Showdown at show time

A little over 10 years ago more than 800 people involved in the arts and culture sector gathered at Wits University to launch the National Arts Initiative. This had two purposes: to research and make recommendations for new cultural policies appropriate to a post-apartheid, democratic dispensation, and to launch a national body that would lobby for such policies.

A year later in December 1993, at Technikon Natal in Durban, about 220 delegates adopted 17 resolutions that would transform the cultural institutional framework to serve the aspirations and needs of 40-million people, as opposed to seven million white South Africans.
It was here that the National Arts Coalition was born. It

was to be the first national, multi-disciplinary and non-partisan cultural lobby, and it comprised about 80 organisations around the country.

The coalition was founded on the premise that in a democracy artists and those who make their living within the cultural sector have a right to participate in the decisions, policies and structures that govern their lives. Not everyone approved of the establishment of the coalition as an independent body. The department of arts and culture of the African National Congress hosted its own conference to develop cultural policies, and there were heated debates on national television and in newspapers between erstwhile comrades about the right of artists to organise themselves in their respective and independent interests.

In this context there were many nervous cultural workers who were concerned about being aligned to an independent cultural movement, lest they alienate those who would wield political power and control access to resources and positions of influence in the new political order. But by the time the first democratic election was held in April 1994, the coalition was recognised as the premier arts lobby in the country.

A new Department of Arts and Culture was established, a new minister and deputy minister were appointed, as was a new director general, and there was optimism within the sector. This climaxed in the euphoria of the Arts and Culture Task Group process where artists and the cultural community were invited by the government to articulate their visions for the kinds of policies and structures they wanted to govern their lives and to promote the arts across the country. Many of the resolutions adopted at the founding of the coalition were reflected in the task group’s report and ultimately in the White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage adopted by the Cabinet in 1996.

In that year the coalition was dissolved. Arts practitioners began to organise themselves along provincial lines as the Constitution dictated that the cultural cash cow would now be milked at regional level. There appeared to be less of a need for a national lobby. Besides, we had arrived. Our policies were now official government policy.

Yet, here we are, seven years later, launching the Network for Arts and Culture South Africa (Nacsa). Why? Instead of seven years of milk and honey, it seems like it has been seven years of a plague of locusts. Closed theatres. Liquidated orchestras. White elephant community arts centres. The flight of skills abroad. The migration of audiences elsewhere. NGOs that have collapsed. Museums unable to fulfil their mission to preserve the country’s heritage. Declining budgets. Skilled administrators who have fled to greener pastures. Technicians who opted for the security of casinos.

And yet, there has been progress in the development of the institutional infrastructure nationally. The National Arts Council is in place. So is the National Film and Video Foundation. The National Lottery is the single most important source of new funding for the arts. Business and Arts South Africa and Create SA are new funding conduits. Provincial departments for arts and culture exist. All provinces except one have an arts and culture council. Playhouses are available for hire. Museums have been streamlined.

>On paper it would appear that great strides have been made. And of course artists have continued to create outstanding work, but then they did so before we had a democracy, before we all had access to public resources and institutions.

And yet, what is the point of having a provincial arts council if for three years the government has failed to register it, so that it is unable to receive public funds to distribute to artists in the province, as is the case in Mpumalanga? What is the point of a lottery where millions of rands are rolled over each year because there is a lack of capacity to spend it; when the distribution agency meets once a month and deals with 50 applications a meeting, so that it is possible for applicants to wait more than a year for a response? What is the point of playhouses being available for rent if they now no longer have any capacity to deliver an audience to the hiring company? What is the point of having a National Film and Video Foundation if it does not have a board for five months, so that it cannot ratify the funding allocations to expectant filmmakers? What is the point of provincial arts and culture councils if the annual funding they receive to support projects is less than the annual budget to support three new staff in the new director general’s office? What is the point of nearly 10 years of transformation and the mantra of equity if national resources are still located largely in the three or four resourced provinces? What is the point of the the National Arts Council making funding available to playhouses to support theatre productions if theatre-makers are not informed that such funding exists? What is the point of having museums if they no longer have the resources to buy contemporary art or to mount new exhibitions?

The point is that there is a huge disjuncture between the institutional framework that has developed over the past nearly-decade and the artists for whom this framework is supposed to exist. It is as if the institutional framework has become an end in itself, and that the arts, artistic and cultural practices and the needs of artists are peripheral.

Nacsa is being launched in order to ensure that the arts and artists gain centre stage once more within the cultural dispensation.

Like in an arranged marriage, the arts and culture community has been in partnership with the cultural institutional framework where, at the beginning, there was the euphoria of new expectations. Yet, for seven years, the arts and culture community has been the proverbial abused partner, battered and bruised, but always going back in the hope that her partner will treat her better.

Nacsa is about the abused partner saying: “Enough! No more!” It is time to stop being victims, to stop being disempowered and to refrain from further disempowering ourselves.

And yet Nacsa is not being set up as an antagonistic organisation. We have come into existence in order to promote and protect the rights and interests of artists.

For if there is one field that the locusts have preyed on in the past seven years it is in the field of freedom of expression. The struggle against apartheid was not only a struggle against racism. It was also a struggle for democracy, for freedom of thought, a struggle against censorship, a struggle for the freedom to express one’s views without threat of victimisation. Hence the battle for the principle of arm’s length, where the funding decisions about the allocation of resources for artistic practice would be removed from politicians and government bureaucrats.

Yet, in the past seven years, democratic spaces have closed up. Where once boards of publicly funded institutions could elect their own chairpersons, laws have now been amended — without consultation with the arts community — to give politicians the right to appoint the chairpersons of such boards, with the effect of intimidating board members into conformity and providing politicians with a direct conduit of influence into such entities. Artists are fearful of raising criticisms in their work, lest they upset the new gatekeepers of resources. They refrain from questioning the contradictory decisions and inefficiencies of official structures for fear of later victimisation. They are silent in the face of exploitative contracts lest they be blacklisted by managements and not obtain the meagre work available as

a musician or actor again. Managements of museums and theatres hold their tongues when board members abuse the resources of their institution for fear of losing their jobs. The independent are marginalised. The praise singers are promoted. The critical are told to go to hell. The genuflecting

are rewarded with positions and funding. The whistle-blowers are removed. The corrupt and incompetent are protected.

The politically connected govern. Consultants rather than practitioners are consulted. There is freedom for mostly an already-resourced arts and culture elite. Decisions have been made about us. For us. But without us. In its first five years the National Arts Council board never once consulted the broader arts and culture community on issues of policy. A conference on cultural policy was cancelled and the funds returned to the international donor because of the fears of some that such a conference would be critical of current policies.

Struggles for democracy, for human rights, for freedoms are never really won, they simply continue to take place in different conditions. Nacsa is about fighting for and defending democratic spaces for creative practice. It is about empowering and defending the right of individuals to exercise their constitutional rights.

>So now here we are, in a similar position to 1994. A new department has been created. A new director general is in place. With the election next year it is likely that we will have a new minister and deputy minister. We have a new organisation to represent our interests. But many among us are uncertain about our commitment because of the controversies surrounding the emergence of Nacsa. This is as it was nearly 10 years ago.

As we approach our first decade of democracy in 2004, we do so with cautious optimism that we — the arts and culture sector — will indeed have much to celebrate. Notwithstanding what has gone before, we are still hopeful that we will be able to achieve this through real and mutually beneficial partnerships with all components of the cultural institutional framework, including government departments, funding agencies and politicians.

Mike van Graan is a member of Nacsa’s steering committee. This is an edited version of his speech at the organisation’s launch.

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