Singing dif­fer­ent songs, but in tune

A nnew arts agency aims to spark the cul­tural econ­omy in Malaysia but with­out us­ing a coo okie cut­ter ap­proach as each artist or arts group is dif­fer­ent.

The Star Malaysia - - Focus - Sto­ries by HARIATI AZIZAN sun­day@thes­tar.com.my

MALAYSIA’S “new eco­nomic as­set”. The recog­ni­tion by Prime Min­is­ter Datuk Seri Na­jib Tun Razak of the value of arts and cul­ture at the re­cent launch of Cul­tural Econ­omy De­vel­op­ment Agency (Cen­dana), brought tears to Izan Sa­t­rina Mohd Salle­hud­din’s eyes.

The arts fra­ter­nity has been try­ing for decades to get that seal of ap­proval. For Izan, Cen­dana’s found­ing chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer, it has been an ex­haust­ing five years of lob­by­ing. And it would not have hap­pened if not for a chance meet­ing and a five-minute el­e­va­tor pitch in Au­gust last year, she says.

“I was do­ing a lot of lob­by­ing for change in the arts, mainly to bridge the three sec­tors – arts com­mu­nity, gov­ern­ment and cor­po­rate – in my for­mer ca­pac­ity as the founder and di­rec­tor of MyPAA (pri­vate en­ter­prise My Per­form­ing Arts Agency).

“So when I heard that the PM was a guest at an event I was at, I grabbed the chance to pitch to him.”

Many meet­ings later, in­clud­ing be­tween the PM’s team and mem­bers of the arts com­mu­nity, trans­lated into a RM20mil al­lo­ca­tion for arts and cul­ture in Bud­get 2017.

And on June 1, Cen­dana was born to boost the coun­try’s “cul­tural econ­omy”.

Izan says that she pointed out to the PM that while the Gov­ern­ment has pushed for the de­vel­op­ment of the cre­ative in­dus­tries, it has not op­ti­mised the heart of cre­ativ­ity and in­no­va­tion – arts and cul­ture.

“Arts and cul­ture is where your ideas come from, your edge, your raw­ness, your sto­ries. It is the heart­beat of the ecosys­tems in the cul­tural econ­omy.”

Al­though there has been sup­port for arts and cul­ture pre­vi­ously, she says that it has been var­ied with dif­fer­ent ob­jec­tives.

“And you can see that in how the sec­tor has moved from one min­istry to one min­istry ev­ery four to eight years. Every­time you move to a new min­istry, you have to re­boot. You re­boot, and re­boot, you don’t have the op­por­tu­nity to scale up.”

Cen­dana aims to change that by stim­u­lat­ing de­mand for arts and cul­ture and em­pow­er­ing the arts com­mu­nity, not only by im­prov­ing their lot through aid and fund­ing but also by re­fin­ing poli­cies and mak­ing in­vest­ing in the arts more at­trac­tive to cor­po­ra­tions.

In the first two-year phase, Cen­dana will fo­cus on per­form­ing arts, vis­ual arts and in­de­pen­dent mu­sic, in small, medium (500 per­son ca­pac­ity) and pub­lic spa­ces, says Izan.

Some plans in­clude con­nect­ing in­die musicians with pro­duc­tion houses. An­other is to work with Ma­trade to sell Malaysian arts as well as at­tract fes­ti­val di­rec­tors, art cu­ra­tors and art col­lec­tors, to “im­port” Malaysian works.

Cen­dana will fo­cus mainly on Kuala Lumpur first.

“The idea is that we can demon­strate the power of the arts in one space – you can feel, see, touch and if we get the model right, we can repli­cate it in other cities in Malaysia.”

Ex­cerpts of the in­ter­view:

Q: How dif­fer­ent is Cen­dana from other arts and cul­ture agen­cies and pro­grammes?

A: At the mo­ment Cen­dana is parked at MyCreative Ven­tures (a gov­ern­ment in­vest­ment arm that aims to spur Malaysia’s cre­ative in­dus­try through eq­uity or debt in­vest­ments).

But Cen­dana is dif­fer­ent. You can say that it is the start-up, and once the artist is ready, they can go to MyCreative Ven­tures to get a loan. Cen­dana is also dif­fer­ent from the Cul­ture and Arts Depart­ment (JKKN), which gen­er­ally works from top­down. We are a ground-up agency and hold two-way di­a­logues with the arts com­mu­nity.

JKKN aims to pre­serve and mer­aky­atkan the arts. Our man­date is to scale up the qual­ity of the works pro­duced by our artists and in­crease the de­mand for arts.

> What is the most ur­gent is­sue in the lo­cal arts land­scape that Cen­dana needs to ad­dress?

Our first task is to de­ter­mine where we are as a sec­tor, so we are con­duct­ing a Kuala Lumpur Cul­tural and Cre­ative Re­search.

