Source: Unsplash (Pic by Yaopey Yong)

Under threat of the pandemic, the George Town Festival (GTF), a recurring project under George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI) organised by TLM Event has since shifted to the digital sphere. The annual event, first held in 2010 in honour of the city’s inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, returns for its 12th iteration this year from 10 to 18 July 2021 as a hybrid festival fully supported by the Penang State EXCO for Tourism and Creative Economy (PETACE), the City Council of Penang Island (MBPP), and Penang Global Tourism (PGT).

Themed “A Festival for Everyone”, GTF 2021 embodies the state’s push to make art accessible to everyone regardless of age, ethnicity, or background to inspire generations of art lovers and practitioners.

The art scene in Penang has always been heavily reliant on tourists. While this has worked out reasonably well in the past, the creative industry will not thrive sustainably if it continues to rely on tourism activities, as the current Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated. It is in this rationale that this year’s GTF operates.

GTF’s “3 x 3” art residency and group exhibition offers an opportunity for homegrown creative talents to safely create in their studios and workspaces while lockdown restrictions are in place. Themed “Home”, the stay-at-home event provides a platform for local artists to unleash their imagination to express what their homes mean to them while encouraging innovation and experimentation to create an artwork that can fit into a space measuring only 3 metres x 3 metres.

To support homegrown artists by promoting and selling their artworks online while galleries and art spaces are closed, GTF also initiated a digital marketplace called “Arts to Your Doorstep”. The three-month-long collaborative campaign connects art lovers in 14 countries and regions, including Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Australia, among others, to local artists who are participating in the campaign.

Other programmes arranged by GTF include a series of online workshops taught by prominent Penang-based artists as well as SPACE, an art space dedicated to showcasing the work and artistic programmes of homegrown creative talents. SPACE, available for use from November 2021 onwards, utilises The Whiteaways Arcade on Lebuh Pantai, a unique colonial complex within the George Town UNESCO World Heritage Site, to enhance the relationship between the architecture and the people while celebrating the ideas and artistry of its community.

Creative economies have been increasingly important to the economic growth of regional cities. In Penang, the potential for this industry is vast, but its sustainable development will also depend on nurture from the government as well as support from the locals.