By Wennie Yang
(1,200 words, 4-minute read)
Pandemic restrictions have put arts and cultural workers and institutions in a bind: choosing between sustaining their missions at times of a global pandemic or ceasing operations altogether. How have Southeast Asian arts managers survived?
That was the question at the heart of the third ANCER Lab, formed as a platform for critical conversations on the development and management of arts and culture in Southeast Asia. ANCER Lab 03 took place virtually from 6 to 7 October, focusing on pandemic responses within the arts and culture sector in the Philippines as the country undergoes one of the world’s longest-running, strictest lockdowns enforced since March 2020. Practitioners from the SEA region also came together to share survival stories and discuss issues that have unravelled during the pandemic.
Here is a recap of key themes from two discussions that took place as part of ANCER Lab Conversations on 7 October:
COVID as a chance to reconstruct artistic practices and productions
In his opening remarks, Dr. Venka Purushothaman, Deputy President and Provost of LASALLE spoke of this period as offering endless possibilities for artists to reconstruct their practices beyond pre-existing notions of collaboration and production. This was echoed by the speakers of the first panel, Arts, culture, covid – pandemic survival stories, who spoke about utilising the excessive downtime to reevaluate not only artistic programmes and administrative structures, but more importantly aligning their missions to the communities they serve.
Rethinking the use of physical space and prioritising social space
Visual artist Mark Salvatus shared how Load na Dito Projects adopted a nomadic approach of exhibition-making over having a permanent space, inspired by Manila’s local top-up system for cellphone credits. The critical discussions that take place during workshops are compared to “having loads”, representing a “circulation of knowledge” that can happen anywhere. This nimble structure gives the artists the agility to tap into any community, and attracts participants who normally shy away from entering polished institutions, which usually come with implicit hierarchies and codified rules. Whilst having a physical building to house different activities is often an indicator of success for an arts organisation, Load na Dito’s creative approach proves the adage that ‘less is more’. In the end, it is the content and participant dynamics that matter.
In contrast to Load na Dito’s mobile presence, Mah Jun Yi and Low Pey Sien, managers of stainless steel factory-turned-experimental-venue Kongsi KL, spoke of the shapeshifting nature of their space at times of crisis, such as becoming a pop-up vaccination centre for refugees and migrant workers. The space’s fluid identity is supported by the rent-free agreement between the founding members and the landowner in exchange for an activated space for the community. Although Kongsi KL’s scenario is unique to its context, it highlighted a critical moment to rethink the definition of community for both state-funded and privately owned organisations. Does community only pertain to our immediate artistic circle? How can we reach demographics that are out of our usual creative peripheries? And how does that impact artistic work? On the latter, Kongsi KL’s engagement with community members which allows them to host art and non-art events within the warehouse fits into its mission to create a neutral space to ‘unleash possibilities between the place and all parties with different resources and talents’.
Digitalisation is inevitable, but it should be handled with care
Visayas Visual Arts Exhibition and Conference (VIVA ExCon) curator Mars Edwenson Briones shared how switching over to online open calls has meant sacrificing the rapport that comes with meeting artists in person. He also spoke candidly on the difficulties of remote collaboration, as different “social bubbles” may be difficult to permeate, and the pandemic has only heightened these divisions. “Some may guard (these bubbles) highly and it could be difficult or even hostile to provoke collaboration,” he said. This was sobering to hear – in the cultural circle, there has been a lot of talk about the need for “care” during the pandemic and Mars’ observations show that reality can make ‘care work’ very difficult. While the digital leap has made collaboration easier, what happens when we encounter hostility within the community? This highlights the importance for organisers to understand the underlying dynamics when facilitating conversations, and their role as conflict mediators if necessary.
Shifting mindsets about audiences, labour, and how we value the arts.
In the second panel, Engaging in the time of a global pandemic, practitioners shared their thoughts about audience engagement, and labour concerns during this time. They spoke of strengthening their online presence to capture new audiences, as well as the lessons learnt about labour and the arts with the subsequent move to the online space.
The impact of the digital world on audience engagement
The leap into digitalisation, whether by choice or for survival, came with new realisations. Koh Hui Ling, Co-Artistic Director of Singapore theatre company Drama Box was impressed by the increase in younger, more tech-savvy audiences in their online presentations, but lamented the reduced attendance from older supporters of the company. The speakers also highlighted the lack of meaningful metrics that can measure audience engagement in the digital space. For example, what if the “audiences” for a livestream were really just people who had accidentally clicked “Play”? Asked Phloeun Prim, Executive Director of Cambodia Living Arts: “Do they stay within a few minutes or few seconds? Or do they really engage throughout the piece?”
The impact of the pandemic on inequalities in the arts ecosystem
The various speakers spoke of how the pandemic revealed existing labour issues – for example, freelancers in Cambodia are treated as undocumented workers and hence lose out on pandemic-related support. There were also questions of how labour is treated on an organisational level, where there can be a disconnect between leaders and on-the-ground staff, the latter of whom are disproportionately affected by venue closures and event cancellations. There were recounts of talent drain, such as theatre production staff exiting the industry to become food delivery drivers in order to sustain their livelihoods. These concerns were tied to the problem of low wages in the arts across various countries, leading to bigger questions related to class and access. As Theodora Agni and Riksa Aflaty of arts management discourse platform shift.ing realities asked: “Is artmaking or working in the arts tied to the notion of coloniality, where it only allows certain ability, class, and gender in society to have access?” These are not easy questions to answer. That we’re in a pandemic also makes them inconvenient questions, but perhaps these very difficult questions are the ones we should reflect on as we try to ride through the pandemic unscathed.
Since COVID, there have been a proliferation of online panels, talks, and articles recording the impact of the pandemic on the arts. ANCER Lab 03, with its focus on arts management and the structures that hold up arts practices, offered a more fleshed out examination of the cost of the pandemic on arts organisations in the region.
At the end of ANCER Lab Conversations, the speakers appeared hopeful about the new opportunities brought forward by digitalisation and remote collaboration. And yet, the discussions showed that practising art and doing cultural work during the pandemic can feel like a Sisyphean battle. At the heart of these survival stories are arts managers who are doing their best. Facing a lack of access to resources and support systems, pandemic fatigue and more, they form the backbone of many an arts organisation, with a spirit of resilience and managerial foresight, ensuring that the arts is never unconnected to its publics, so crucial at times of heightened isolation.
ANCER Lab is organised by LASALLE College of the Arts, in partnership with a local counterpart, such as De La Salle – College of Saint Benilde Manila this year. Previous editions have been held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
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Wennie Yang is an arts manager and finance administrator from Toronto, Canada with general management experiences in the not-for-profit arts sectors spanning from Toronto to Singapore. After graduating with a BA in Accounting & Financial Management at the University of Waterloo, she further completed a MA in Arts & Cultural Leadership at LASALLE College of the Arts.