Why Are Performing Arts Residencies So Hard To Find?
“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set this artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him,” said John F. Kennedy. This is the mission of most residency programmes. To set the artist free from the home they are bound to, and release them into another space in the hopes of nurturing their work.
For those in the creative industries – whether they be part of the fine art or performing art scenes – the very idea of being able to participate in a residency allows for a quick dream of truly immersing oneself in one’s work.
Ideally, residencies allow those in the creative fields to dive fully into project, without outside distractions seeping in. This, for many, is a luxury allowing them to complete a first draft, workshop performance, collection, or to add the finishing touches on their project.
Looking through lists of art residencies, an overwhelming number are geared towards the visual arts. Some residencies focus on writing, and a few, on performing arts. On an international scale, there are a variety of performing arts residencies to choose from. But on a national scale? Only one.
Why, when demand is there?
Without any published statistics on the arts industries in Malaysia, there is no way of truly measuring the health of the performing arts scene in Malaysia. However, looking at an informal measurement, that of the number of performing arts companies currently active in the scene; one can assume that the nation’s performing arts seen is growing in terms of the sheer size of the industry.
But, what of that?
When a field becomes more prominent, those on the outskirts, the stakeholders if you will, begin to sit up and take notice. This should mean that sponsors, funders, patrons, audiences, advocates, and yes, residencies should start to focus more on said field. But in the case of Malaysian performing arts, this has not necessarily worked out. Malaysian performing arts practitioners, aiming for residencies, must set their sights on foreign shores to achieve this goal.
Why? Once again, it leads back to lack of funding. Bilqis Hijjas, runs the dance programme at Rimbun Dahan. Here she offers both fine art and performing arts residencies, but explains that the latter are “very expensive to run, and they don’t provide tangible returns for patrons or funders.”
Rimbun Dahan’s fine art residency culminates with an exhibition of the artist’s work, from which one art piece is selected for Rimbun Dahan’s permanent collection. Other residencies sometimes choose to take a percentage of the exhibitions proceeds. “Performing art works are not able to provide the same returns,” says Bilqis.
But, also, the scale of the work is taken into account. “Fine arts are easy,” explains Bilqis, “Give them a studio and accommodation, maybe some funding for materials and a living allowance, that’s all they need.” Whereas, for performing arts, a cursory glance through a production programme book shows you the amount of people brought together for a project. “Performing artists often need to work with people other than themselves; their work is not solitary,” Bilqis stresses. “This all requires much more money and much greater use of human and other resources.”
Many international performing arts residencies tend to be run by large scale cultural or performance centres, many of whom are nationally or state funded. This allows them to support the heavier financial strain of a performing arts residency. It also provides them with curated content for their venue calendar.
Maybe we need to scale down our expectations of the end product expected from a performing arts residency. Maybe local short-term collaborative residencies should become our new focus. Maybe stakeholders should look into the benefits of creative residencies and financially support them.
Or, while we’re at it, perhaps growing opportunities for performing arts in Malaysia, nurturing creative work – whether on an individual or collaborative scale – and creating residencies which allow our creative minds to immerse themselves in their work, is something that Istana Budaya (as our sole government funded performance venue) should be seriously looking into.