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Sunday, April 5, 2015


(Report on by Ismail Mahomed. While he is the Artistic Director of the National Arts Festival, he writes in his personal capacity)

The announcement that the DAC's White Paper process will start afresh is the most progressive decision about arts policy-making made this past decade.

For most of us who worked outside of the official performing arts councils and state-subsidized galleries prior to 1994, the words "arts" and "social change" were joint at the hip. We used what we produced as a counterpoint to what government-subsidized institutions and commercial arts spaces were focused on producing.

Our work pushed the envelope. We were not afraid to engage with overtly political themes and subjects. We experimented with creating new and unique art forms. We were able to build our audiences and supporters for our work through many non-traditional approaches. It was important that the non-commodification of our art was interwoven with our political aspirations for the new society that we wanted to usher in. We were incredibly comfortable with operating on the outside of government and being able to challenge and hold accountable the old racist government; but yet at the same time, we were both jealously envious and angry that the resources of the State were only accessible to a privileged minority.

The aspirations of the initial White Paper were more idealistic than practical about how some of our aspirations and anger built up prior to 1994 could be resolved. Changes in the arts sector were guided more by "throw out the baby with the bath water" and "re-invent the wheel" and "replace one demographic with another". We've made enormous mistakes in the sector and we've been far too precious and far too politically correct to admit to our errors. Instead of focusing on how we create revised structures that will generate new programmes, opportunities and platforms for genuine transformation, we've produced new structures, new institutions and an arts leadership that has put its primary concern on constituting boards that can access the largest junks of funding without clearly articulating accountable ways to measure how this funding will be used to serve their stated mission or their intended constituency.

The drive for access to funding gave birth to a new set of puppets - several Black individuals who availed themselves to serve on Boards of arts organisations to be used as keys to open doors for government access and funding access but with very little power to change the institutional culture of their organisations that still served to maintain old styled privileges. Audience development became a farce. Bright-eyed and smiling young black faces became the fodder for photographs for funding proposals without ever assessing the merits of outreach programmes and its ability to drive long term arts literacy development for these new audiences. It became a cliché for White arts managers to talk about doing outreach work while Black artists still spoke about being on the outside of the mainstream.

While we may have created a super-echelon of a Black arts elite that can now be celebrated the majority of our artists (previously disadvantaged and previously privileged) now work on the margins of the arts sector.

The above are all symptomatic of an arts vision that has moved so significantly far from one that was driven on social imperatives to one that is driven on mainly economic imperatives.

We need to ensure that the new White Paper recognizes that the arts serve a multiple number of purposes. It must enable us to create an environment where vitality and experimentation still work towards challenging us. It must build us into a socially cohesive society which gives us the license to also be socially provocative as long we do so within the perimeters of the country's constitution. Not all our art needs to be monetized. Not all our art needs to serve government objectives. Not all our art needs to be fodder for archives that we want to endow to the next generation. The right to advance risk-taking and experimentation must be preciously guarded. So too, the right to celebrate our legacies, classics and heritage must be preciously guarded and be advanced. Both imperatives must be supported and be funded if we are to build a cultural identity that we can proudly claim defines who we are as a nation.

In preparing ourselves to once again start the White Paper process, we should perhaps revert to our original questions about why we make art, what our audiences expect from art, what resources do we have to make art, how we can take our art beyond our rehearsal rooms, studios, theatres and galleries and what do we do to ensure that more people have access to art and that more people and institutions can support the arts. It is not for government to answer those questions. It is important that government creates an environment that enables us, the arts sector, to engage with those questions without their interference.

If we are able to honestly engage with those questions then we will be able to decide whether our aspirations are well served by the institutions that government sets up to develop, promote and disseminate our art.

Up to now the public debates and discussion about the transformation of the arts has been to dominated solely by academics, high profile arts leaders and old styled leaders who have opportunistically "transformed" what they speak but have not transformed what they do. There is an important lesson that we can learn from the CCIFSA conference that took place in Bloemfontein this past week. The conference sent out a clear signal that it is no longer the privileged voices that matter.

The discussions about transforming the sector needs to be more inclusive, more visible and more transparent. It cannot be the domain of a few self-appointed consultants or a cabal of arts intellectuals who gloat arrogantly that if they lead the masses will follow.

There is a greater need for unity in the sector now; and for the sector to get back to our original agenda to recognise that in a society still challenged by so many inequalities, arts for social change is still as relevant and as important as arts for economy and also as relevant as art for arts sake. The three are not inseparable. Educational opportunity, training, access to the arts, audience development for those on the outside of the "arts playground" is as important as skills development, touring ventures and career advancement for those who are already on the "arts playground". Any new White Paper must be a an intervention that will secure the potential vitality of the arts sector both as an economic generator and as a tool for social change. - Ismail Mahomed