Arts can’t flourish if education is only for the wealthy

The dramatic events surrounding the #FeesMustFall protests have forced us all to reflect and measure the impact of education on South Africa’s youth – or what their inability to access it might mean for our society in the future.

This form of collective soul-searching needs to take place in the arts.

As we at the Arts & Culture Trust (ACT) – supported by the Nedbank Arts Affinity programme – prepare to hand over this year’s Impact Award, my thoughts have turned to the titular “impact” of education in the arts.

These awards acknowledge the achievements of young arts practitioners in the first five years of their careers in the design, music, theatre, dance and visual arts sectors.

We reward them for having survived against considerable odds and for consistently delivering high-quality arts products. We also take into consideration how much of an impact their success has had on ther communities and their peers.

With little funding or start-up capital available, and often in the face of a lack of understanding of the role of the arts, the young finalists of this year’s awards ought to be celebrated.

Based on research ACT conducted in 2012, we discovered that 77% of those heading arts organisations had never been exposed to any formal instruction in management.

This raises serious questions about the gaping holes in the tertiary education available to artists, which need to be addressed at some point.

But as the focus since the #FeesMustFall protests has been on access to education, I would like to consider what the impact has been on the arts in the context of prohibitive fees for university and other tertiary education institutions, which have excluded many of those who come from impoverished backgrounds.

Our scholarships programme, which has been running since 2009, has given us an in-depth purview into this crisis.

Many of the applicants hail from peri-urban areas such as Limpopo, but most striking has been the fact that, although they have not had the advantages of extracurricular activities to develop their artistic talents, they have sustained their interest with an unwavering passion.

It has been glaringly obvious to us that talent is not the preserve of the wealthy – but arts education unfortunately is.

As a result, those who are consistently entering the arts as professionals are those who can afford the education that allows them to do so and not necessarily because they have the talent.

It is questionable whether tertiary institutions offering formal education in the arts are basing their assessments on the quality of a portfolio of creative work or an audition to measure talent, or are simply accepting students based on whether they can afford the fees.

This is not to say that those who are fortunate enough to be able to fund their studies are talentless, but what of those nascent talents who are never given a chance to compete?

Assessing the work of young arts professionals for the Impact Awards has shown us that success in the arts is difficult, but doubly so without access to tertiary education.

Almost all the finalists for this award, since its establishment in 2010, have enjoyed a university education or have been able to participate in tertiary programmes in some form.

It is not simply what they learn in lectures that prepares them for the future, but the networking that is a by-product of sharing a three- or four-year arts education.

It is during these years that they link up with like-minded peers, sometimes forming long-lasting collaborations, and draw the confidence and inspiration that will carry them forward in their careers.

The overall impact of the exclusionary culture we have unwittingly allowed to develop around education has been a negative one, not only for individuals but also for the quality of the arts in general and its impact on society.

How can we develop a robust and healthy arts community if those with the talent have been unable to rise to the top?

Seeing young talents achieve success is what sustains our work at a grass-roots level, which is focused on growing artists and providing them with the practical tools, through development grants, scholarships, or the chance to participate in workshops such as the Building Blocks.

We admire the persistence and determination of young artists to continue in fields that offer little reward, but I can’t help wondering what heights our young artists could reach if we removed the education barrier.

The impact would surely be immeasurable.

Pieter Jacobs is chief executive of the Arts & Culture Trust

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