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Why arts awards matter

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When prize money more or less matches your entire yearly operating costs, of course it feels like a fortune – certainly enough to make a real difference. However, as Marion D’Cruz explains, for Five Arts Centre, this year’s winner of the Praemium Imperiale Grant for Young Artists, such an award can mean so much more.

[Above image: Praemium Imperiale Grant for Young Artists – Datin Marion D’Cruz receiving the diploma from Mr. Hisashi Hieda, Chairman of the Japan Art Association.  © The Japan Art Association/The Sankei Shimbun]

“Congratulations,” says a letter from a stranger. “My organisation” – which you’ve never heard of – “is giving you huge pile of money. Just for being you.”

Okay, so I’m paraphrasing. However, that was the gist of the letter that Five Arts Centre received last March.

“We were so shocked,” says Marion D’ Cruz, one of the centre’s co-founders. She was out of the country at the time and got the news over the phone. “We kept asking ourselves, is this a scam?”

It wasn’t.

The most prestigious arts prize you’ve never heard of

The Japan Art Association (originally named the Ryuchi-Kai) was established in the 19th century by the Meiji Emperor to preserve traditional arts and ‘advance cultural and artistic efforts within Japan.’ At the same time, the organization would foster good-will and strengthen relationships with other countries.

As part of its centennial celebrations in 1988 (and in honour of Prince Takamatsu, honorary patron for 58 years), the Association announced the first Praemium Imperiale. The award would become the largest and most prominent arts prize of its kind.

Over the past 28 years, the Praemium Imperiale has been awarded to over 100 painters, sculptors, architects, musicians and notables in theatre/film for ‘their role in enriching the global community.’ Recipients include Leonard Bernstein, Ingmar Bergman, Ravi Shankar, David Hockney and Willem de Kooning.

Future as well as past achievements

In 1997 a second prize was announced. The Praemium Imperiale rewarded people mainly “in their 60s and 70s” for achievements amassed over a lifetime. The Grant for Young Artists sought out people or institutions which encouraged the creative development of young people.

Until this year, most recipients were single-focus institutions like schools, youth orchestras or summer camps. “Five Arts Centre shows a move in a new direction for them,” says Marion. While staying true to their tenet to tell Malaysian stories, the way in which Five Arts Centre has encouraged the telling of such stories spans across disciplines. “We’ve supported theatre, dance, performance art, installations, film, music, we’ve done a lot of training and workshops, we’ve published a book…” she trails off having made her point. We both know this is just the start of a very long list.

Praemium Imperiale Grant for Young Artists. (L to R) Mark Teh, Datin Marion D'Cruz and Mr Hisashi Hieda, Chairman of the Japan Art Association. © The Japan Art Association/The Sankei Shimbun

Praemium Imperiale Grant for Young Artists. (L to R) Mark Teh, Datin Marion D’Cruz and Mr Hisashi Hieda, Chairman of the Japan Art Association. © The Japan Art Association/The Sankei Shimbun

There are other ways in which Five Arts is unique. “The intergenerational thing is, for me personally, very important. We have the core group, a group of 13 – people in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. That kind of intergenerationality is very interesting.” There are also “at least 50 people that we’ve worked with regularly and consider them part of the Five Arts family. Those circles of people widen our scope in terms of craft and generationality.”

She admits that the reasons why Five Arts Centre was chosen are speculation on her part. Deciding is a long process involving the Association’s headquarters in Tokyo and their worldwide network of advisors and committees. Awardees get no warning, no advance notice that they are being considered. The first they hear about it is when the decision has been made.

Why awards matter

Marion admits that she never expected Five Arts to survive this long. Not because of any sense of doom, but because they’ve rarely looked beyond their next project. That’s how one survives in a tough environment, by taking it one day – or project – at a time.

The award made the people of Five Arts do something they’ve rarely had the time – or much seen the point – of doing. It’s told them; look at all you’ve done, see how far you’ve come, see how much you’ve changed.

“It’s that recognition,” says Marion. “When an organization like the Japan Arts Association recognizes what you have done as important, it helps validate the work you do.”

Six months later Marion admits she’s still stunned by this windfall. ‘Big’ prize awardees such as Akira Kurosawa and Placido Domingo may be used to flying business class and being greeted by chauffeured cars. To Marion and to Mark Teh, who received the award in Tokyo on behalf of Five Arts Centre, it was “overwhelming and surreal and definitely wonderful. They treated us like award winners.”

What will Five Arts do with the prize money?

“We haven’t decided exactly how we’ll spend it.,” says Marion. The awards ceremony was a small break and its already business as usual. Five Arts has several youth projects in the works and perhaps the grant will be used to more or bigger projects than money usually allows. What is certain is that Five Arts will continue be what it has been for the past 32 years – a place where creatives come together to tell Malaysia’s stories.

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Amy De Kanter
Amy De Kanter

Former Chief Editor, frequent contributor and enthusiastic audience member, Amy is thrilled to have a job that lets her do three of the things she loves most.