Artscape’s R1.5-billion revamp plan

The Artscape theatre complex’s eye-watering R1.5-billion makeover made front-page news in the Cape Times last week. But that does not mean it’s under way. The announcement is part of a public relations campaign to sell its management’s vision to the public and cultural agencies that hold the public purse, who have not committed money to the plan yet, although the government has promised R140-million for capital upgrades over the next few years.

Like its brethren, the Civic Theatre in Johannesburg and the State Theatre in Pretoria, Artscape is not alone in the struggle to reinvent itself. Opened in 1971 as the Nico Malan, this large, austere, L-shaped building with its minimalist and almost brutalist façade and stately staircase leading down to a vast windswept public square is a city landmark.

It is both loved and loathed by Capetonians. It makes them both proud and embarrassed. Some see it as an apartheid cultural bunker — a dinosaur from the past that carries a lot of historical baggage. Others, such as the art historian and curator at Iziko, Hayden Proud, see the building as a rare example of International Modernism in South Africa, comparable to iconic opera houses that were built around the world in the 1960s and 1970s. In terms of facilities, it is on a par with the best. And it is true that in architectural terms it shares little with apartheid behemoths such as the State Theatre.

Unsurprisingly, the makeover plans, which included the release of gaudy visualisations drawn by GAPP Architects, have not gone down well with preservationists.

Artscape is still a state-funded cultural institution with a 1 487-seat state-of-the-art opera house, a 540-seat theatre and a smaller 139-seat auditorium. Just to keep the lights on, the department of arts and culture provides R40-million a year in funding. It has also given the theatre complex capital top-ups — R34-million in 2012 and R30-million in 2011 — for new offices and internal ­renovations.

Now Michael Maas, Artscape’s chief executive officer, and his board want to double the complex’s footprint. Partly, Artscape is staking its claim to avoid finding itself hemmed in by parking garages, which have been mooted by local authorities for the land on both sides of the ­complex.

Its management wants to add an arts academy for about 300 students, an acoustically world-class concert hall, a drama-teaching studio, a permanent rigging studio for the resident Zip Zap circus school, four double-height seminar rooms — doubling up as rehearsal rooms — and three dedicated dance rehearsal spaces.

Keeping up with the times
One board member, who asked not to be named, believes the revamp may be a matter of survival. Artscape needs to increase its revenues, broaden its services and, by becoming a more appealing and inviting space, find a way to inject itself into the lifeblood of the city.

The solution proposed by the management is to create a cultural hub  that conquers its geographical isolation, caught as it is in a wind-lashed no-man’s-land next to the colossal foreshore freeways. The hope is to connect Artscape to the Cape Town International Convention Centre and the new bus terminus at the Civic Centre. According to Maas, the convention centre has expressed interest in the proposals.

Maas said the government had identified cultural precincts in some cities as part of its national growth path and its infrastructural programme — and Artscape was putting forward its candidacy.

Such a precinct could also be home to offices, retailers, shops, restaurants, galleries and a public square. Suggestions have been made for free wi-fi zones and a skateboard park such as the one near the National Theatre in London. Maas said Artscape wanted to be a part of the city’s urban regeneration plans.

The vision does invite comparisons with London’s South Bank, or perhaps even Newtown in Johannesburg. Indeed, the Market Theatre has already started construction along similar lines.

But could this be another white elephant? Artscape won’t admit it, but it is struggling to fill its existing theatres with productions, not to mention audiences.

The opera house was dark on 50% of nights last year, the theatre on 30%. Apart from the big musicals such as The Phantom of the Opera, which had a 93% attendance, the big venues are hard to fill. Even Jesus Christ Superstar ran at slightly more than 50% during an 18-show run. In its battle to fill houses and grow new audiences, Artscape has resorted to staging anything from pole-dancing demonstrations to body-building contests.

The annual departmental grant and R18-million in operational income from tickets sales and rental fees barely cover the annual administration costs of R35-million and the employee salary bill of R28-million. This leaves no production budget for funding content and no money for actual performances or for artists.

Instead, Artscape houses a host of beleaguered companies such as Cape Town Opera and Cape Town City Ballet and charges them rental for the use of its theatres.

The national government has long hoped that provincial and city authorities would put more money into cultural institutions, but they have not been very forthcoming. Last year, unusually, the Western Cape did release R33-million for capital maintenance on Artscape.

Daniel Johnson, spokesperson for Ivan Meyer, Western Cape MEC for cultural affairs and sport, said “engagement hasn’t yet started” on whether the province would contribute to the R1.5-billion plan.

Mixed feelings
But the ministry is excited about the prospect of an arts academy. Meyer said it would “complement the very important development work currently being done by various arts organisations”. This was after a letter to the Cape Times decried the Artscape proposal, citing wasteful duplication of efforts.

But Maas believes the benefits would be shared. Apart from Cape Town Opera and Cape Town City Ballet, Artscape also houses community theatre projects, the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, the ­Jazzart Dance Theatre, the Siyasanga Cape Town Theatre Company, the Artscape Resource Centre, the Zip Zap Circus School and Fine Music Radio. 

With other major theatres in Cape Town, such as the Fugard and the Baxter, fighting for survival and many theatre organisations pleading for public funds, Artscape’s ambitions have been viewed with mixed feelings. With sluggish audience attendance and failing production companies, how can Artscape then justify wanting to add more infrastructure and a 1 500-seater concert hall?

The argument goes that urban regeneration will attract a wider and more diverse audience; a new concert hall of substantial size could stage concerts for delegates from the convention centre and have the necessary economy of scale that would lure international orchestras and productions that cannot play profitably in the current venues.

Clearly, Artscape’s management has its work cut out to sell the vision. The press release and other public statements are filled with politically correct boilerplate statements and talk of “social cohesion”, but no concrete business plans have been presented.

Inevitably, Maas acknowledges, with more venues and more infrastructure there will also be greater running costs. But he is confident the dream is realisable, although no one can be certain what shape exactly it will take.

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Brent Meersman
Brent Meersman
Brent Meersman is a political novelist Primary Coloured, Reports Before Daybreak. He has been writing for the Mail & Guardian since 2003 about things that make life more enjoyable – the arts, literature and travel and in his Friday column, Once Bitten food. If comments on the internet are to be believed, he is a self-loathing white racist, an ultra-left counter-revolutionary, a neo-liberal communist capitalist, imperialist anarchist, and most proudly a bourgeois working-class lad. Or you can put the labels aside and read what he writes. Visit his website:

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