Sunday September 2, 2012
Urban hub for arts
By ALLAN KOAY
What would it take to make KL a lively arts paradise?
CAN Kuala Lumpur ever become an arts hub like Melbourne (in Australia), Seoul or Singapore?
We do have a vibrant arts scene in this country as every week sees a play or musical or art exhibition being held in KL. And although our arts community is relatively small, the practitioners are nevertheless a busy bunch.
But how ready are we to turn KL into an arts city that never sleeps?
The Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) recently held a panel discussion on “Arts and the city” with members of the arts community, on how to empower the arts community, how much money matters in artistic endeavours, and what’s on the arts community’s wish list.
It is the ETP’s belief that arts and culture will play a major role in turning KL into “an iconic and vibrant city”, from both a social and an economic perspective. Thus the panellists explored the economic value of the arts, the impact of policies and incentives, and what can be done to help KL move in that direction.
On the panel were Low Ngai Yuen, head of Kakiseni, the arts portal that organises the annual Boh Cameronian Awards; Bilqis Hijjas, president of MyDance Alliance; Lee Weng Choy, co-director of The Substation Arts Centre, Singapore; dance choreographer, writer and educator Dr Zulkifli Mohamad; and Nor Asmah Mohd Noor, senior manager of communication, content and infrastructure of Pemandu (the Performance Management and Delivery Unit).
Zulkifli felt that transparency in fund-giving is of top priority, and there should also be more spaces for different types of performances.
“Thirdly, we should have platforms. For instance, if we have a KL arts festival, then we should also have a fringe section for the more experimental works,” he said.
The panellists wanted the government to lead the way, although everyone should be proactive in making things happen.
“The government should have a little bit more courage and vision in its funding,” said Lee. “It can identify a few key projects and key individuals that deserve long-term investment.”
He believes this will lead to the development of leadership in the arts community, which will then be empowered to speak for itself.
On whether there are models to emulate, Bilqis said: “If you look at any country or city now – Seoul, Singapore, Melbourne, Berlin – they all have enabling policies in place. But we also have to remove the disenablers, the disincentives.
“Obviously, censorship is a big issue here. Malaysian artists would feel much happier if we knew very clearly where the lines are drawn, what is allowed and what is not.”
Zulkifli added that dance also has problems with censorship, citing the recent case of Singapore Dance Theatre’s (SDT) permit being denied because, reportedly, the dancers had to wear tutus.
(Earlier this year, the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre claimed it was told, verbally, by a ministry official that the SDT’s application to perform in KL had been rejected because of “costumes and foreign performers”.
Information, Communication and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Rais Yatim later denied that the dancers’ tutus were a problem, and approved the permit, by which time it was too late for the group to come.)
Lee cited the government-commissioned censorship review committees in Singapore as an example of how the arts community was mobilised to take a stand for a more regulatory position instead of censorship, even though the community had initially accepted that censorship is necessary.
On whether an arts council is needed, Low said: “A few years ago, we tried to have an arts council but it didn’t happen. We are putting together something almost similar and will be moving towards a proper structure soon.”
Lee said the arts needs a public figure in a high position who thinks the arts is important and will “defend” it.
For example, The Substation worked really closely with the Arts Council in Singapore, but the latter “couldn’t really defend us against the higher-ups in government. That’s what you really need – a really strong supporter.”
Should the government should be a leader or a partner?
“The government can’t be leading in everything,” Nor Asmah said. “The right role for the government is that of a facilitator. Of course it would like to see the (arts scene) united and provide constructive feedback.
“We need a list of projects on a long-term basis. But this has to come from the (arts scene) itself. The government can’t be expected to fund the projects 100%. We need to come up with more reliable business models.
“Matching grants would be good. At least, you can see the commitment from the private sector to make it happen. And we can tell the public, ‘Look, the government is very serious about making this city a lively arts centre.’”
But is the arts community united? Bilqis replied: “Is there a community? Yes. Is there a single voice? No.”
Zulkifli thought it is difficult to get everyone together. “I think that’s why we have MyDance, the ballet society – all dance people but in different societies. I suppose, for the good of the arts and its future, people should get together.”
The Boh Cameronian Awards is a good example of getting artists together to celebrate as a single community. But does it want to develop a voice?
“I think a lot of people will (want to work with the government),” said Bilqis. “Obviously, there will be those who are suspicious. But judging by the effort it took to set up the previous version of the arts council, a lot of people came together ... it takes a lot of work, but it’s not impossible.”
Said Lee: “You have so many great individuals moving in different directions. Occasionally, you get very strong leadership at a particular time, because there’s an issue, opportunity or occasion. It’s like history. Who knows why things happen?”
Finally, on what the focus should be to make KL a vibrant arts city, Low said discussions should be encouraged and everyone should act on whatever plans that result from that.
“This country is still in its infancy in terms of the growth of the performing arts,” she added. “The growth is minimal and it needs a little push from all sectors.”
Zulkifli felt the capacity of those who work behind the scenes should also be built up. “The leaders in the arts scene are not just the artists themselves but also the producers, fund-raisers, managers and technical people.”
Bilqis called for greater transparency, more discussions, and more information from the government about what it is trying to do.
“Sometimes there are opportunities that no one knows about, and the government doesn’t get any response to what it’s trying to promote,” she said.
Nor Asmah said come November, the government will hold a Kuala Lumpur Creative Content and Information Mart.
“We’re trying to get all the players in the creative scene to participate and promote what they do,” she said. “(We hope to have) people from the performing arts, music, film and other genres.
“There have been a series of discussions. I hope those in the arts community will take proactive steps to be involved.”