by Kathy Rowland
ArtsEquator sometimes feels like a mythical creature. Looking back over the past 4 years, it takes the shape of a unicorn, a joyful improbability. With Covid-19, it can weigh like an albatross, cash flow statements instead of wing span, web traffic in place of talons.
Perhaps it is a hippogriff, half earthbound beast of labour, half ethereal bird of flight. A media platform that publishes reviews and arts news is, after all, a contradiction: a creature that has outlived its use, but also, an idea ahead of its time.
Over the past two decades, countless media outlets across the region have shut. The bright future promised by the digital age has cast some long shadows. As those still standing fought to stay alive, it was the arts pages that were sacrificed first.
In this environment, launching a new arts media company with a distinct editorial agenda – Southeast Asian arts plus long-form criticism – seemed doubly foolish. Like buying a DVR in the age of Netflix.
Yet, to my mind, ArtsEquator was firmly ahead of the curve. An idea sprung from the simple belief that the arts ecosystem is incomplete without a robust, independent arts media.
Yes, the relationship between art makers and the media is not an easy one. Albee did liken critics to Attila the Hun after all. But, an ecosystem is not a wellness retreat where everyone has to get along for a weekend. It’s codependency for survival. Relationships can be essential, and challenging, in one go.
In the past, critics wielded enormous power through the singularity of their positions in prestige media publications. The gatekeeping book reviewer, the value-conferring theatre critic, the blockbuster-making arts writer, their voices shaped the public’s view of what was art and what was not.
One of the actual benefits of digital access has been the proliferation of diverse voices on countless websites, blogs, videos, podcasts and social media over the past two decades. These writers often had vastly different opinions about the same work of art, disproving the long-held belief that artistic ‘value’ was set. Artists, and audiences, could speak back too, sometimes with louder voices than the critic. Alternative pathways to understanding art and culture became visible.
But while we fought our slavishness to an old value system of cultural worth, we overlooked a more pernicious system. One that parlayed democratising spaces and self-empowerment into a system of labour without remuneration. And so, one by one, these new spaces and sites that promised to reenergise the critical field fell too. Without funding, good intention and revolutionary zeal can only take you so far.
New solutions appeared. Influencers on social media with pithy analysis designed to attract interactions. Clickbait listicles and arts and culture commodified into lifestyle choices, instead of articles about the artwork itself.
Larger arts institutions increased their budgets, hiring PR agencies on often obscene retainers to secure articles in the few publications still running arts content. Festivals, desperate for critical engagement, launched blogs where embedded reviewers were paid, by the festival, to write about the festival programming.
Jenny Daneels and I, the co-founders of ArtsEquator, were not new to this game. Almost 20 years ago, we’d launched kakiseni.com in Malaysia, a site that published high-quality reviews and analysis about arts and culture. Although we are no longer involved in it, Kakiseni still runs.
In 2016, as more and more online and offline media cut back on arts coverage, we realised there was an urgent need for an arts media platform. We tried to combine the best of the old and new. A solid platform with editorial oversight and direction; payment for all content created. A space to write about art within the historical, social and political contexts it is made in. A practice that allows writers to gain cumulative experiences and build institutional memory. But also a space that used social media in fun ways and tried to reach a wider, non-arts audience.
We were realistic about sustainability, running paid advertorials and working with arts organisations on projects to diversify our income. Our editorial content, reviews, podcasts and opinion pieces however remained independent, even if several might have caused unease in some quarters.
ArtsEquator received the NAC’s Seed Grant from 1 April 2017 to 31 March 2020, which allowed us to significantly expand and gain a regional following. The team grew to include Editor, Nabilah Said who took over running the website and writing many well-received pieces, such as on artist Latiff Mohidin’s exhibition at Centre Pompidou. Denise Dolendo took on a catch-all role to build ArtsEquator’s branding, develop vital income streams through ad sales and manage projects such the Asian Arts Media Roundtable.
In March 2020, just as Covid-19 hit, we heard that our application for a further grant, to cover us for the next three years of operations was unsuccessful. One reason given was that the NAC could not support our original content published on the website, although it could continue to support some of our offline programmes. Indeed it has given us grants for several projects since.
But our website content is the trunk from which all our other activities branch out. The hard truth is that it costs money to run a site that publishes original content. Without Covid-19, ArtsEquator would have been able to generate enough income via our advertisements and project management to cover a lot of our content costs. However, like countless arts organisations the world over, most of our alternative income streams have dried up.
We are sadly not unique. There are scores of arts companies in Southeast Asia that have shut operations. The loss of these arts institutions on society in general will be profound. Under these difficult circumstances, we believe that an organisation like ArtsEquator is even more necessary.
We have found ways to adapt and engage with audiences and to support the creative sector. We used Instagram to keep SEA performers in the public eye. Burning Questions, a series of online panel discussions with speakers from Australia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Singapore and The Philippines explored the impact of Covid-19 from a regional and cross-genre perspective. In responding to the uncharted territory we all found ourselves in, Nabilah Said and Corrie Tan’s long-form essay on criticism in the age of Covid-19 captured our collective vulnerability and demonstrated a way forward for art writing.
But, with funds running low, ArtsEquator has cut back on its coverage of the arts. If we do not raise funds now, ArtsEquator will not be able to pay freelance writers to write for us, or cover staff salaries and operation costs. We face the real prospect of shutting down in a few months. The small but vital space we have built – a space for thoughtful, in-depth coverage of arts practice in Singapore and SEA – will disappear for good.
In Singapore alone, mainstream media such as TODAY, the Business Times and Straits Times have either reduced or halted publishing arts reviews in the past few years. Pioneering sites such as The Flying Inkpot are no longer active, and the longevity of other sites remain in question.
The disappearance of substantial arts coverage in the media has a significant impact on the way society views the arts. Yet, few funders recognise the unique role that arts media plays in the arts ecosystem. Aside from the feedback loop to artists, arts media publications document, lobby, hold stakeholders accountable, promote arts events, and build capabilities in audiences.
There are almost no policies and grant structures to support this specific part of the arts ecosystem in Asia. Arts funders focus on artists, creation of works, audience development, and so on. Media grants address the more “essential” aspects of publishing and journalism. These are all well-deserved.
But it does leave this strange beast that exists outside the loop of existing support, a need waiting to be recognised. As we face possible closure, it’s clear that ArtsEquator is not so much a magical creature as an endangered species: vital for a healthy arts ecosystem but not quite understood, and in danger of extinction.
ArtsEquator needs your support. Please visit our fundraising page to find out more about Project Ctrl+S ArtsEquator. ArtsEquator Ltd. is a Singapore-registered charity.