We have big cor­po­rate play­ers who have in­vested in the arts but they say they can­not see the im­pact on the coun­try. A base­line study of the sec­tor can show what our value is to the econ­omy.

And once we find out where we are as an in­dus­try, all the stake­hold­ers – arts com­mu­nity, cor­po­rate and gov­ern­ment – can move to the same ob­jec­tive.

Right now each sec­tor is singing its own tune.

By Novem­ber, we should be able to an­nounce the re­sults of the study –

While we de­velop Malaysia’s cul­tural econ­omy, we need to en­sure that the artists can do what they do best – which is to be artists. Izan Sa­t­rina Mohd Salle­hud­din, Cen­dana CEO

then we can strate­gise.

> What is the worth and po­ten­tial of the cul­tural econ­omy for Malaysia?

The cul­tural econ­omy gen­er­ates US$2.25 tril­lion (RM9.43 tril­lion) a year in rev­enues, which is around 3% of the world’s GDP and em­ploys al­most 30 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide. Malaysia’s cre­ative in­dus­tries con­trib­ute about 1.6% to its GDP and em­ploy 45,000 peo­ple (2014). Sin­ga­pore spent S$898mil (RM2.8bil) on its arts and cul­ture and gen­er­ated US$1.6bil (RM6.7bil) in rev­enue.

What we can see is that the de­vel­oped coun­tries are in­vest­ing a lot in arts and cul­ture, be­cause there is a very di­rect re­la­tion­ship be­tween the arts and cul­ture and the main­stream cre­ative in­dus­tries, the econ­omy and the vi­brancy of the coun­try. And the im­pact is clear: Aus­tralia in­vests RM13.90 in arts and cul­ture per per­son, Eng­land: RM9.40 and Sin­ga­pore: RM23.10.

They are all most live­able cities in the world with vi­brant cul­tural economies.

Based on the pre­vi­ous RMP, Malaysia spends an av­er­age of RM3 per per­son for arts.

> How does Cen­dana se­lect what art, and whose art, to sup­port?

The Na­tional Cul­ture Pol­icy has al­ready de­fined arts and cul­ture, but for Cen­dana, we are look­ing at the plat­form, what the artists are ex­press­ing with their art, what they be­lieve in, what they are ar­tis­ti­cally pas­sion­ate about – that is what we will sup­port.

If we start box­ing artists up, we will never help them grow. It is also im­por­tant that no mat­ter how we con­tem­po­rarise our art, it should have a Malaysian story at its core.

> Arts and cul­ture have al­ways been associated with na­tion build­ing and cre­at­ing a na­tional iden­tity, how will Cen­dana deal with that?

I’d like to think that while we are sup­ported by the Gov­ern­ment, we will not delve into that space. Our job is to im­prove the arts ecosys­tem and in­crease the op­por­tu­ni­ties for artists.

We have dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tives and dif­fer­ent sto­ries, and we don’t need to de­fine what is Malaysian. Any­way, if we all sing the same song, we will not be colour­ful.

> How can we have a vi­brant arts scene with the cen­sor­ship reg­u­la­tions that we have?

The arts are not de­signed for a com­mon, ho­moge­nous re­sponse, while cen­sor­ship is so sub­jec­tive. If art doesn’t pro­voke any re­ac­tion, then it’s not do­ing its work. Art should be de­fined as how the artist sees it. Cen­dana is not go­ing to de­fine what is art and what is not. Or what is ac­cept­able and what is not. This will re­strict the artists’ ca­pa­bil­i­ties and tal­ent. Our role is to push for artists’ op­por­tu­ni­ties and the qual­ity of works. We will give you a blank can­vas and the paint­brushes, but you will have to be ac­count­able for your work.

We will de­fend your space to cre­ate, but we will not de­fend your work.

If your work is re­flec­tive of the so­ci­ety, that’s all right. But if your work in­cites vi­o­lence, for ex­am­ple, we will not sup­port it.

> Some artists would say that com­mod­i­fy­ing arts would kill its soul. How do we bal­ance com­mer­cial­ism and cre­ativ­ity?

Cen­dana is not com­mer­cial, but we have cor­po­rate think­ing. While we are work­ing towards boost­ing the eco­nomic im­pact of the arts, we are not com­pro­mis­ing on the qual­ity of the artists’ work.

Big com­mer­cial shows like mu­si­cals and con­certs have al­ways ex­isted, but we are not in­ter­ested in the shows at ple­nary halls and Is­tana Bu­daya. No dis­re­spect to them, but it is the smaller voices who need more help.

If you look at Mel­bourne, Sin­ga­pore, or Ja­pan, their arts and cul­ture scene is so buzzing that it is a value to their econ­omy.

While we work to ad­vo­cate that, we need to en­sure that the artists can do what they do best – which is to be artists. And you will hear a dif­fer­ent song be­ing sung in KL.

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