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Friday, September 12, 2014


(The following article is made available in arrangement with the Arts & Culture Trust (ACT) and the Dramatic, Artistic and Literary Rights Organisation (DALRO). See ACT’s website

Principles of common interest within the arts by Molemo Moiloa and Mika Conradie

The Visual Arts Network of South Africa (VANSA) has, through the support of the National Arts Council, commissioned research towards a national code of practice for the Visual Arts. The concept of a ‘code of practice’ for the arts is based on an international practice determined by work undertaken in parts of what has been called the ‘global north’.

This work is informed by art fields that are well-funded, have formal physical infrastructure and are often supported by well-maintained legislation. Best practice codes from places like Canada, Australia, and the UK vary in content from how much to pay artists, how governments should commission art works, to how populations should value the arts.

As our research developed, it became evident that the concept of a ‘code of practice’ did not necessarily fit the South African context. The ‘code of practice’ concept assumes a particular kind of infrastructure, and in the contemporary international case, one that is increasingly in crisis. The current conversation within these contexts, and under the frame of the ‘global recession’, has been that these infrastructures are in dire states due to lack of funding and increased austerity measures.

The question that has emerged from a reading of these international situations is how do we begin to speak from a local context about principles of common interest within the arts field? How do we characterise arts infrastructures in a South African context? Do these infrastructures enable any commonality between the different actors that operate within them? How do we define these common interests? And if we can define them, are these interests commonly acknowledged?

Perhaps the point of departure in thinking about these questions is the fact that the South African art context is, on average, differently resourced than the ‘global north’. We think it’s important to understand that the concept of ‘resource’ must be defined in a very specific way, not simply in the sense of direct funding to institutions but also in the sense of brick and mortar infrastructures, education and infrastructures of knowledge, knowledge production and ownership of discourses.

By comparison, the South African context relies on a far more precarious relationship to arts resources. Many of these are momentary or transient, most are on a significantly smaller scale and are largely supported through relationship, network and connection rather than state-based or legislated (and therefore secure) structures. This precarity, while on a different scale, is perhaps not so different in nature to the current Euro-American experience (as they have more recently learned). However, in the South African context precarity has not necessarily been considered as crisis. The disproportionate success of many South African artists to the size of the South African industry is evidence of this.

While many have lamented this precarity (the lack of support from the Department of Arts and Culture etc.), for most this space of precaity is one from which we must continue, and essentially, survive. Survival, not in the sense of disaster or crisis, but in the sense of continued life, has characterised the nature of the South African arts industry. Out of this has emerged alternative forms and infrastructures that might prove more resilient or more responsive to shifts in economy and contemporary urgencies.

It is from this point that the research will continue to try to understand how the field, and its actors, understand and possibly acknowledge these infrastructures and the roles that they play within them. - Molemo Moiloa and Mika Conradie