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Creative and Cultural Organizations in Southeast Asia reflect on ‘building back better’ beyond the COVID-19 pandemic

Creative and Cultural Organizations in Southeast Asia reflect on ‘building back better’ beyond the COVID-19 pandemic

Creative and Cultural Industries (CCI) organizations – often small, independent, grass-roots entities – play a big role in shaping the backbone of the diverse and vibrant creative sector in Southeast Asia. They work in a wide range of domains, including the visual and performing arts, film and animation, design and crafts, as well as more hybrid, or ‘multidisciplinary’ practices. They promote education and capacity building for the cultural workforce; pilot creative experiment; preserve heritage and archives, and spotlight the role of the arts and the creative entrepreneurial spirit in the Southeast Asian economy. Along with advancing their artistic mission, many of these entities advocate for important social issues, such as preserving the environment, greater inclusion of LBGTQ people and people with disabilities, and the promotion of general human rights.

CCI organizations register officially as private or ‘for profit’ companies, non-profit foundations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or associations. Some self-identify as ‘artist collectives’. In day-to-day practice, many operate in a ‘gray zone’, perhaps having registered as a commercial, or ‘for-profit’ entity while largely functioning as a ‘non-profit’ or ‘social enterprise’ platform. This is often because the official registration process for such entities remains in many places difficult, if not all but impossible.

Despite their unique missions, CCI organizations share many commonalities. According to the 2021 UNESCO Bangkok publication Backstage: Managing Creativity and the Arts in Southeast Asia, many such organizations operate on less than USD 10,000 annually, and with a minimum of staff, many of which labor for a very low wage or work on an entirely voluntary basis. CCI organizations tend to suffer a high degree of instability, with a large percentage of organizations reporting a financial loss for at least one year over the Backstage sample, three-year period of 2016 to 2018. Another commonality across these organizations is that a majority depend for their success on their founders, owners, managers and key workers – sometimes the same person plays all these roles – whose commitment is vital to an organization’s survival and civic impact. Many of these key figures take no salary and have invested their own private capital in these organizations, some even subsidizing the organization’s long-term operation with income gained from other occupations.

Since early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought enormous challenges to these small organizations, whose condition was already precarious in pre-COVID times. Most CCI organizations in Southeast Asia have felt the shock deeply. Many have had to cancel or postpone their planned workshops, exhibitions, and performances, resulting in the loss of a large part of their income. Many organizations have even withdrawn into a ‘hibernating’ mode, in which management and workers have had to turn to other fulltime jobs in order to survive financially.

In mid-August 2021, as part of the celebration of the United Nations ‘International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development’, UNESCO Bangkok hosted a webinar to catch up with some of the researchers and CCI representatives who participated in the Backstage study. During the lively discussion, the speakers reflected on their organization’s current situation, recent lessons learned and their strategies for moving forward.

Diversification – whether in regard to a CCI’s cultural goods and services, future audiences, potential funding sources, alternative leadership structures or compositions of governing boards – emerged as one of the most important methods for helping these organizations stay on their feet. La Lanta, a 15-year-old Bangkok art gallery that has been heavily dependent on sales at international art fairs, has recently cultivated closer relationships with local collectors, whose patronage has largely kept the gallery from sinking. Conversely, Shma, a Thai ‘creative architectural landscape platform’ with social objectives turned to their international clients as their domestic market was shrinking. The online platform Arts Equator diversified the kinds of articles they publish as a means to keep their website active, as there are no longer festivals and shows to attend and report on. Penang House of Music also branched out to embrace new educational activities, capitalizing on a great resource center – ‘the organization’s heartbeat’ – that they had already built over recent years. With the assistance of digital technologies, many organizations interviewed have demonstrated how they swiftly developed new online activities, attesting to their ability to adapt to unforeseen crises.

Another lesson shared by our speakers was the need for CCI organizations to stay relevant. ‘If your organization is relevant … to your stakeholders, that is your moral engine that keeps you going. You have a strong sense of what you’re there for and that you serve a purpose; it can help you to go through the down time’, says Kathy Rowland, Arts Equator’s Co-founder and Managing Director. Despite the added financial challenges of the pandemic, organizations have also more than ever committed themselves to social advocacy issues, as is attested in La Lanta’s new art space Warin Lab Contemporary, which focuses on the environment, or Shma’s new emphasis on well-being, which even contributes toward making their own business model more sustainable. On a related note, many artists have turned to social work while they have had to temporarily shutter their art businesses during the pandemic.

