FORMER US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy once said: “The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction in the life of the nation, is very close to the centre of a nation’s purpose — and it is the test of the quality of a nation’s civilisation,” as inscribed in the JFK Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC.
Locally, Kakiseni, an arts-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), has been at the forefront of driving the performing arts industry — and more.
Its president Low Ngai Yuen said the NGO started life as an online listing site (www.kakiseni.com) in 2001 after founders Kathy Rowland and Jenny Daneels came up with the idea of collating all performing arts information onto one single platform and allowing exchanges to happen.
This was in an era where Facebook and Twitter were not the in-thing yet, and Low, a theatre activist who has created and directed numerous plays, said the site had played an important role in linking people in the industry.
“Critique writing was a big feature of the site and it was the only one in Malaysia. It even had a list of artistes, and their biographies, for producers’ reference,” she said.
This became a source for casting directors for films, TV productions as well as stage works.
However, in 2009, the original co-founders moved overseas and decided to close Kakiseni.
“We were one of the few bidders looking to buy it over and we officially took over in September 2010,” she said.
Having bought the intellectual assets, which included the website and branding, Kakiseni was made a subsidiary of events company Capri Communications Sdn Bhd.
The events company, which was set up by Low’s friends, did not view the web portal as a business and Low was made the de facto president until 2011, when the it was officially registered as a NGO to allow the 12-year-old brand to champion the local arts industry.
Funding for a cause
Film and TV production company Garang Pictures Sdn Bhd and design consultancy Fearless Ideas & Designs Sdn Bhd — companies co-founded by Low — came on board with Capri Communications as the sole financiers of the NGO’s activities.
Using a social entrepreneurship model, Low said nett profit from all the three entities was ploughed in to support the operations of the NGO.
According to her, the companies channel about RM400,000 to Kakiseni each year.
On top of that, 27 employees from the three companies are engaged to help the Kakiseni’s activities from time to time.
“Most of the jobs in the business involve client servicing. Through Kakiseni, our staff are able to experiment with new approaches to marketing, which we can then use in the core business,” she said.
The amount, however, is not sufficient to meet the needs of the growing NGO.
Low said Kakiseni had organised sponsorship programmes with corporate bodies and government agencies to address the shortfall.
To be able to do this, she said it was vital to engage all the stakeholders to measure the gap between what is offered and what is needed. They would then work on improvements and introduce new features.
“One of the areas identified earlier was audience development, which was deemed vital, hence an online ticketing facility was introduced. We also began promoting Kakiseni on social media in 2011 to capture a bigger share of the audience,” she said.
Low said the NGO, which is based in SStwo Mall, Petaling Jaya, was lucky as it could approach the corporate social responsibility (CSR) departments of various companies for funding but added that this was a double-edged sword.
She explained that this model was looked on as a “charitable” contribution or that the NGO was on a “donation drive” where the incentive for the corporate bodies were tax deductions.
“A lot of re-education is needed for the arts to be seen as a valuable business solution. From the investor’s point of view, the more popular model is to bundle the arts with other causes such as the community or the environment. While these two can be complementary, it is also very location centric,” she said.
BOH Plantations Sdn Bhd continues to fund the annual Cameronian Arts Awards, a flagship offering from Kakiseni. The established peer-to-peer event, which is in its 11th year, recognises the best in the industry from theatre, musical theatre, dance and music.
Growing the industry
The industry, which according to Low iss valued at RM76mil per annum based on the maximum capacity of ticketed shows, could be the next growth story in the nation’s economic development.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak was quoted as saying that the Malaysian creative industry only contributed 1.3% to the gross domestic product (GDP) compared to developed countries such as the US, South Korea and Japan, where the field contributed up to 7% of the GDP. He was speaking at a financing scheme presentation ceremony to 15 creative content companies early this year.
To continue serving as a platform for the local performing arts scene, Low said the Kakiseni Festival was introduced as one of the avenues for artistes to feature their work.
The 10-day arts festival kicked off last month where a black box, with a maximum capacity of 130 seats, was built in the middle of Pavilion KL and involved 516 participating artistes from Malaysia and abroad.
She said a different performance was shown every 30 minutes to capture new audiences consistently.
Low said the festival engaged some 11,000 viewers in the high-traffic location and she hoped it would encourage viewers to consider the arts as an option for entertainment.
Going towards the digital platform, it could also be part of the nation’s Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) under the National Key Economic Areas (NKEA) Communications Content and Infrastructure.
Kakiseni is a key contributor to the performing arts pillar of the National Creative Industry Policy Quick Wins (Dasar Industri Kreatif Negara) under Entry Point Project (EPP) 1 aimed at nurturing Malaysia’s creative content industry.
It also aims to enhance capability and competency in Malaysia’s creative industry to produce world-class content and make the country a regional hub for digital content.
“Of the RM17mil put aside for this pillar, Kakiseni facilitated five grant schemes totalling RM4.4mil to lower production costs, facilitated audience development through outreach, mentor-mentee capacity building, apprenticeship as well as creation of new Malaysian works from 2012 to 2014,” Low said.
Kakiseni’s role includes the setting up of an impartial panel to select grantees, terms and conditions of every grant as well as report, follow-up and tabulate the outcome and impact.
Apart from being active in Kakiseni, Low’s other companies produced CUAK and Take Me To Dinner, which were screened in cinemas early this year.
CUAK was co-directed by five directors — Khairil M. Bahar, Tony Pietra, Shamaine Othman, Benji Lim and Manesh Nesaratnam — while Take Me To Dinner was Gavin Yap’s directorial debut and starred Patrick Teoh and Susan Lankester.
“We do this with Garang Indie (which is part of Garang Pictures Sdn Bhd) and the idea is to showcase Malaysian talent and provide them an opportunity to test and challenge their beliefs and models. The only way a filmmaker can be better is when they get to do more,” she said.
They also championed Unicef’s campaign in “Children For Change” last year as part of the “Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities” to promote an inclusive society.
This was done through KakiKreatif, another subsidiary under Capri Communications.
“We went around the country engaging, persuading and collecting submissions for drawings that expressed the children’s Colours Of Their World. These drawings were later released as stamps and first day covers,” she said.
The mother of four continued her passion of championing youth’s inclusion and productivity by co-founding Makespace.my.
Also funded by her other two companies, Makepeace.my, which Low projected to be profitable within the next six years, provides a working space for youths to try out creative projects, from furniture to fashion design.