Founding CEO of Cendana
Izan Satrina Mohd Sallehuddin visited the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2018 with her then seven year old. During the visit, she says, he stopped and naturally began sketching. So what if all children had that kind of access, she asks. It is this belief in the arts that has led Izan, an accountant by qualification, to make the development of the arts industry her vocation.
“I loved dancing and used to be part of the Kit Kat Club, dancing five times a week,” she says. “But there didn’t seem much of a prospect then so I decided to take up accountancy and then I realised I didn’t want to do that.”
She then decided to try “different things” which include stints at Puan Sri Tiara Jacquelina’s Enfiniti Vision Media and the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), both of which she held the position of General Manager. It was her experience at STB that prompted her to delve more seriously into the arts with the establishment of My Performing Arts Agency (MyPAA), an organisation that aims to support the continuing development of artistic and cultural efforts in Malaysia.
“Singapore is very open and dynamic when it comes to different conversations about the arts,” she explains. “They have managed to create vibrant institutions and spaces for the arts.
At MyPAA, Izan sought to change the way the arts was perceived. But after a chance meeting with Prime Minister, and a quick “elevator pitch,” Izan received a formal mandate to spearhead the development of the country’s cultural economy with the formation of the Cultural Economy Development Agency (Cendana), of which she is founding CEO.
“The objective is to build a vibrant, sustainable and ambitious cultural economy, focusing on performing arts, visual arts and independent music,” she explains.
But the emphasis will be on small and medium spaces.
“It is more to the grassroots size,” she says.
The goal is three-fold, looking to energise by stimulating demand, getting more people in seats and increasing an awareness of the arts. It also aims to empower communities by increasing the quality of work for artistes through increasing the quality of work, funding opportunities and also internships. The third objective is to re-organise through revisiting frameworks and policies.
“Cendana is tasked to do that,” she says. “Technically if supply and demand interact with each other, there will be an economic buzz and the city will become more vibrant. We are focusing on KL first as an activation playground, to position KL as a cultural and creative city.”
By speaking about the arts in economic terms, Izan managed to establish catch the attention of the PM.
“I started pulling out numbers from around the world, saying the creative economy is so big,” she explains. “I explained that if Malaysia wants to move to become a developed nation, soft power is something that we need.”
Part of the strategy now is to focus on creating visibility for the arts. For example, for the school holidays, an arts campaign is going to be rolled out, aimed at trying to get parents to take their kids to a gallery or a museum, rather than a mall.
Then there is the task of increasing the professionalism of players in the industry.
“We are definitely looking at ramping up professional development courses,” she explains. “At Cendana, we ask artistes how many shows they have staged, how many people attended but they then tend to struggle with filling up the forms because artistes don’t necessarily have that data. They may not even think that way. They are only interested in telling stories.”
One way of developing this is via mentorships and perhaps, attachment opportunities. This is important as Cendana is an economic agency, tracked by a multiplier. For every RM1 that is spent by the agency, the country needs to get back RM2.36.
“It is not normal for artistes to calculate this way but we are hoping to run data capturing workshops to help them. It may change the tone of conversations they have with different partners.”
Now that Izan has moved from being an entrepreneur into a government role, she too had had to make a paradigm shift.
“It is not about snappy decisions,” she says. “I have to go through an exco, also get input from an industry advisory panel and an international advisory panel. There are a few layers involved rather than just me making decisions.”
Her role in Cendana also requires Izan to establish fruitful stakeholder relationships with different sectors. In particular, it requires her bridging three sectors – the arts community, the government and the corporate sector.
“You have to be able to talk to three different sectors,” she explains. “It was difficult when the conversations were about the arts for arts sake but when we started talking about the arts for economy, conversations escalated very quickly.”
Izan also finds herself quite adept at managing relationships. It is an advantage, she says, that perhaps most women have.
You have to build relationships with the government, private sector and community. Not everybody is your friend but there is a graceful way of managing people.Izan Satrina
“You have to build relationships with the government, private sector and community,” she says. “Not everybody is your friend but there is a graceful way of managing people.”
It is also a quality that she picked up during her time at Enfiniti.
“That was something that Tiara is really good at and that was something I learnt from her,” she says. “It is not always about selling but always about building relationships first. It is really about following your passion.”
It is that passion which perhaps pushed Izan to continue pressing for the development of the arts industry, despite facing numerous challenges.
“People say that I am persistent but I like to think I am committed and driven,” she says. “Five years of rejection finally lands you at the spot. It works.”