The road ahead for the arts

  • Arts
  • Tuesday, 21 Jul 2020

‘The Memories’ by Orang-orang Drum Theatre. – TRBAN Photography

On June 22, when Senior Minister (Defence) Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced that all cinemas, theatres and live events could resume operations beginning July 1, the arts fraternity breathe a collective sigh of relief at the thought of being able to “go back to work”.

The initial order of closed halls with no more than 250 individuals have since been further relaxed, of course with strict SOP in place.

The preceding months have been a train wreck for this group. Unable to work and with no source of income, arts and culture practitioners were left in a lurch, and the horizon was gloomy.

Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s announcement on June 5 unveiling the RM35bil stimulus package to help the Malaysian economy recover from the impact of Covid-19 and the movement restrictions have been welcomed with open arms, as most were expecting unprecedented levels of unemployment and slowdown.

In fact, the Government’s efficiency in navigating through these trying times, boosting the confidence of the people, businesses and foreign investors, has not only been timely but crucial for future growth and development of the financial, economic and social sectors.

The Pelan Jana Semula Ekonomi Negara (Penjana) includes RM190mil to benefit the creative industries, with RM10mil carved out to benefit the arts and culture sector (with a focus on the performing arts, visual arts, independent music and craft sector).

This was the result of various meetings between the different ministries and practitioners from the different sectors to discuss potential measures that the Government could consider for its economic recovery plan, including work and facilitation done by the Finance Ministry and Ministry of Communications and Multimedia.

The Penjana plan for the creative industries includes a set of recovery initiatives under the Government’s Penjana Short-Term Economic Recovery Plan, administered and managed by MyCreative Ventures and CENDANA whilst supervised by the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia.

It has been designed to help the arts, culture, entertainment and event industries adapt to the new normal and assist those creative industry practitioners and businesses affected by Covid-19.

The initiatives introduced under CENDANA will focus on the needs of the arts and culture sector in particular. The main objective is to enable creative industry practitioners and businesses to resume activities and sustain the livelihood of the many within the industry who depend on it.

‘Pollination Organisation’ exhibition at Ilham Gallery.‘Pollination Organisation’ exhibition at Ilham Gallery.

The importance of the arts to a nation is profound. Not merely for entertainment value, arts and culture enhance our lives and often shape our values, dreams and goals. It’s no wonder that many people involved in the championing, documenting and sustaining of the arts are passionate about keeping the arts alive even in a time of pandemic.

Rather than sit around and wait for a conducive environment, many of these practitioners were quick to adapt and try out new things online, opening up their imagination as they continued to be challenged by the circumstances.

In a survey conducted by CENDANA which is available on its website, however, it was revealed that only 7% would be extremely likely to opt for digital arts and culture events over live arts and culture events. And even if audiences did show up virtually, income generation would still be an issue.

It has always been, after all, often an uphill battle for practitioners – regardless of language, culture and genre – to build a following large enough for self-sustenance. Because of this, there is a critical role for both the Government and private corporations in order to sustain a sturdy arts programme.

And what a great relief it is that some private corporations and individual donors come forward time and again, to lend a hand.

For example, Yayasan Sime Darby’s swift assistance in providing food aid to artists who were negatively impacted and needed help in putting food on the table for them and their loved ones. Without this sort of assistance, the cultural sector could be hit twice as hard as the rest of the economy.

The casualties of the creative economy’s downturn are much larger than one would think. In fact, the people you see on stage and in front of the cameras are just a small part of a huge ecosystem.

Backstage, there is a long line of auxiliary and support services that go into the making of every show. This includes production crew, stage crew, lighting crew, costume and set designers, publicity and marketing, graphic designers, printers, F&B, cleaners, security personnel, just to name a few. Approximately 10,000 Malaysians nationwide are part of this creative economy machinery.

Many theatre venues/art galleries rely on rental of spaces, conducting classes and ticket sales for their survival. But with all three revenue channels cut off almost overnight in March when the MCO came into effect, they had no way of earning their keep or providing for their staff, let alone the backend service providers.

In the CENDANA survey, data was collected from arts practitioners in the country to ascertain the impact of the pandemic on the arts sector. The results showed that 93% of those surveyed had been negatively impacted with 70% having lost all or most of their income. What’s worse is that over the next nine months, the sector would collectively face losses of over RM100mil!

The future looks challenging too, as 92% of Malaysian audiences who normally would participate in arts activities or visit art exhibitions, performances and more would prefer not to leave their homes.

Even if rigorous sanitation protocols are adhered to, the propensity for audiences to visit theatres and galleries after the MCO will most likely only resume in the next three to 12 months.

‘Shakespeare Demystified: McBeth’ by KL Shakespeare Players.‘Shakespeare Demystified: McBeth’ by KL Shakespeare Players.

Many pertinent points have been raised by various arts practitioners over how we, as a society, need to work together to stop people from leaving the arts by supporting all arts practitioners, large or small, full-time or freelance; and how we need to value the preservation of traditional arts, as well as the importance of having a national registry of artists.

Other points have also come to the fore including how to reform policies that would help stimulate the growth of the arts.

Many nations understand and acknowledge what a vital force the arts is, and have acted swiftly to mitigate the effects that the pandemic has on their livelihood and creative economies.

There has been multi-million dollar funding in countries such as New Zealand and Germany to help support artists, creative practitioners and arts organisations over the next two years, to help them maintain their core operations, safeguard jobs and ensure they are able to continue to provide opportunities for the public to access the cultural experiences that are so important to these countries.

It is this sort of deep appreciation of the arts – an understanding that arts and culture give a nation its soul – that is much needed here as well. We remain hopeful, however, that when the worst of the pandemic is over and we start to find our legs again, society will respond.

The recovery movement controlled order provides an opportunity for discussion on serious monetary and non-monetary support from corporations, foundations and individual donors – which is necessary so that artists, collectives and arts organisations can start to rebuild their livelihoods and continue to heal the nation through music, dance, art, craft and theatre.

Izan Satrina Mohd Sallehuddin is the founding CEO of CENDANA. CENDANA is a unit of MyCreative Ventures Sdn Bhd (a wholly owned company of Minister of Finance Incorporated) and reports to the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia.

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