Bumpy ride for arts festival

AFTER a successful four-week run, the 11th JB Arts Festival by the Johor Society For The Performing Arts (JSPA) came to a close on Oct 4.

It was a pretty impressive effort by the JSPA, which is a casual grouping of well-meaning individuals who are passionate about the arts. They managed to bring in several high-quality programmes this year, although in terms of ticket sales, not all the shows turned in a profit.

Since its inception in 2000, the JSPA has had a bumpy ride with often pathetic public response to its shows. Worst still, sponsors have been hard to come by to underwrite the cost of staging good productions.

Support from the state government has been patchy, although it must be admitted that they were more generous with funding this time.

But the biggest let down has been the general ambivalence of the JB folk to culture and the arts. Surely, we are not such philistines that we cannot appreciate these superb performers on our home ground.

Indeed, people here would readily fork out money for pricy tickets to attend concerts in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, but for some strange reason, Johor Baru has never "clicked" in their minds as a centre for the fine arts.

Perhaps, this has to do with the abject lack of proper venues, with professional lighting and acoustics, to stage outstanding shows. As of today, there is still no effort by either the authorities or the private sector to build a proper auditorium for world-class productions and performances.

Isn't that a shame, considering that Johor has been the breeding ground of so many excellent artists in the fields of the visual and performing arts? The sad fact is that most of these artists found fame and fortune elsewhere, not here.

Despite all the hype about Iskandar Malaysia and grand pronouncements about transforming JB into a metropolis of international standing, the stark reality is that we're still very much a "cultural desert".

This is shocking because for all the economic, industrial and social progress we have made as a state, we still feel somewhat challenged when it comes to appreciating the arts.

Former mentri besar, Datuk (now Tan Sri) Abdul Ghani Othman tried to spur artistic revival in Johor by not only renewed emphasis on the arts, but also the systematic research, documentation and funding of such programmes.

This effectively saved the "zapin" and "ghazal" dance and music from the brink of extinction. But this is likely to die a natural death, again, as the new state administration has no interest to keep Ghani's legacy alive.

While the JSPA's efforts over the past decade to promote the arts is commendable, perhaps it's time to refocus on the "modus operandi" of the festival to make it more impactful.

Because the shows are too thinly distributed over four weeks, it does not quite resonate as well with the people. For effective traction, may be it is time to pool all resources, energies, and manpower on a single mega festival event.

A case in point is the run-away success of the Rainforest World Music Festival – an annual three-day music festival celebrating the diversity of world music, held in Kuching, Sarawak.

This showcases daytime music workshops, cultural displays, craft displays, food stalls, and main-stage evening concerts. It is now one of the largest musical events in Malaysia with a total weekend audience approaching 30,000.

Surely Johor, with all the international exposure gleaned from the Iskandar Malaysia global marketing programme, has what it takes to take on this challenge. Desaru, on the southeast coast of Johor, would make an ideal venue.

Obviously such a mega arts and cultural festival would be too enormous for JSPA to shoulder single-handedly.

But if only all the other stakeholders in Johor – IRDA (Iskandar Regional Development Authority), Petronas, Khazanah Nasional Berhad, Johor state government and major private companies are willing to join hands with JSPA, this indeed can be done.

JSPA has done remarkably well with its piecemeal initiatives thus far. Now is the time for a paradigm shift in this initiative. We need to take this to another higher, bigger level.

The question is – do we have the will and foresight to bring this to pass. Are we ready to envision this grand vision for the arts in Johor?

Roy, a long-time resident of JB, is a keen watcher of economic, political and social trends on both sides of the Johor Straits. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com