental health,” the statement outlines.

Juvita Tatan Wan says it might no longer be about basic aid now. It is about supporting opportunities in this recovery period. Photo: FilepicJuvita Tatan Wan says it might no longer be about basic aid now. It is about supporting opportunities in this recovery period. Photo: Filepic

"I hope that the grants will be extended to arts communities outside the Klang Valley. We are about to celebrate the 10th anniversary of PORT next month, and it shows you that with the small team we have in Ipoh, we have managed to build and nurture an arts community, tapping into the talents of artists, poets, writers, cultural activists, arts collectives, cartoonists and others across Perak," says Nur Hanim Mohamed Khairuddin, general manager of community arts outfit People of Remarkable Talents (PORT) in Ipoh, and festival director of the Ipoh International Arts Festival.

"The pandemic has hit us hard in Ipoh. So many people in the creative community here have had to look for other work to survive. But we hope to see them back, with more job opportunities for people in arts and culture. Young people have new ideas about the arts and they want to contribute.

"With limited resources, we still managed to take the Ipoh Music Symposium online in the past two years, and we are really hoping to bring back the Ipoh International Arts Festival in December. Ipoh still has the creative energy and community spirit. In the post-pandemic world, distribute the grants fairly, and don't forget arts communities outside KL. Any additional support from the Government would be a massive boost as we work on recovery efforts to turn Ipoh into a creative hub," she adds.

In George Town, PenangPac’s company manager Alexander Ooi also welcomes the government’s incentives under the 2022 Budget.

"We hope there is fairness and a good balance between incentives for digital content and live performances,” says Ooi.

“Besides incentives to support many live arts related activities they could also consider tax exemption for ticket purchases and donations related to performing arts,” he adds.

Venues like PenangPac need specific allocations for the running of the space. Photo: FilepicVenues like PenangPac need specific allocations for the running of the space. Photo: Filepic

Theatresauce founder Kelvin Wong hopes the budget allocation will encourage the birth of new companies and collectives that will embark on innovative projects. But he also says it remains to be seen how the grants will be distributed.

“We look forward to details from Cendana and MyCreative Ventures on how the funds will be disbursed. Learning from the past, we hope for greater clarity, efficiency, urgency and equity during application and disbursement processes,” says Wong.

Juvita Tatan Wan, co-founder of Miri, Sarawak-based cultural arts outfit The Tuyang Initiative, says as the arts and culture industry slowly reopens, “different considerations” need to be taken into account.

“It might no longer be about basic aid anymore and it could be about supporting opportunities instead. My hope is that it can’t be something that’s decided and scoped out too rigidly or else there might be problems disbursing it to the different people who need it on different levels. For example, basic day to day aid as opposed to those who have international arts presentation opportunities and so on,” says Juvita.

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