Artists get real about value

An upcoming conference organised by the Arts and Culture Trust and the University of Johannesburg and will explore the role that artists can play in developing the economy. (Gallo)

An upcoming conference organised by the Arts and Culture Trust and the University of Johannesburg and will explore the role that artists can play in developing the economy. (Gallo)

An upcoming conference will explore the role that artists can play in developing the economy. Conference co-ordinator Bev Gillespie tells Matthew Krouse that it is artists themselves who will decide what an artist is, and how much creativity is worth.

This week's high profile conference taking place at the University of Johannesburg is titled "Creative Currencies: Accessing Opportunities in an Expanding Marketplace". Organised under the auspices of the Arts and Culture Trust (ACT), in partnership with the university, it is the second annual gathering to focus on commercial and trade aspects of cultural and artistic endeavour in South Africa and further afield.

This year's conference has attracted participation and support from a number of influential players in the arts and culture space, including the European Union (EU), British Council, the European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC) network, Arterial Network South Africa and the Visual Arts Network of South Africa (Vansa). 

Conference co-ordinator Bev Gillespie is originally from Gauteng but now lives and spends most of her time in Cape Town and the Karoo. She says she "periodically visits Gauteng for an injection of Highveld adrenaline".

Gillespie has worked mainly with non profits as varied as the Camphill Centre for People in Need of Special Care to the Community Development Resource Association and funding organisations (Breadline Africa and the Multi Agency Grants Initiative) where she motivated for the recognition and support of arts, culture and craft initiatives.

In 2008, Gillespie was the South African organiser for collaboration between local and Belgian artists linking her passion for the social and artistic sectors. The initiative raised close to R1-million for orphans and vulnerable children in Southern Africa. 

How did you get involved with the work of ACT?
I'm an independent consultant so my association with the Arts and Culture Trust goes back to doing evaluations and planning for them. So it's kind of been a long association.

I am not an artist I'm an administrator. I'm an organisation development consultant, that's really where I'm coming from.

I've worked most of my life in the non-profit sector including for donors. So that's where the Arts and Culture Trust comes in – under my non-profit organisation umbrella. I did a general humanities degree and then worked in the NGO world and worked with donors who were interested in arts and culture.

I have worked with various organisations such as the Energy and Development Research Centre, the Community Development Resource Association, Breadline Africa, the Multi Agency Grants Initiative.

I did an evaluation for the University of Johannesburg Arts and Culture and most of my work has come from Johannesburg. 

I'd be interested in how the arts sector squares up as a sector with development potential. Is it a pipe dream or is it a reality?
I think the things that we are really happy about is that someone form the National Development Planning Group is coming on the first day. Many of us see arts and culture as vital in youth development for a number of reasons.

It is one of those areas they can get into at a young age; if they are not academic, they don't have to force themselves to do academics and go to university. They can rather go through the stream of arts, culture, craft and heritage.

At one stage, when I worked at Breadline, we engaged with arts and Culture Trust to provide foregrounds to small groups of youth who were in the arts field and it had to be linked with mentorship.

So they would produce something, they would go to a festival like the National Arts Festival, there would be feedback for them, they would meet with directors and they'd get a little bit of money from the takings and it was an experience. For me, it is one of the areas that we need to put money and interest into. So that's why I'm quite passionate about the arts. 

Let me just get your broad definition of what the arts is as a consultant. Because I know that there are various discussions happening at the moment about what the parameters of that are. And while there have been some complaints that the craft sector is included in arts, an enormous emphasis is placed on craft production while it "underprivileges", if one wants to use a cheeky word, the arts sector per se in favour of a sector that makes traditional artifacts that can be used as a commercialised commodity.

Everything is very fluid in many respects. One of the things we are doing in the third and second day is looking at where people [can be] encouraged to be entrepreneurs. So one could look at a range, of how you get into arts and how you fund it. And some of it is done on a voluntary basis and some of it is done with grants from the National Arts Council. But we want to focus very much on other kinds of entrepreneurship, within the conference.

Then there is also that strange place where people start to involve themselves in marketing and in advertising, and so the artists then are part of a much bigger field. When you say arts – you wouldn't normally think of people going straight from school into advertising. But we are hearing abut people that are doing amazing things, getting involved in marketing. I recall a presentation by a guy who made puppets. He had done fine arts. He had actually done academic [study] and went to all sorts, Africa Burn and this sort of thing, and had built puppets there.

