For most of its history, Cambodia was home to some of the most diverse and abundant arts and culture in Southeast Asia. There were singers on every corner, musicians in every village and a dancer in every child. Music, dance and theater flourished. But in the years between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge put a devastating end to that. During those years, 2 million Cambodians died from execution, starvation and overwork; among the dead were 90% percent of Cambodia’s artists, who were specifically targeted for execution. This was a ruinous blow to Cambodia’s artistic heritage, especially given that skills were passed from master to student orally, and were rarely written down. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, this tragedy was compounded by two subsequent decades of crippling economic hardship. Of the Master Artists who miraculously survived, few could make a living by performing or teaching.
Arn Chorn-Pond, founder of Cambodian Living Arts, is a musician and a survivor of this time period.
Born into a family of artists from Cambodia’s second-largest city, Battambang, he was separated from his family in 1975 and sent to a children’s labor camp.
There, he was taken under the tutelage of a traditional arts Master and learned to play the Cambodian hammered dulcimer, Khim. Unlike most of the other children in the camp, Arn escaped death by playing propaganda music for the Khmer Rouge generals during massive executions. He later fled his captors when Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia in 1979 and he managed to reach a refugee camp in Thailand, where Peter Pond, a Lutheran minister and aid worker, befriended and later adopted him in 1980.
Educated in the United States, attending Brown University and graduating Providence College, Arn began a series of community rebuilding projects and founded several organizations, including Children of War, Cambodian Volunteers for Community Development and Peace Makers, a US-based gang-intervention project for Southeast Asian youth. In the mid-1990’s, Arn returned to Cambodia on a mission to rebuild his family’s artistic legacy and to find his music teacher from the time of the Khmer Rouge. On his trip, he “discovered” that other Master artists who had miraculously survived the war and the resulting genocide, were surviving in extremely difficult living conditions. In 1998, with a group of dedicated people in the United States, he created The Cambodian Masters Performers Program, which grew into Cambodian Living Arts.
Initially, the program supported four Master Artists whom Arn Chorn-Pond had discovered surviving in difficult conditions. The organization gave them instruments, teaching spaces, and a salary. From 1999 to 2009, the program was supported by the international organization, World Education. Small steps led to greater achievements, successfully bringing back some of Cambodia’s traditional performing arts – which, at the time, were in danger of being lost forever.
The organization grew and supported 16 Master Artists and 11 assistant teachers reaching over 200 students in 8 provinces in Cambodia each year. But thecontext and needs of Cambodian society evolved, a new generation of artists emerged and 10 years after its creation the organization had to evolve and adapt its actions.
In 2009, the Cambodian Master Performers Program became Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) and welcomed Phloeun Prim as its new Director. CLA also became a program of the Marion Institute, a U.S. based non-profit organization that serves as an incubator for organizations that inspire positive change in the areas of healing and sustainability.
In 2010, Cambodian Living Arts was awarded a Global Vision Award for Cultural Restoration from Travel + Leisure magazine. It was joined by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, as well as many other peer organizations, working together to further the vision. In 2011, CLA renewed its mission and vision to reflect its changing role; moving from an organization dedicated to the preservation of Cambodia’s cultural heritage to one supporting new generations of artists, students, and teachers.
After 5 successful years as a program of the Marion Institute, CLA became an independent non-profit organization on April 1, 2014. CLA is here to stay!
We would like to thank all our donors and partners for their support and hard work during our exciting journey of transformation and continued growth.