The economics of art

I have spent the last four days outside of the financial realm immersing myself in the world of the arts. I have left feeling challenged, invigorated, inspired and enriched.

I have expanded my frame of reference and broadened my horizons.
I have left bursting with pride after seeing formidable home-grown talent that could stand upon any international stage.

I saw how the arts are creating a new identity for this not-so-new South Africa, moving past struggle art towards an identity that acknowledges that the past is woven into the fabric of that identity without being trapped by it.

If that is not enough reason to go, there is also the very intrinsic value of the arts as an investment. If you want to invest in art, you need to expose yourself to artists outside of your frame of reference.

Do the research

While there is nothing wrong with buying a piece of art because you like it, it is not the same as investing in it. One needs to learn about the world of the arts just as one would investigate and read up about a share or a unit trust before investing, and the festival offers that opportunity.

During the festival I viewed work by Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year for visual arts, Nandipha Mntambo, and learnt what made her art stand out, what she was doing differently and why her exhibition is only the second one in the history of the festival to have been completely bought out (an article on investing in art will follow!).

Another Standard Bank Young Artist, Neil Coppen’s play Abnormal Loads not only highlights the non-intrinsic value of the arts in articulating the history of our country through the divergent viewpoints of those who experienced it, but is a showcase of the commercial potential of the arts. It is clear that this 30-year-old playwright will draw in the audiences both locally and abroad for many years to come.

The festival itself is a microcosm of how the arts can contribute to economic growth by providing jobs and injecting money into a region that is infamous for its abject poverty, albeit for just 10 days.

There are spin-offs for the rest of the country as some productions will be bought up to go onto the main circuit, both locally and abroad.

According to the festival organisers, 50 international producers were at the festival looking to take productions overseas, which will raise the awareness of South African talent. Development of the arts means job creation both directly and through tourism.

Robust debate
Which brings us to the debate of the funding of the arts and whether, in a country with other pressing issues, the arts should be a priority at all.

The Helen Suzman Foundation’s round table on funding the arts was well attended, with robust debate which provided an insight into rotten state of art funding.

While nobody there needed any convincing on why arts are important, Professor Mark Fleishman, head of the drama department at the University of Cape Town, spoke of the economic benefits as well as the social, namely that arts and culture is a language that our society would be dumb without.

We need to move away from the arts being an elitist commodity to the arts becoming a way for our fragmented society to communicate and engage.

What came out clearly from the discussion is that there is actually enough arts funding in South Africa. The problem is that there is no cohesive plan on how to distribute the funding—it seems that one hand has no idea what the other is trying to achieve.

The majority of the funding is spent on the funding organisations rather than going directly to the artists, and there was outrage that the national lottery would spend arts funding on bringing out “has-been” international artists like Earth, Wind and Fire rather than developing South Africa’s own incredibly talented artists.

The argument that government does not take the arts seriously was given credence by the decision of the Minister of Arts and Culture Paul Mashatile to cancel his attendance at the round table to attend the Durban July. However I suspect that his replacement, Arts and Culture director general Sibusiso Xaba, was far more beneficial to the debate. He appeared to have a good handle on the issues and many participants felt more positive after his contribution. He raised many hopes; one can only hope he will deliver.

Another issue that emerged was the need for artists to be business aware. The idea of the artist as being immersed in their work, not to be soiled by the baseness of money and business, was rejected outright by both artists and funders.

The only way an artist will secure longevity is to couple their talent with business acumen. If you are investing in an artist, it is an element you need to consider beyond the artist’s work.

So put the Grahamstown Arts Festival on your bucket list; go to productions and genres you would not usually consider, broaden your horizons and invest in yourself.

Read more news, blogs, tips and Q&As in our Smart Money section. Post questions on the site for independent and researched information

For more from the National Arts Festival, see our special report.

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