There must be more to arts than brightening up public spaces.
Dazzling projection mapping displays lighting up Town Hall during the opening weekend of the George Town Festival in 2019.
Nine years ago, you wouldn’t be able to imagine that George Town would soon be a recognised street art capital in the world, in league with the likes of New York and Berlin. That’s because it wasn’t; until sometime in 2012, when the arts broke out from within the confines of art galleries. Large scale murals and installations sprouted in every nook and cranny, drawing in tourists and transforming George Town into an open-air gallery of urban creativity. Quirky cafes and charming boutique hotels began to flourish, offering tired visitors a place to sit and a bed to rest after a day of hunting for street art. From Sia Boey to Hin Bus Depot, local authorities, city makers and space managers embarked on various creative placemaking projects which champion arts, culture and heritage to rejuvenate long-abandoned public spaces to improve neighbourhoods and connect local communities.
George Town’s vibrant arts scene also sets the pace for other tourism-related sectors, especially arts festivals, to grow. More and more homegrown arts events were introduced, giving Penang tourism a boost. According to data retrieved from Penang Institute, the number of foreign hotel guests rose remarkably by more than 50% in 2014, with most staying at budget hotels. Some hotels recorded an occupancy rate of above 60%, and city hotels received greater occupancy than that of beach hotels, thanks in part to the many festivals held in the vicinity of the UNESCO World Heritage City site.  For Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow, the state is able to target higher-yield tourists and generate revenues for local communities and businesses, further amplifying the economic benefits, while at the same time serving to establish Penang as a desirable destination rich in culture and heritage.
“Reborn” performers mesmerising audiences during the finale weekend of the George Town Festival in 2019. The unique runway presentation was designed to raise awareness on environmental conservation and animal abuse prevention.
“For instance, George Town Festival 2019 saw more than 300,000 visitors, generating a public relations value of RM7.45 million. With a diverse array of events lasting 16 days, the Festival provided tourists enough reasons to extend their stay here and to remain longer in Penang,” he says.
Other than economic gains, arts festivals, according to George Town World Heritage Incorporated General Manager Dr. Ang Ming Chee, draw meaningful involvement from the community, too. For example, the annual George Town Festival hosts many workshops where ordinary individuals can participate, connect with other people, and at the same time learn new skills.
“We encourage active learning, in which individuals can experience the arts such as music, theatre, dance, opera, and film with multiple senses. By combining arts and education in an informal setting, we take away more from the experiences, and remember what we have seen, heard, and learned.
Singapore’s The Glowers Drama Group performing “Kampong Chempedak”, one of the indoor theatre shows at George Town Festival 2019.
“It is also very encouraging to witness the display of teamwork and solidarity where people from the entire city come together to make the Festival a success. Our goal is to make arts accessible to all. Making arts accessible to everyone through inclusiveness is our way of empowering every individual who is a part of the Festival to be the best version of themselves. We want to give the ordinary person an extraordinary experience,” she says.
Which somewhat explained the changes the Festival has made to its programmes. In 2019, It transformed into a community-based event, allowing the community to be part of the Festival. Case in point: the Festival’s “Macam Macam” series, where well-known international performers were brought into lesser-known areas (such as Macallum and Berapit) to connect with the locals, while the Festival explored the potential of local talents hidden in these areas.
The Ponce Twins from Argentina entertaining little ones during the “Macam Macam Berapit” community engagement event in Berapit, Bukit Mertajam.
“It is also an opportunity to remind ourselves of our role in safeguarding our heritage and fostering an appreciation for local culture. We cannot do this alone. Therefore we want everyone to know they have a role to play, regardless of how big or small, in upholding our cultural values and traditions to be able to pass them on to the future generations.
“The arts are like salt in food. You don’t eat salt on its own, and yet you cannot live without it. This is why we need the arts, regardless of who you are, your social background, or where you live. We have brought the Festival to the local people, and it is meaningful for them to be part of it, especially the younger generation,” says Dr Ang.
Promoting arts to a community who might otherwise not engage with the Festival is not without its challenges, though. Festival Director Jack Wong had to look into the values the Festival can bring to the city and its people; whether it could create a sense of belonging for the people. He also had to consider the artistic value in each work and ensure the work is consistent with the Festival’s curatorial direction.
“Take Macallum, for example. The people living at the flats are elders who are not exposed to arts and cultural experiences, so making the Festival relatable to the ageing community requires extensive research and frequent dialogues,” says Wong.
In the end, the Festival achieved what it had set out to do. The womenfolk of Macallum got out of their comfort zones and awed audiences in a 10-minute stage performance after taking part in a three-day workshop conducted by Sun Son Theatre from Taiwan.
One for the memory: housewives of Macallum posing for the camera with the Sun Son Theatre from Taiwan.
Nevertheless, fans of the Festival near and far are waiting with bated breath for what to expect next. Perhaps the Festival will continue to incorporate and uphold inclusivity, diversity and accessibility; or perhaps it is ready to rise to the next challenge, as anticipated by Chow.
Bridging culture: George Town Festival also showcases works by the Orang Asli community through “GERIMIS”, a collaborative art exhibition featuring masterpieces by Orang Asli contemporary artists, photographers, and weavers.
Penang-based group Sada Borneo mesmerising festival goers with the sounds of Borneo. The group uses traditional musical instruments from Borneo such as the sape (traditional lute) and kulintangan (set of gongs) in their performances.
“I hope that the Festival could help the state government to diversify arts and culture facilities by contributing towards the establishment of such amenities, in line with the Penang2030 vision. This could increase livability and enhance the general public’s quality of life.
“Essentially, I foresee the Festival as a catalyst that supports Penang’s creative economy ecosystem whilst nurturing the growth of our creative industries to bring them to greater heights,” says Chow.
 “Penang Economic and Development Report 2015/2016” Penang Institute, 2016.