George Town Festival’s secret to success? Penang first, tourism second

George Town Festival’s secret to success? Penang first, tourism second

Joe Sidek, director of Penang’s popular annual performing arts festival, talks about transforming spaces and making locals the VIP audience for arts and culture.

George Town Festival Penang
George Town Festival has become one of the key cultural events in Malaysia. (Photo: George Town Festival Facebook Page)

SINGAPORE: In 2012, a then-unknown Lithuanian street artist by the name of Ernest Zacharevic was commissioned to create large-scale murals by a relatively new festival in Penang.

Today, Zacharevic’s murals have become one of the city’s most iconic draws – and just one of the examples of how George Town Festival (GTF) has been instrumental in livening up the Malaysian UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“We had to go through weeks of fighting council offices and now everyone’s doing it all over the place,” quipped Joe Sidek, the festival’s director and founder.

The 58-year-old Malaysian was in town as one of the guest speakers at this year’s Culture Academy Singapore conference, which was held on Thursday (Dec 7) at the National Museum of Singapore.

George Town Festival Penang (Ernest Zacharevic)
One of Penang street artist Ernest Zacharevic's iconic murals, many of which were commissioned by the George Town Festival in 2012. (Photo: Ernest Zacharevic)

At the event, Sidek talked about his experiences running the festival, which began in 2010 on a shoestring budget of 400,000 ringgit. The financial constraints – not to mention the lack of suitable venues – led to a lot of out-of-the-box thinking.

It resulted in the festival exploring more unconventional venues and programmes that would not only tap into George Town’s unused spaces but also different ways of bringing the arts directly to Penangites.

Aside from Zacharevic’s street murals, the festival has held through the years events in places that weren’t normally associated with performances, such as the famous Blue Mansion, Fort Cornwallis and Armenian Park, which has since become a popular place for buskers.

One such event, which Sidek considers his “pride and joy” was a performance at Macallum Street two years ago.

It was a low-cost housing estate where around 8,000 people lived and the festival transformed a small plot of land in the area into a paddy field on which artists performed.

George Town Festival Penang (Joe Sidek)
George Town Festival director Joe Sidek (right) with Macallum Apartment residents. (Photo: George Town Festival Facebook Page)

“I thought, this is our VIP audience. I wanted them to have a taste of art or culture or performance that they (normally) would have never been able to see,” he said.

While the festival has been reshaping the entire George Town as one huge arts and culture venue that has been attracting international attention – not to mention 200,000 people attending annually – Sidek reckons the real success has been in how it has connected with locals.

“I always feel that arts and the festival should be for my people first, tourism second,” he said, adding that one of the ways they’ve made sure that locals are invested in the event is by making sure that 80 per cent of the programme is free to the public.

“I think it’s very important for people to have access. If you have children, how many shows can you see a month? Culture has become very, very expensive all over the world,” he told Channel NewsAsia.

George Town Festival Penang (1)
Penang's George Town Festival. (Photo: George Town Festival)

The way locals have been buying into the festival has ranged from people offering their houses as venues to small, thankful gestures.

Sidek recalled how during last year’s Butterworth Fringe Festival – a spin-off street fest thanks to GTF’s popularity – a family approached him asking if they could take a photograph with him.

“I felt like a rockstar,” quipped Sidek, who now also runs the new Rainforest Fringe Festival in Kuching. 

“They had stumbled upon the event the previous year and decided to come and bring the whole family. It’s a nice feeling when you know you’ve made somebody’s life meaningful.”

While GTF has undoubtedly played a huge role in putting the spotlight on Penang, Sidek, whose contract to run the festival ends next year, said: “It’s just a piece of jigsaw to help paint the full picture. You’ve also got the UNESCO listing, the people, the spaces themselves.”

All these, he said, have made Penang attractive not just for tourists and locals – but artists, too.

George Town Festival Penang
Penang's George Town Festival brings arts and culture out to the streets. (Photo: George Town Festival Facebook Page, Pek Min Han)

“You’ve got young artists from all over the world choosing to live in Penang because it’s still an affordable place to live. And I think it’s a good sign for creative cities when young artists come and brave it and spend two, three years here, exchanging ideas with other local artists. It’s a good start for creativity.”

When asked if Singapore can learn anything from GTF, Sidek said: “I think we have a lot to learn from Singapore instead of the other way around. A lot of Singaporeans complain but you have places like this (National Museum of Singapore), and archiving and resource centres for artists to work on. Ten years from now, it will be reaping the rewards of what it has invested (in the arts).”

He added: “The only thing I can think of is look into the people who can’t afford the arts, never been to the arts, don’t understand it – and make them feel comfortable.”

Source: CNA/mm