George Town Festival: Surviving Covid and Other Changes

By Pan Yi Chieh

Published on 2021-06-27 Updated 2021-07-06

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GTF 2019 – When Night Falls is a glowing playground of lights, rays and projection mapping. Photo: George Town Festival

THE GEORGE TOWN Festival (GTF), since its inception in 2010, has gone from strength to strength, cementing its name as one of the most important art festivals in the country.

It began as a fledgling event to celebrate George Towns inscription as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008, and as a branding platform to showcase the city's unique heritage and identity for visiting tourists.

Leveraging his connections in the performing arts, former director Joe Sidek elevated GTF onto the world stage. He amplified the preservation and promotion of Penang's arts, culture and heritage with international acts as festival headliners; and positioned Penang as the conduit for arts in Southeast Asia.

GTF 2019 – Art In The City. Photo: George Town Festival

Joe has been credited as well for opening up spaces for local creative circles. Experimental workshops and exhibitions would pop up at different corners of George Town connecting festival goers with artists, artisans and cultural workers for discussions on art management for example, and to facilitate the exchange of ideas. These events were usually free-of-charge.

In 2012, GTF rather unexpectedly popularised the trend of mural art – art was no longer confined indoors, it had taken to the streets! An offshoot of this craze was the push to showcase more innovative art forms to stimulate greater social interactions.1 This would inspire the set-up of the community art space, Hin Bus Depot, two years later, for up-and-coming artists to exhibit their works there.

Joe Sidek.

In 2015, GTF moved beyond George Town to host its fringe festival in Butterworth.

Despite its international acclaim, the festival during the penultimate years of Joe's directorship was accused of distancing itself from local art circles, and for allowing its original objective to be dictated by Penang's then-thriving tourism industry. There were also those who feared the festivals gentrification impact on George Town itself.

A more glaring criticism of the GTF is the lack of systematic effort in policy-making, which has made it difficult to define Penang's arts in all its abstractions, forcing GTF to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach, e.g. in becoming a support for the states art and creative ecosystem and in advocating art education.

In 2019, a new festival model was introduced. The George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI), the state agency that now manages GTF, had previously called for a request for proposal, with a set of KPIs intended for a stronger local presence and wider community involvement in the overall ecology of the festival.

These included a minimum percentage of free-to-attend and ticketed events for locals, a fixed number of participation from Malaysian artists and performers in the festival, as well as vendors and suppliers from Penang. Alongside these requirements, GTF must also strive to maintain its international reputation and standards.

The idea was to channel the focus back to the community. GTF is only as meaningful as the participation of Penangites, and this is emphasised in its new tagline A Festival for Everyone, says Dr. Ang Ming Chee, the general manager of GTWHI. "We have taken conscious efforts in making the arts accessible to the grassroots, for people with limited resources and opportunities to enjoy them. I'm glad we did not waver from the challenge."

GTF 2019's grand finale The Extravaganza. Photo: George Town Festival

Jack Wong of TLM Event has been GTFs festival director since 2019. Drawing from his experience in organising events like the Penang International Food Festival and Occupy Beach Street, he says, "I've noticed that locals are a little intimidated to enter public spaces where there is a certain air of formality. The Dewan Sri Pinang, where the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra holds its concerts, is one example. They are more at ease if the events are held in open areas, like the Esplanade and on the streets of George Town, which was what we attempted to do for GTF 2019."

The first year under Jacks directorship saw the curation of 162 programmes that showcased a broad range of performance arts, including theatre, puppetry, music, dance, physical theatre, comedy, visual arts, photography and film to an audience of more than 300,000 people. A total of 671 performers were involved, with 87 local performing groups and artists. The international cohort represented countries like Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, India, Indonesia, Italy, Spain, Singapore, The Netherlands, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and the UK.2

Mural and street art were popularised during Joe Sidek's time as director of GTF. Photo: Regina Hoo

Hosting a renowned arts festival is a world away from putting together a commercial event, Jack learned. "I'm always exploring the relations between artistic values and ROIs, especially when curating programmes for GTF. A stronger presence of artistic values may sometimes lead to a lower ROI, and vice versa. There needs to be a balance between the two."

Like Joe, Jack has encountered his fair share of critics. "I'm aware that my background as a commercial event organiser has been a subject of public concern; they worry that the standards of GTF are no longer what they used to be. But I have with me a team who feels ardently about the festival; we are aware of how much GTF means to Penang and its communities. This is the philosophy we take when we go into brainstorming ideas and developing the programmes for each edition."

This year, with Covid-19 still hanging over Penang like a guillotine, GTF has had to scale down to a 7-day festival instead, and its budget halved to RM1,500,000. It was initially supposed to continue with last years hybrid experimentation of having both physical events and online programmes. But with the current nationwide lockdown in place, Jack and his team have decided for the programmes to go fully online – this will be happening from July 10-18; while scheduled physical events, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of the programme line-up, are to be postponed to a later date.

3x3 Art Residency & Group Exhibition and Tanjong Life: The New Norm are two exciting events lined up for GTF 2021. Photo: George Town Festival

Nevertheless, there are still highlights to look forward to: BODY X The Culprit, is a unique digital theatre production and the first-ever to be presented over Zoom. Shot entirely on a mobile phone, it encourages the participation of festival goers in the solution of a murder mystery. The online concert Immerse invites audience to learn about the different styles and periods of Chinese orchestra music with musicians Chow Jun Yi (New York), Tan Yong Yaw (Melaka) and Raymond Choo Boon Yew (Macau). There is also the photography exhibition Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow for Penangites to reminisce about the good ol' days, and to capture and cherish the present to ensure that there will be a future.

Moving Forward with an Open Mind

3x3 Art Residency & Group Exhibition and Tanjong Life: The New Norm are two exciting events lined up for GTF 2021. Photo: George Town Festival

GTF has undergone much changes in the last three years alone. A change in directorship retrained the festivals attention back on Penangites, and on their multifaceted identities. At the same time, Covid-19 has encouraged the experimentation of a hybrid format for the festival, with some positive results.

How will future editions of GTF fare is, for the moment at least, anyone's guess, but it will certainly be replete with opportunities to exploit, and challenges to overcome.

  • James H. Springer, 2019, “Malaysia’s Canvas: The Blistering Saga of a Flash in the Pan Art Revolution.” Kuala Lumpur: Gerakbudaya.
  • The statistics are provided by TLM Event.
Pan Yi Chieh

is a research analyst at Penang Institute who was born in Taiwan but now lives in Penang. She is proud to be nurtured by the two beautiful islands she regards as home.