Imagine a society without the civilising influence of the arts.
Strip the collective memory from our museums. Remove the band, choirs and stage plays from our schools and communities. Lose the empathetic performing arts and music from our theatres or the books from our libraries. Expunge our festivals, literature and painting. What are we left with? A society bereft of a national conversation about its identity or anything else.
Yet the performing arts have been operating in the realm of scarcity, where most artistes have to focus a great deal of attention on the practical matter of how to compete for funding. Problems may abound for the industry that’s been beleaguered in the past by a perpetual lack of funding, recognition and appreciation, but as Brian Johnson Lowe, director of My Performing Arts Agency (MyPAA) would believe, sometimes all it takes is a little conversation to gain some perspective and find solutions to an age-old issue.
“We don’t talk enough about how much this sector struggles,” he emphasises, pointing out that within this country and the Southeast Asian region, artistes struggle for recognition, acceptance and to make a sustainable living. But, he adds, it is worth talking about it to the right people to make things work.
The Borak Arts Series has been striving to do just that. Organised for the fifth year running, the Borak Arts Series aims to bridge the great divide between funders, artistes and government bodies and to promote the accessibility of information, tools and ideas needed to build a thriving performing arts ecosystem.
The conference, which begins on Oct 14, will bring together scores of arts producers and curators from around the country and world, potential funders and artistes for two days of networking, talent-scouting and shopping for live performances.
BORAK'S FIRST WORDS
“It’s the biggest jamboree of artistes, producers, curators and funders,” quips Lowe with a grin as he passes me his business card. I’m here at the MyPAA office with Lowe and general manager Azimy Wan Ahmad, who are the organisers of the upcoming performing arts conference. “Imagineer and Strategic Superhero.” I repeat the titles written on their business cards, my eyebrow raised. They laugh before Azimy says, with a chuckle: “Well, it does take a lot of imagination and strategic thinking to get to where we are. Nodding, Lowe chips in: “... And a lot of crazy ideas!”
It did start out with a crazy idea, they acknowledge. One that came out from a Pemandu (Performance Management and Delivery Unit within the Prime Minister’s office) lab back in 2012 where practitioners and industry specialists were called upon to bring ideas to the table on how to advance the performing arts industry. “Through that lab we realised that there were a lot of artistes who just wanted to do art, a lot of government bodies who just wanted to regulate and there were a lot of corporates who wanted to fund,” recalls Lowe, adding that there wasn’t an intermediary in existence who could bring these parties together for discussion and engagement.
“We had this mad idea that perhaps we could set up a platform to fill that gap,” says Lowe, and that idea got both Lowe and former partner Izan Satrina collaborating with Pemandu to create a supportive ecosystem for creative performers. “We took this crazy role, put in our own money and started this company. We then basically engaged Pemandu on some ideas that could disrupt or change the way things are done in Malaysia without constantly having to request for money from the government.” And so MyPAA was born.
The privately-owned agency supported the development of artistic and cultural efforts by, in Lowe’s own words: “...Taking a set of tools and changing the way it’s done.” Funding remains a perpetual battle, especially in a climate of cutbacks, and the future of the arts and culture sector will increasingly be about finding new ways to draw in funding in a variety of configurations to help artistes form collaborative partnerships and sustain both their art and their way of life.
“The key is engagement, which used to be a serious issue in the past,” explains Lowe. There were little inroads for artistes to approach funders directly. The money for theatre productions usually comes from a variety of sources, and not just one stream. So most times they would need to approach many parties to obtain the kind of funding they needed.
“We saw the need to bring down these walls and enable funders, artistes and government agencies to sit down at one table to have discussions and engagements. So we created Borak Arts,” he says, adding: “It wasn’t as crazy as our earlier idea! It was an easy fix, very conventional but at the same time really necessary because nobody else was doing it.”
HAVING A DIALOGUE
Acknowledging that there’s a growing recognition of the importance of developing strong relationships between corporate funders, government agencies and arts practitioners, Lowe, through Borak Arts, decided to organise a dialogue session between the parties.
“We created panel sessions and they all sat at the same panel. We had three different perspectives to a topic and it was very explosive!” says Lowe with a laugh as he recalls the inaugural Borak Arts Series five years ago. “Still, it brought down a lot of walls. It allowed artistes to engage with more parties, and it provided funders and government agencies a perspective of how artistes struggle and why they struggle.”
Trying to understand each other was a challenge but through the Borak Arts conference, the barriers were slowly being lowered down through conversation, engagement and discourse. “It’s all changing now. Five years ago, there was this massive wall but now it’s dwindled down to a small fence. Climbable, definitely, and what’s more, they’ve started talking to each other,” divulges Lowe.
Still, there’s more to be done, they acknowledge. “We also realised that one of the artistes’ main challenges was to get their works outside of the country,” says Azimy, adding: “What MyPAA has been doing very well is creating networks overseas and we’ve got big players from festivals around the world and main performing arts venues to come to Malaysia and really listen to what artistes in Malaysia and Southeast Asia has to offer.” He points out that the Borak Arts Series is a preliminary step to open doors for more Asean artistes and their works to be recognised and further developed.
MOVING THE CONSERVATION FORWARD
This year’s Borak Arts Series will be bringing together artistes, presenters/producers, intermediaries and funders, and will include a keynote address, panel discussions, round table sessions, networking platforms and performances, supporting the ever-expanding constellation of events surrounding the conference.
Other components include One-on-One Meetings, which allows delegates to meet with local and international presenters, and Pitchpad Asean, a forum for Asean creators and arts professionals. It’s through this forum that participants may be able to secure additional project support, representation, touring opportunities, performance engagements and international exposure as a result of their presentations.
“We’re certainly growing,” acknowledges Lowe. “When we first started, we wanted to break down the walls and get people talking to each other. This conversation has grown over the years, and over time, the Borak Arts Series has expanded to include the Southeast Asian Region. We’re now a bigger platform with a greater vision of promoting a thriving performing arts ecosystem beyond geographical boundaries.”
With a number of Southeast Asian artistes being secured by international presenters to perform beyond their places of origin through networking opportunities offered at the Borak Arts Series, it’s remarkable to note that what started as a dialogue has grown to become a movement of sorts that’s raising the profile of the Malaysian as well as the Southeast Asian performing arts scene around the world.
And to think it all began with a crazy idea. As Lowe concludes with a smile: “All we needed to do was bring everybody into the room and get a conversation going.”
WHAT Borak Arts series 2017
WHERE MAPKL Publika, KL
WHEN Oct 14 and Oct 15
Visit borakarts.com for more information to purchase tickets