Funding the arts | Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Pakistan Press Foundation

Funding the arts

Pakistan Press Foundation

THERE is no shortage of creative talent in Pakistan, and in recent years it has become possible to discern a shift in societal thinking where various forms of the arts and entertainment industry have opened up to become mainstream professions. Cinema and theatre, for example, which were in many ways dragged into the darkness and bowdlerised around that lost decade of the 1980s, are back in the spotlight. (Meanwhile, the fine arts world appears to have gone from strength to strength.)

Consider, for example, that the film Namaloom Afraad, released over Eid across the country, is still playing to packed audiences. About 10 days after its release, it was reported that in the towns and cities in Punjab, apart from the major urban centres of Lahore and Faisalabad, people were waiting to get tickets. When a film does well on the screens in the smaller cinemas too, it in effect claims the popular vote.

Similarly theatre and music. If the establishment of the country’s first performing arts academy in Karachi has given this field a much-needed fillip, over and above the many amateur and amateur-turned-professional theatre practitioners, an initiative such as Coke Studio has made a difference in the way the field of music is viewed in society. With its high production values, it has put the creators of music into well-deserved spotlight while reanimating some of this part of the world’s most beautiful compositions and poetry.

The private sector should step in to promote the arts industry.
I use these two examples with care. Both initiatives have in common the fact that money, and decent amounts of it, was made available to people — actors, directors, guitarists, vocalists, etc — who would otherwise have struggled to put together the funds to give life to their vision. The National Academy of the Performing Arts is underpinned by a federal government grant, while Coke Studio has the multinational’s coffers supporting it.

But in Pakistan, for someone who wants to make a film or record a song or put up a big-budget theatre production, money is usually very hard to find. Unless the person who leads the project has his/her own resources to sink in, it’s generally a difficult and frustrating process of approaching potential sponsors separately, convincing them to invest funds. And as I’ve heard many an artist lament while tearing at their hair, ‘my job is to act [direct/sing/compose/whatever], not run around as a marketing person!’

The solution is very simple, and is in place in several other countries. Canada, for example, has a Council of the Arts which covers performing and visual arts, music, media, aboriginal work and writing and publishing. The federal body was created in 1957 “to foster and promote the study and enjoyment of, and the production of works in, the arts”. It offers a range of grants and services to artists and art organisations, raises public awareness through communications and promotion activities, and, in addition to grants, awards prizes and fellowships to some 200 artists and scholars.

Given the state of governance in Pakistan and its coffers, it is difficult to make the argument that a similar board be set up here. Though this function was among the purposes of the various Arts Councils that exist in cities including Lahore and Karachi, it hasn’t really worked that well. So a version thereof, funded by the private sector, can be envisioned.

What would be required is to get wealthy organisations to become interested, such as banks, corporations and large companies/industries. If these entities put together seed money in meaningful quantities, a fund of significant proportions could be created against which artists and innovators could apply for loans or grants. The award process would of course have to be transparent, based on merit alone, but that is not too difficult to achieve. A board of governors comprising senior professionals in the fields covered by the fund, and representatives of the entities contributing to the fund, could ensure that.

For all concerned, it would be a win-win situation. Those that would apply for funding would have a unitary forum to approach, and projects with merit getting backing would mean that in many disciplines, quality would improve faster. The arts and innovation world would get a boost. Further, there is potential in this to turn around the content of the work done in Pakistan: freed from commercial constraints, the artist could turn his attention towards projects that are more reflective, more scholarly — that hold a mirror up to society.

What would the funding entities be getting, meanwhile? Marketing and a positive reputation, obviously. No business entity does this sort of thing for altruistic motives, but then, it doesn’t need to when there’s hard profits to be earned. So, what are we waiting for?

The writer is a member of staff.