Lessons art spaces are quickly learning in a pandemic

Lessons art spaces are quickly learning in a pandemic

COVID-19 has been the most disruptive factor Malaysia’s arts and cultural sector has faced in a generation. Here are some ways working models are changing in response.

By Tan David

The question of ‘what do we do now’ is inescapable in conversations with arts and cultural practitioners in light of the ongoing pandemic. Fortunately, at this time of writing, the number of new COVID-19 cases in Malaysia has largely subsided.

However, it has left in its wake the halt of all activities involving an audience, including art shows, performances, festivals, talks and workshops. Through adaptive learning, here are some lessons arts venues have gained in response to the sudden game change.

1. Record and archive your work

For Penang House of Music (PHoM), a state-supported organization dedicated to the preservation and nurture of Penang’s cultural and musical heritage, their ‘adaptation’ to COVID-19 norms started a long time ago, at the time of its establishment. According to Paul Augustin, director of PHoM, there are more than 10,000 vinyl disks along with countless cassettes, photographs, magazines, newspapers and other materials in their collection and the process of archiving and digitizing this vast collection in the resource centre is ongoing. Existing digitized materials are currently available for access via PHoM’s website.

Augustin added, ‘Other than the archive materials, we made it a policy to record all the shows and activities staged in PHoM to ensure that the performances are documented for future references.’

Digitally recording and archiving your work, especially creative material, may come in handy whenever you are unable to showcase your work physically.

2. Pay attention to current events and pre-empt

Early preparation is also one of the strategies implemented by Ruang Kongsi to minimize the threat posed by Coronavirus. They were able to adjust their standard operating procedures and raise awareness in others ahead of the local authority’s announcements and the implementation of the MCO because they were keeping a close watch on COVID-19 updates across Asia

Lee Cheah Ni, one of the co-founders said that the early preventive measures were ‘including the use of hand sanitizers for all visitors and staff, and encouraging the wearing of surgical masks by making them available for free.’

Prior to the pandemic, Ruang Kongsi frequently hosted public film screenings and discussions on art, culture, activism and social justice issues.
Photo courtesy of Ruang Kongsi

3. Look for opportunities in change

Adaptability to the new norms of social distancing measures and online-oriented business models appear to also be a congruent lesson from businesses and enterprises including art spaces.

Gerakbudaya Bookshop, for example, has reopened its doors (two outlets – one on Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling and the other within Hikayat on Beach Street) since 13 May. However, according to its proprietor Gareth Richards, ‘to date, since there are very few walk-in customers in George Town, online sales account for well over half of all sales, a far higher figure than prior to the MCO.’

The bookshop started focusing on completing online orders in early May. To incentivize potential buyers and encourage readership, Gerakbudaya is waiving all delivery charges of online book purchases anywhere in Malaysia. Crucially, due to limitations imposed by social distancing, physical literary events such as book talks are not feasible, thus they are also working on presenting online book talks and an online book club to continue nurturing the strong literary community which Gerakbudaya has fostered over time.

Lee Khai, chairman of the Penang State Art Gallery (PSAG) Committee, recommends artists to engage the public through social media.  ‘Instagram is said to be the world’s largest gallery, so artists should use this fact to their advantage,’ he said.

Lee stated that PSAG has converted BELANG, an exhibition it hosted at its premise before the MCO, into a virtual tour and curated walkthrough now available to an audience unlimited by geography.

4. Support others with your strengths

Penang House of Music is currently working on a plan to make their spaces available to Penang artists to professionally record and showcase their work. According to Augustin, the venue will provide basic backline equipment and a camera for artists to record or live-stream their work. ‘We understand the difficulties and restrictions of trying to perform in their residences, so we hope that this will be helpful for them,’ added Augustin.

Ruang Kongsi, too, is playing their part in supporting artists via their Kongsi Bumbung programme. This programme which started in April is an extension of Ruang Kongsi’s core value of sharing physical space, knowledge, ideas and solidarity, by providing successful applicants with a safe physical, mental and emotional space with no strings attached. The duration of the residency is kept flexible to suit the needs of the artist community.

A busker who was unable to earn enough to make rent during the MCO was able to seek refuge at Ruang Kongsi through this programme. So far, he is among the two artists already in residence and a third one is joining them after September. The programme intends to keep the number of residents limited to maintain social distancing.

5. Prioritize stakeholders

Lee Khai mentioned that PSAG is looking into a post COVID-19 long-term strategy to engage younger, up-and-coming artists by supporting their creative output. He said, ‘this includes looking into acquiring their work for PSAG’s permanent collection.’

For Richards, this consideration extends to his staff in both Gerakbudaya stores and Hikayat, a multipurpose art space and café where he is also a director. ‘The absolute priority was to secure the livelihood of all the staff,’ he said, with emphasis on their diligence and commitment as key assets for the bookshop’s survival. All Gerakbudaya staff were paid their wages for the two-months closure with counselling provided for those who needed it.

In times such as these, it is a willingness to change ourselves to suit current needs, at the same time be of support to one another, that will pull us through to better times ahead.

Cover image by John Cameron on Unsplash

Tan David is a Penang-based festival programmer and head of Teh Beng Club (TBC).