At the end of the day, ‘It is all about the community and its peoples’, says Rowland. Thanks to the solid relationship with their community, Arts Equator recently managed to mount a community fundraising campaign, which helped the platform avoid shutting down. Also thanks to connections long cultivated with its community, Penang House of Music has received ancient treasures from members, including a 1903 music album – one of the first in this part of the world – that was recently discovered in a Penang home. Similar sentiments are shared by other organizations, who when asked what word best describes their organization chose words that lend to collegial relationships a sense of cohesiveness and mutual connection, such as ‘family’, ‘bond’ and ‘cooperation’.

Other recurring words evoked concepts of ‘adaptability’, ‘agility’ and ‘resilience’, qualities that have been long recognized as indispensable if creative organizations hope to succeed in both good and hard times. ‘If we have resilience, and if we keep moving forward and have passion for what we do, we will succeed’, remarks Paul Augustin, Penang House of Music’s Director. Prapan Napawongdee, Shma’s Co-founder, agrees, adding ‘Being adaptable and being diverse in what you’re doing is the most important thing’. As Sukhonthip Prahanpap, Director of La Lanta Fine Art Gallery notes, ‘Never waste a good crisis’. Seemingly in keeping with Sukhontip’s maxim, many CCI organizations have used this opportunity to take stock of themselves, and to develop new activities so as to achieve their goals in increasingly innovative ways.

Nevertheless, the message ‘We cannot do it alone’ was heard repeatedly, loud and clear, both during the webinar as well as in the Backstage study. Rowland elaborates, ’We can do everything we can to be resilient, to be innovative, to work ourselves to the bone and to develop strategies, but there are some things that are just beyond the scope of individual art organizations and individual artists’. The Backstage study indeed demonstrates that CCI organizations are most likely to succeed if they receive some form of external financial support – whether it be in the form of international grants, government subsidies or private patronage. In all of Southeast Asia, however, only the governments of Singapore and Penang have demonstrated the capacity to effectively provide substantial and ongoing financial support to CCI organizations in both normal and unusually difficult circumstances.

But ‘support’ does not always have to be financial in nature. This is suggested by one of the key challenges facing CCIs today: the persistence of a larger ‘disconnect’ between government and civil society. Sunitha Janamohanan of LASALLE College of the Arts, and Kai Brennert from the research consultancy Edge & Story – two of the seven research experts who carried out the study – shared stories of how CCI organizations in some countries have joined hands to form unions and associations that help to amplify their voices. Another potential remedy is perhaps exemplified by the Cambodian government’s recent creation of channels for open dialogue with such ‘informal’ organizations, a classification under which many CCI actors operate. These dialogues, one might hope, may represent a first step toward addressing other challenges that have long persisted, such as the lack of firm governmental policy direction; lack of recognition for, or limited perceptions of the value of arts and culture in society; complex procedures for registering as a not-for-profit entity, and limited financial support – all of which lead to the precarious status of CCI organizations across Southeast Asia. Napawongdee notes, ’No matter how hard we work, it is not as important as the type of policies that the governments develop. Policies from the top allow the industry to survive and to go forward. To really make the industry grow, we need clear policies from the government’.

Further insights into what might constitute constructive governmental action may be found in the Backstage publication. The implementation of these actions becomes more important than ever, if we want to revive the sector and ‘build back better’ after the pandemic. While subsidy packages are always helpful, more systemic and long-term measures will need to be put in place. There might need to be further development of enabling strategies, action plans, and data collection mechanisms; skills development of artists and creative workers; and regulatory frameworks that are specific to the creative sector in facilitating the dual nature, both cultural and economic, of contemporary cultural expressions produced by artists and cultural professionals. What is ultimately clear from the Backstage study, and from the conversations it has set in motion, is that only through the collaboration of all stakeholders will CCI organizations prosper and collectively exemplify a truly sustainable and flourishing creative sector as envisioned by the UNESCO 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.

*The Backstage study and publication, available in English and 7 Southeast Asian languages, have been made available to the public thanks to the support of the government of the Republic of Korea. The full version of the analysis report can be requested by contacting culture.bgk@unesco.org.

Main photo credit: ©Penang House of Music