He got noticed by the World Cup people. He built puppets for them and was asked to build a moving kind of thing for a toilet paper company in a big mall. And he said, himself, he would never have known that this was a possibility when he did his studies. So there is a greater amount of fluidity. And I think because the funding has been so desperately curtailed into "education, education, education" – without thinking that arts and culture can be part of education – it has created some interesting innovations and we just need to nurture those and recognise them.

But then why the need for a conference about this?
First of all there is the research that is being carried out which I'm dying to hear the final outcome of. Then there is this whole trend to push government and policy around the creative industries and it's fairly controversial. So, Vansa and the Arterial Network have been doing this research and we will get the first glimpse of what it means – of what they've used, how have they defined arts and culture and what is it in terms of money? How much is coming in and how much is going out? I suppose it will put the first peg in the sand and to hear where we are at the moment.

Is this recent research?
Very recent. The draft has just come out and I haven't seen the final of it yet. It is independent research and I think the British Council and EUNIC have ben funding it and the Arterial Network and various others have been involved in it. 

So that's the first thing, to say, where are we, and what categories got included in this thing we call the creative economy? And then the next thing to look at is the whole policy around how you engage with that? What does the IDC do? What does the NAC do and what is government doing with this, or what could they do with it? The first day is really around reacting to the research and looking at where we are in terms of policy and implementation. 

Then on the second day we will be looking at what we are calling "Places and Spaces", and that is looking mainly at an urban bias, I hate to say it. We tried to offspring it in rural areas but we are looking firstly at cities. So where and how do arts practitioners engage with cities? How do cities engage with arts practitioners? How can they improve the profile of cities, and how can cities encourage artists to become artists in their cities? The other thing that is moving a little bit more to rural is trade events and festivals and the economics of that. We ask, what does it bring in for an area? What does it bring in for artists? Some people say it is just not worth our while to take [work] to this-and-this festival.

And then the third space, if you like, is the digital space. So we ask, how can we use digital to create content? And how can we use digital to market content and distribute content? So it is going from local, to the world, to the internet, to the ether.

We are moving from a very grounded [position]: let's see what the economics look like, to how does this play out in places? People are being asked to bring some kind of economic data with them where they can [to the conference], particularly from the festivals. I'm hoping there is going to be some disruption and some questioning. I have already heard a few people saying we can't wait to get there.

Really the challenge is digital. It's amazing that we can distribute but what are the problems of copyright? And what are the problems with protecting ourselves against being ripped off within 24 hours? I don't know all the problems but there certainly are some problems when using digital. For that particular thing we have got some experts, people who will talk about copyright. 

Who is speaking at the conference?
The keynote speaker is from the UK, called John Newbigin [chair of Creative England, a national agency that invests in and supports creative ideas, talent and businesses in film, TV, games and digital media]. He has also worked in quite a few countries and the Brics countries. 

On the second day we have Ravi Naidoo, founder of the Design Indaba, we will have Tony Lankester [National Arts Festival chief executive], Brett Pyper from the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees and Claudia Kaiser, vice-president of the Frankfurt Book Fair. So we will have a little bit of international stuff from the fairs and festivals. The cities we are looking at are only in South Africa. We have got people from Port Elizabeth, Durban, Cape Town and Jo'burg. We are looking at creating vibrant cities and negotiating with artists, and coming up with something great together.

The third day is just before Women's Day. I'm quite happy to say [television personality] Pippa Tshabalala, who was listed in the Mail & Guardian's 200 Young South Africans for 2013, and Maximilian Kaizen Max [who serves as public lead for Creative Commons in South Africa, a global organisation that develops and supports flexible copyright and intellectual property tools for governments, artists, scientists and business] are the keynote speakers.

Max is looking at the whole way that culture has to infuse science and politics. She is a geek and she has some wild ideas.

The Mail & Guardian is a media partner of the Creative Currencies conference For conference programme details: Act.org.za

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse is the arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, a position he has held since 1999. He has edited two anthologies: Positions (Steidl, Jacana Media 2010) about artists engaging with politics in South Africa today, and The Invisible Ghetto (GMP, 1994) a compilation of creative writing about gender. His essays have appeared in collected works about arts and culture here and abroad. He has worked in the theatre for over a decade as an actor, writer and senior publicist at the Market Theatre. Read more from Matthew Krouse

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