SiSi Chang

Freelance writer. Masters of Arts from Taipei National University of Graduate Institute of Theatre Performance and Playwriting and Graduate Institute of Architecture and Cultural Heritage. Chang sees travel as a discipline and learns to look at things from a different angle each time when she is in a strange place. Published works include Amazing Australia, An In-Depth Guide to Angkor and Lonely Planet IN Series: Taiwan.

Is creativity now just sales and marketing?

08 2015 | Issue 8

Once upon a time in Taiwan, anything that was related to cultural education always ended up being some kind of “activity”. In schools, teachers and students were too busy to have to meet the goals set by the Ministry of Education. On the surface, they were official policy goals relating to conduct or artistic talent or some such, but in the end they were reduced to simple box-ticking activities. With insufficient resources and time, the easiest way to meet these goals seemed to be to organise activities such as, “four-year plan to nurture xyz” or “e-learning projects.” Once teachers receive these instructions, they are overwhelmed with a literal mountain of work such as promotion campaigns, recruiting students, taking photos, and writing reports.

Social workers too have fallen into this pattern. There are simply too many cases to manage and too few social workers. Simply fulfilling basic responsibilities is already extremely difficult. They must handle many other requests, for example, government orders, corporate CSR activities, press conferences, finding underprivileged children to showcase and so on, all in the name of raising money. There is a never-ending list of activities to organise, reports to write, donations to chase, evaluations to fulfill.

It is worse in the cultural sector. Teachers are very clear that their job is to teach. Social workers are very clear that their role is to support the underprivileged in society and provide care for them. What is the work of a cultural professional? In the Ming and Qing dynasties, cultural workers were seen somewhat pejoratively as idle people who worked for the rich, helping their patrons with organising operas or theatre, writing literature, gardening. Today, this concept is no longer true. Culture is no longer the domain of the rich. People of all classes have their own culture and values. Tapping into them is the basis of what we know as cultural and creative industries today. But it is a long and difficult process that requires social cohesion, strong self-identification and the right historical context. And how will these people raise money? Through organising activities.

Every proposal has the same elements: goals, execution, budget, prediction. Evaluations are always written based on those original estimates. In my first few years working in this industry, I found myself in one of these incidents. It was a children’s theatre troupe. At the time, computers were not widespread and there was only dial-up internet. Most documents were still written by hand and then photocopied. I could budget NTD100,000 for something and only two hundred people would show up in the audience. After submitting my report, I was inevitably summoned to the Ministry of Culture and got an earful about it. “You didn’t make charts. Where are the pie chart and the line chart? Where are the figures on media exposure? What’s the relationship between media exposure and audience response? I can’t see from your report what the benefits of this project are. We need this in order to perform our evaluation!” they would say.

The key is figures. No matter how brilliant your creation is, how positive the reception, how strong the foundation of your theatre company is, it doesn’t matter. You have to quantify that in a set of good-looking numbers. Non-profit work cannot be measured in money, so it must be reflected in “audience”. What can you do to be more mass-market friendly? Organise activities. Quiet diligence does not produce benefits. So there is a proliferation of events. Aboriginal ceremonies become carnivals. Theatre performances become art festivals. Historical venues turn into artisanal markets. Rural cultural festivals become night markets. Cultural workers are all in a way public relations practitioners. All these events look bustling on the surface, but underneath, the artistic foundation is bare.