Arts-ED on working with communities and outside art silos

Arts-ED on working with communities and outside art silos

A resilient non-profit organisation of 20 years, Arts-ED continues to fuse the arts, culture, and education with its unique multidisciplinary approach to its programmes.

By Lee Kwai Han

‘The arts have the role to intervene, to highlight or to make life different,’ says Chen Yoke Pin, Arts-ED‘s Senior Manager, while reflecting on the organisation’s work on community-based arts and culture education. With this belief, Arts-ED’s many programmes do just that by taking on various forms and themes, involving communities from George Town, Balik Pulau to Butterworth. They are informed also by the organisation’s other areas of work, namely cultural mapping and culture and heritage research and interpretation.

Learning from real people, around real issues

Founded in 1999 by academician and arts practitioner Janet Pillai, Arts-ED’s first programme involved artists leading a variety of non-formal workshops for students and teachers due to the lack of arts and culture education in schools.

Its second programme launched in 2001 and aimed to provide George Town’s young residents with heritage education to complement conservation efforts by adult heritage groups. This was in response to the government’s removal of rent control, which allowed owners to increase rent to fund the upkeep of dilapidated buildings. Soon, many owners evicted low-income residents and began renovations of historical shophouses.

Chen explains that Arts-ED’s approach to education was an effort to mend the fragmented social fabric caused by these circumstances, as interactions between generations and cultures, much needed for the exchange of knowledge, skills and values, slowly diminished. Meanwhile, art was used as a non-intimidating medium to allow communication and expression, at the same time provoking self-reflection based on issues or topics presented. Despite changing times, these remain Arts-ED’s main tools in the work that it does today.

A Sungai Pinang Kita movement workshop lead by performer-choreographer Aida Redza examining the impact of poor waste management on humans and animals

Goh Choon Ean, who runs LUMA, an arts and culture support organisation, was amazed when she first observed Sungai Pinang Kita in 2013. The programme encouraged young people living in a public flat to identify issues and use the arts as tools to raise awareness about them.

‘It was very impactful to see not just the Arts-ED staff, but artists come in to get the participants to care about what was around them – the issues they themselves were facilitated to identify,’ Goh shares. Later, she joined Youth Arts Camp (YAC) as a programmer and artist-facilitator from 2015 to 2018 and saw how participants started to think deeper as the workshops progressed.

Goh (far right) facilitating Youth Arts Camp participants in designing a boardgame inspired by a wet market

She says that through YAC, she realised that teaching does not necessarily come naturally to artists. ‘We have to think of how young people learn outside the classroom and how their mind develops,’ Goh says, sharing her insights from running the workshops.

She thinks Arts-ED’s work plays a key role in bridging the gap between artists and local culture. It links artists to communities to gain a holistic view of the interconnectedness of arts and local culture, making them realise the need for cultural transmission through education.

A Youth Arts Camp participant sharing her Chowrasta at Work zine with a market vendor. The zine looks at the ergonomics of vendors at work. This illustration workshop was led by Charis Loke.

It's about the people, for the people

Arts-ED is run by 4 staff and supported by the Creative Arts and Culture Education (ACE) Team which consists of 50 project-based staff and volunteers. Drop by in the evenings and you may see them going in and out the office carrying boxes of stationery and rolls of mahjong papers, loading them swiftly into their cars parked outside. You can be sure that they will be in action at a school, a market, a flat, or on the streets the next day.

Having been in the field for 15 years, Chen remains humble that there is so much to learn from people of different cultures. She believes diversity brings new perspectives and ideas into Arts-ED, especially as its work involves Penang’s multicultural society.

Chen facilitating a traditional games workshop with primary school children

However, gathering a team diverse in age, gender and ethnicity has proven difficult over the years. It is also a challenge to recruit cross-disciplinary professionals to run Arts-ED’s innately multidisciplinary projects.

‘It is difficult to find an educationist that can work with an artist and a community,’ she shares. Chen notes that the emphasis on churning out career-ready professionals has led to an education system that corners learners into functioning only within their own disciplines. Still, she remains optimistic that through good facilitation, these boundaries can be overcome and teamwork that leverages everyone’s strength is an entirely achievable dream.

Inviting diversity

Moving forward, Chen aims to invite more like-minded professionals from different sectors to join the team of community-engaged arts practitioners. One of the concrete steps taken in this direction is the open call for the Community-Engaged Arts: Connecting People through Creative Approach & Education workshop.

Interested individuals from different creative fields are encouraged to apply for this workshop, using it as a platform to explore working across disciplines, in engagement with communities. Applications will close on 16 February 2020 (Sunday), midnight.

All images courtesy of Arts-ED.

Cover image shows Arts-ED’s appreciation dinner for its staff and the ACE Team in 2017.

Lee Kwai Han manages arts and environmental education projects in Penang. Despite her training in engineering, she believes arts is the software solution our society needs.