The Rise of Small Independent Performing Arts Spaces” was the focus of panelists’ discussion during the Session 4 of the AAPPAC Manila 2019, this year’s annual conference of the Association of Asia Pacific Performing Arts Centres, held at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
As a rationale for the session, the program said: “The performing arts, while often centered in big public spaces, are just as present in small independent art spaces. These historically play a niche but vital role providing a platform for closer community engagement and experimentation. Today, they provide alternatives to more established venues, allowing art to be accessible to a greater number addressing issues such as public access, heavy traffic and stressful commutes.”
The discussion thus sought to find out “how performance artists, venue managers and investors are partnering to make the independent cultural space a mutually beneficial venture.”
Actress-singer and cultural worker Cris Villonco, operations manager of Whitespace Manila, served as the moderator. Discussants were Renato “Boysie” Villavicencio, Chairman of the Erehwon Art Foundation; Ken Hayashi, Deputy of the General Manager of Aichi Arts Center in Japan; and Shane Fernando, Director of the Humanities and Fine Arts Center, Cape Fear Community College.
Former industrial bakery
Villavicencio explained that the Erehwon Center for the Arts (ECA) is a “renovated four-story building that used to be an industrial bakery, which the owner converted initially into a hub for artist Pfriends, and eventually into an art center with spaces for various art forms.
“The ECA has indoor and outdoor venues for performances and exhibit halls,” he said. “It hosts various dance companies, youth rondalla group, concert choir, jazz orchestra and the Metro Manila Concert Orchestra; naturally building collaborative performances from various art disciplines. It serves the needs of Quezon City residents, mostly senior citizens and young students and artists, mostly from the nearby communities.”
A visual artist, Villavicencio invited the attendees “to consider ECA as a performance venue for foreign artists coming/performing in the Philippines. This is to expose ECA audiences, especially the youth, to “foreign artists.”
Erehwon was awarded the Gawad Parangal Citation for Arts and Culture by Quezon City government in 2018.
Warehouse and performance huts
Ken Hayashi said that the Aichi Arts Center) “works with independent art spaces, which vary in their size, funding support and target audience, by organizing workshops and presenting new ideas and concepts for adoption in their respective festivals.”
Of the various independent art spaces that the Aichi Arts Center works with, he mentioned: Kogane 4422, a five-story renovated building with a dance studio and ateliers, operated by a dancer and choreographer; Theater E9 Kyoto is an ongoing community-driven theatre project, a warehouse that was converted into a performance center funded by citizen-donors, after the existing public-funded venues in Kyoto were closed to avoid future debt resulting from Japan’s aging population.
Hayashi shared that Toyota Corporation funded the revival of 84 small theaters established in the late 19th century. Other than funding the rehabilitation of the performance art huts together with the local community, the company also “brought traditional and contemporary shows to these venues in various disciplines to entice people to watch and support the arts. These theatres, which also double as exhibit halls, bring the community together, and allow the people to watch without having to dress up too much.”
Co-existence in Wilmington
Fernando related, the story of three performance venues, different in sizes, funding support and programs, which “collaborate to be able to co-exist in Wilmington, North Carolina.”
Thalian Hall, a historic opera house with a limited budget that, focuses on community programs and some touring activities. University of North Carolina Wilmington, a larger venue with a slightly larger budget subsidized by the university, prioritizes students and touring programs. Wilson Center, connected and funded by the state through the community college so it has a much larger programming budget, functions as a theatre laboratory for students. It has multiple and much larger venues and offers more variety of shows.
He noted that the three venues share programs, responsibilities and costs. He cited the case of “Wilson Center asking the smaller venues to stage a show, while it takes care of the artists’ fees, and the stage venue covering production costs, giving their students residency activities and offering block tickets for their students and faculty.”
The three venues “established an active volunteer program that supports their activities in various ways, including ushering, concessions selling, and bulk-buying and marketing of tickets.” They unified the volunteer system for the three venues so that the volunteers are able to work in any of the venues and are given credit for their work.
In response to Cris Villonco’s query on how the venues allocate funds for programs, Hayashi explained, “The Aichi Arts Center is fully funded by the government so there’s not much financial problem.”
Fernando said that in Wilmington’s case, “it’s a constant juggling act to allocate funds for all the programs. We use the commercial programs to support the art programs to hopefully make these programs more commercially viable in the future. Each program has its own budget (for promotion), but we use the volunteers and employees and people who love us to reach out to people for support. And this doesn’t cost anything.”
To attract audiences, Villavicencio shared, “We initially give them snacks as a come-on. We ask our friends to donate small amounts for us to be able to give the kids some biscuits. We make tanglad (lemongrass) juice for them.”
Hayashi agreed that “food is always a good way to show hospitality. We have artists work with different people and cook for the community, then break bread and talk afterwards about the performance.”
Asked how Aichi Arts Center collaborates with the smaller arts centers, Hayashi replied, “We have like 20 theatres around us that are in-between our theatre and the independent spaces (in terms of size). We bring small companies and tour them around the prefecture.”
(Next on Living Spaces: Arts and Culture Districts in Cities)