A pat on the back

When the annual Arts and Culture Trust awards first started as a way of recognising those who added real value to the sector, there was a category for “MEC of the year”, where provincial ministers responsible for arts and culture could be nominated and acknowledged for their support of the cultural sector. However, after a couple of years of not receiving any nominations in this category — a rather sad indictment of those who held public office — it was scrapped by the organisers.

Perhaps it is time to revive the category, but to broaden it to the “public representative of the year in support of the arts and culture” so that any politician at any level whose work and influence has impacted positively on the sector may be nominated. Politicians — by controlling policy and funding — have huge sway, as we have seen in the past 10 years where their impact on the sector has been largely negative because of a combination of ignorance, lack of consultation and poor leadership.

The recent election has bequeathed to the sector a new national minister and new deputy minister, eight new provincial ministers (only Mpumalanga has kept faith with its previous minister) and, after the forthcoming municipal elections, new politicians will be responsible for arts and culture at a local level.
There are also new spokespeople on arts and culture for opposition parties, and politicians in national, provincial and local committees have been charged with oversight of the arts. Surely some among them take their responsibilities for the sector seriously, and do not regard their appointments simply as mild sentences to be served before being appointed to more substantial portfolios?

The Western Cape minister of arts and culture, Chris Stali, would be an early frontrunner for nomination in this category. After only a few weeks in office, he met with civil society organisations to gain a broader perspective on the sector. He invited input from the sector and his subsequent budget speech included several strategic points submitted by civil society.

Of course talk is cheap, and there is the more important question of actual delivery, but after years of the sector simply being ignored, this was a hopeful sign.

What was also impressive about Stali’s budget debate in the provincial legislature was that while members of his own party agreed that his department needed more funding, they urged him to look at how current funding was being spent since a large part of the budget — and increases over the next few years — was allocated to departmental salaries.

Which brings me to suggest that there should also be a category for the “government official of the year in support of the arts and culture”, where recognition is given to bureaucrats who actually add real value to the sector.

Experience has shown that many officials simply do not give a stuff about the arts and their jobs in the sector are, at best, personal attempts to contribute to the “African renaissance” by driving the latest and largest German sedans, wearing imported Italian suits or Madiba shirts made in China, and reducing their golf handicaps with American-made clubs. Perhaps there should be an award for these officials, too: the person with a tax-paid job in the arts who earns more than R250 000 a year (generally, the highest amount given to an arts project by the National Arts Council), but who has added the least value to the sector. Nominations in this category will no doubt be oversubscribed.

But there are officials who work hard, who have a passion for the sector, who seek to make a difference. They should be recognised.

There is much expectation of the new political dispensation for arts and culture. But we will know if there is any real cause for hope if politicians and government officials are consistently nominated and recognised by the sector for the concrete and positive contributions they have made.

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