He is affectionately called the father of George Town Festival for which he is the erstwhile festival director.
Although Joe Sidek stepped down in 2018 for a role which began in 2010, he has not stepped back in the pursuit of elevating the arts in Penang. “I love George Town,” he enthuses likening the city to a performance. “It is a major show of its own.”
Joe like many is besmitten with the charm of George Town – the confluence of architecture, food and culture. “The mana of this place is amazing,” he says, adding that it is because the people take ownership of the place and stories. Since he arrived in the thriving city 55 years ago, at the tender age of 8, there hasn’t been a day, he isn’t impressed by what he witnesses.
The pandemic has not spared the arts and creative industry. As in-person shows and exhibitions are barred, the industry bears the brunt. “As we see globally, even the West End, Broadway had major shows closed down and even Cirque du Soleil was not spared,” Joe says, as the pandemic shows little sign of abating in the country. “It is something the whole world has to adapt to.”
Though many harbour hopes of a swift return to pre-pandemic norms, Joe believes the new normal will persist for some time. The industry stalwart says this unique circumstance will raise new questions. For example, how do shows monetise if they aren’t allowed to draw live crowds.
With organisers globally pivoting to the Internet to survive, it also brings a direct competition between local and international shows. “How do local shows compete with what comes from all over the world?” Joe poses a problematic question.
The use of technology, he says, shouldn’t be perceived as a threat to the arts. Technology isn’t a replacement, he insists. Instead, “we need to rethink, re-evaluate and rework, and use technology to assist the arts.”
Since taking up the chairmanship of the Penang Arts Council in the heights of the pandemic, Joe has had to rely upon technology to help facilitate shows. O:PEN – A Weekend in Penang was originally conceived as a monthly weekend series of events last year, but was put on ice as the country grappled with the pandemic. It went ahead belatedly in April this year, albeit virtually.
“We have had to postpone our second edition to possibly August depending on whether things get better,” he says. Most of the programmes have been worked out, however, they are being held back by the fact that they are unable to rehearse or meet in person for the time being.
“The current challenge is the Covid-19 situation,” Joe says of the list of challenges strewn in front of him as the chairman. “Other than that, since the Penang Arts Council is a non-profit organisation and receives no annual grants, we will need to see how we source funding for programmes.”
The first edition of O:PEN – A Weekend in Penang was nevertheless well received. Over 30 programmes took place, counting over 200 performers, organisers, curators, artists and crews. It was sponsored by the Penang State EXCO Office for Tourism and Creative Economy, which has also committed to taking up the second edition.
Meanwhile, Joe sets out to ensure the council will become more inclusive in the future, recruiting new members of various art genres onto the platform. “I am also looking at how the Penang Arts Council can be sustainable with a funding mechanism,” he says.
Apart from steering the Penang Arts Council and functioning as chairman of Federation for Asian Cultural Promotion, Joe is also working on a Peranakan Penang Festival. If everything falls into place, Joe is hopeful of presenting it in December, as a bridge between the Chinese Peranakan and Jawi Peranakan narratives.
“I am grateful for the lessons, experiences, successes and failures,” he offers when asked about reflecting on his role in elevating the arts scene in Malaysia. “I believe the creatives will be the ones who will bring us out of this pandemic.”