Drawing on the Power of the Arts
Arts power economy, advocate for originality and transform societies
The creative industry is increasingly being recognised as one of the key driving factors for economies worldwide. Indeed, the importance of the creative economy was given acknowledgement on a global stage when in 2019, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2021 to be the International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development. While creative economy has no single definition, it can be seen as industries that lie at the crossroads of arts, culture, business, and technology.  Creative economy is an essential pillar of national economic activity, and when fostered, it can be utilised in building a sustainable, holistic and inclusive future.
Regionally, creative economies have taken a proactive role to become a dominant part of a city’s economy. The city of Chiang Mai in Thailand serves as an exemplary confluence of creativity with other sectors of the economy. A member of the Creative Cities Network (for crafts and folk art), Chiang Mai is fast emerging to be one of the regional innovative and creative hubs. The Chiang Mai Creative City initiative project, started in 2010 by the city’s Governor, aimed to integrate cultural and creative activities as a major component of the city’s economy and social consciousness. Paneled by key members from various industries in the arts and culture but also from other sectors such as IT, start-up, business development, venture investment and scientific research, the programme, along with other government and private initiatives, has since then turned Chiang Mai into a melting pot of cross-section talents in the creative, tech and start-up industries, drawn to the city by its facilitative environment for growth, innovation and creativity. 
Closer to home, the creative industries in Penang have helped fuel a new kind of tourism, one that creatively connects visitors to the mishmash of culture, heritage and arts that the state is known for, especially since its capital George Town was honoured with the UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2008. As arts became a part of daily life and appreciation of the arts grew, works of street art blossomed throughout the city, more art spaces have been built, and more festivals have been held all year round. This boosted the economy as well as the development of the arts scene itself. 
“We have nurtured the state’s arts scene as well as talents, subsequently making them a strong catalyst in cultivating an active, creative ecosystem. Furthermore, we have observed that the arts industries in Penang have helped widen the public’s perspective as to what the creative sector can offer and encourage greater civic participation, apart from generating income and yielding economic opportunities for the state,” says Penang State EXCO for Tourism and Creative Economy (PETACE) Yeoh Soon Hin.
The “Brother and Sister on a Swing” mural along Gat Lebuh Chulia by deaf artist Louis Gan. Murals relating to the city’s rich culture and heritage have elevated Penang’s arts scene, boosting the state’s economy.
For festival director Jack Wong, the growing appreciation for the arts in the state means stakeholders like festivals and events organisers can work towards branding Penang as a creative city. “It enables people to recognise the state as an innovative city, enhances the cohesiveness among creativity and people, reimagines and recreates the city with not only heritage and food but also creativity as a strong base and profile to elevate the economy and the people,” he says.
Wong provides the “Creative Collection” exhibition and “G-Short” Short Film Festival as examples. The “Creative Collection” exhibition is a showcase of local brands and identities while the “G-Short” Short Film Festival is a celebration of locally and internationally made 90-second short films. “These programmes not only advocate for creativity and originality by providing a platform for creative talents to showcase their works, but also encourage people to be creative and daring them to imagine. It’s a push in the right direction,” he says.
The “G-Short” Short Film Festival is a celebration of locally and internationally made 90-second short films.
More intriguing are the works by artists who use their talents for change-making in society, like Penang-born artist Lefty Julian. “In the past, when we talk about multiculturalism, there’s always some sort of segmentation. We tend to say, “Malay is like this, Chinese is like this, and Indian is like this.
“But actually, contemporary discourse says that we don’t look at the differences, but we look at the connectedness. That’s what I am trying to achieve through my “Sama-Sama” art exhibition. The exhibition is my journey to explore what brings people together. By experiencing shared experiences invoked by my work, people can bond and connect,” he says.
Artist Lefty Julian strives to achieve a sense of “connectedness” through his visuals – like this illustration of the iconic Penang ferry – in his “Sama-Sama” art exhibition.
And then there’s artist Tan Lay Heong, who uses creativity to bring environmental issues to the forefront. Tan’s thought-provoking part art installation, part dance performance “Between 01” exhibition uses recycled materials, dry leaves, movement, and lights to get people to rethink our relationships with ourselves, each other, the environment, and the world, all while advocating the culture of upcycling. “I believe that everything on earth is unique and deserves a chance to be rebirthed into something meaningful. COVID-19 has helped humankind put things in perspective, and the best time to reset our consciousness on a global scale is now,” she says.
A visual of Tan Lay Heong’s upcoming part art installation, part dance performance “Between 01” exhibition.
But, these examples aside, the ever-changing nature of the industry naturally poses a challenge in its preservation and conservation, which means the road to a thriving creative economy may not be as easy as it seems. However, with the proper support and mindset from stakeholders, there is no doubt that creativity can be a crucial driver to grow the state economy with sustainability and originality as key elements of the development.
Catch the “Creative Collection” exhibition, “G-Short” Short Film Festival, “Sama-Sama” art exhibition and “Between 01” art installation at George Town Festival 2021. Click here for more information.
 “Fostering the Creative Economy” Stanford Social Innovation Review (2014).
 “Chiang Mai Creative City” (2019).
 “Positive vibes in the development of theatre in Penang” Penang Art District (2021).