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Friday, August 26, 2022


Art can – and does – change society, and more businesses should sit up and take note - by Christina Kennedy

In the 1970s and 1980s, resistance art, anti-establishment music and protest theatre all played a vital role in bringing the injustices of apartheid to the world’s attention. Art was used as a weapon of resistance and as a potent force for good and for justice.

Today, art remains a powerful catalyst for social and political change. In South Africa, this is not only through arts activism that agitates for a more equal society, but also through innovative collaborations that deliver a win-win-win outcome for artists, businesses and communities without compromising on artistic vision or integrity.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the collaborations considered by the annual Business and Arts South Africa (BASA) Awards, partnered by Hollard, which celebrates 25 years of rewarding mutually beneficial business and arts partnerships this month. 

This year, the theme is Lights Up – Time to Shine, reflecting the hope that the arts will flourish anew after two years of dark stages and empty venues – and the hope that savvy businesses, large and small, will continue to hitch their wagons to arts projects and organisations that share their vision for a better society.

Warwick Bloom, Group Head of PR at Hollard, recalls how one of last year’s winners noted how the arts was society’s “universal therapist” during COVID-19, showing how artists managed to inspire and connect people even when their platforms were largely taken away from them.

“One of the biggest impacts of COVID was its effect on how we saw and interacted with each other,” he says. “Rather than finding refuge in our common humanity, we were locked up and locked out, masked and forced to think of each other as risk factors rather than as fellow human beings. I heard children being described as ‘vectors of transmission’, for example.

“Art has a powerful way of connecting us with our human-ness and so has a significant role to play in reuniting us, and reminding us of how we best coexist.”

Just as humanity thrives in co-existence, artists need both space and support to create. And the support of a business – from a local spaza shop to a large corporate – can make all the difference in bringing an artistic vision to life, creating work, bringing joy to audiences and uplifting communities.

Scrolling through the list of past BASA Awards winners reveals several instances of how the clever cohabiting of like-minded individuals and organisations has had an enormous impact on lives and livelihoods.

A recent example was an initiative called The Lockdown Collection. When the first COVID-19 lockdown was announced in 2020, it sent the arts community into free fall. Any planned performances, commissions, exhibitions and events were instantly dead in the water. The immediate future was fraught with uncertainty.

Enter Kim Berman and the printmakers at Artist Proof Studio, Johannesburg. Within 48 hours of the lockdown being announced, the studio, supported by two business partners, consultancy Mrs Woolf and board-governance educator Sirdar, launched The Lockdown Collection.

The concept was simple: 21 new artworks, reflecting COVID-19 through the eyes of prominent local artists – such as William Kentridge, Colbert Mashile and Penny Siopis – would be unveiled during the first 21 days of lockdown, and then auctioned.

The subsequent online auction of this and other collections raised close to R4-million to support South African artists in need. The Lockdown Collection saw more than 500 grants and 50-plus student bursaries being awarded – and it won two BASA Awards for the studio and its business partners. This example of artists unselfishly rallying to support their own – with the wholehearted buy-in of small enterprises – just shows what responsiveness, creativity and compassion can achieve in a short period of time.

A business doesn’t need pots of money to support the arts – non-monetary support is often just as valuable. This is evidenced by the BASA Award-winning “sponsorship-in-kind” provided by The Royal Hotel in Riebeek Kasteel in the Western Cape, and Arts Town Riebeek Valley, to last year’s Royal Arts Town Amphitheatre Summer Theatre Festival. This in-kind community-led support helped the local arts and tourism industries, rendered fragile by the pandemic, survive through a series of open-air theatre performances.

This should act as a clarion call for businesses and individuals with big hearts but constrained pockets. It shows that numbers of seemingly small acts can collectively yield immense results and be a catalyst for positive social change. As Bloom says, “I think we’ve seen over the years that the best-funded projects or the partnerships with the biggest budgets and ambitions are not always the ones that produce the best results. What’s important is to measure success for each project in terms of what it specifically sets out to do.

“Of course, the projects that have the most impact are generally the ones that are scalable, or that start out with a small but important truth that is common to a larger community and are able to then expand and grow to address that larger community.”

Bloom believes it’s vital for the arts to be supported, as they hold up a mirror to society, and show “all the warts as well as the beauty spots”.

“While art’s role as a societal critic and commentator may have been limited in some way during COVID, it’s important that the gloves come right off again and the punches to our conscience regain their power.

“The BASA Awards themselves are an important call and reminder to the private sector that the survival and flourishing of the arts is not just the domain of the government and rich patrons, but the responsibility of all of society.”

The 25th BASA Awards, partnered by Hollard, will take place in Johannesburg on August 29, 2022.

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