At this year’s National Arts Festival sponsor Standard Bank celebrates 25 years of its Young Artist Awards with an exhibition and a panel discussion about the awards happening on the Think Fest platform.
Chaired by past festival chairman and current committee member Mannie Manim, the audience is invited, on July 3, to “engage with the thinking and artistic processes” of Janice Honeyman (drama, 1982), Andrew Buckland (drama, 1986), Sibongile Khumalo (music, 1993), Acty Tang (dance, 2007) and Kesivan Naidoo (music, 2009).
In practice there is nothing binding these artists together bar the fact that, like 95 others, they have been celebrated by one of the country’s biggest banks. As past sole sponsor and now part sponsor of the National Arts Festival, Standard Bank must continually promote its role as promoter. To this end the bank has published a corporate-looking souvenir book, simply titled Standard Bank Young Artist Awards 25 Years.
In the foreword group chief executive Jacko Maree writes about the benefits for the brand of promoting individuals whose profiles may not be entirely congruous with the profile of the bank.
It is interesting to note that Maree sees the role of corporate sponsor of the arts as midway between the sponsorship of sport and charity. In other words, the bank’s investment in the arts satisfies an aspect of its marketing mix while showing the broader public that banking can have a “softer side”, to quote Maree. He calls each environment, be it the Standard Bank Gallery, the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival or the Young Artist Awards, “sponsorship properties”.
This idea of the bank’s outright ownership of certain platforms may not sit comfortably with artists who see their role as critics of the society. The idea of such a domineering arts sponsorship, in the first place, brings forth the issue of how more extreme voices may find support in the corporate art sponsored network, and whether they belong in the system at all.
In this book we have biographies of the 100-plus artists who’ve been brought into the fold since the inception of the awards in 1984.
Resident specialists have contributed individual chapters: Adrienne Sichel on dance, Trevor Steele Taylor on film, Mannie Manim on drama, Sibongile Khumalo on music, and so on.
An essay introducing the changing political climate, in which the visual arts awards have been disbursed, has not been attributed to a writer. There is, however, a suggestion that the words reflect some of the thinking of the late Alan Crump, who died of cancer at the age of 60 in May this year. Crump was festival chairman in the 1990s and curator of the awards exhibit.
The essay describes how the National Arts Festival became a reluctant victim of the anti-apartheid cultural boycott in the Eighties. It describes how some politicised artists sought to reject the stigmatised festival and how others used it as a platform for political expression.
The essay concludes that the festival “should retain its identity as an instrument for reflecting the times”. And so, as the times dictate, a book about the country’s premiere art awards must have a nice, hyper-corporate, glossy veneer.