Some years ago, a few friends founded an arts organisation in Kenya to much fanfare. They talked a good game. Everyone believed they were going to revolutionise the national and continental artistic space.
Not too long after the organisation was formed, I had my first book out. I was keen to do some work with them and a poet friend duly did an introduction. What was my idea, they wanted to know. I shared it with them. They liked the idea. Could I send them a copy of my book so they could see how to go about working with it, as per my request? I did.
I was staying in Johannesburg at that time. Three months later, I had to fetch my book because they had not picked it up from the airport. I figured it was because they did not need the little profit that they could have got from my little idea. Had they taken up my small idea and duplicated it, doing the same for the other artists, they could easily eventually have started profiting from their work.
It occurred to me later that they thought they did not need to.
They were the darlings of donor funding at the time. But just as with African governments that rely on donor funding, eventually it either runs out or comes with conditions that make it difficult to function.
Whereas our governments end up becoming what one of my friends refers to as izinduna for their financiers at the expense of the citizenry, in the case of this arts organisation, the donor funding ran out and they had to shut up shop. They were not the first, nor will they be the last.
Having seen this occur with arts organisations more than once, I could not help thinking: if, as has often been said, artists are mirrors of society, arts organisations, when it comes to funding, are mirrors of our governments. Is there perhaps a way for both African governments and arts organisations to avoid this dependence?
I am not talking about right at the beginning — heck, even Germany needed a Marshall Plan after World War II — but perhaps after a certain length of time?
A few months ago in this column, I bemoaned the fact that the Time of the Writer festival in Durban is no longer as glorious as it used to be. A major reason, I stated, was that the department of arts and culture had decided to stop funding this event.
Now I wonder, in its 21st year, should Time of the Writer (and its parent body, the Centre for Creative Arts) perhaps have been thinking about how to be more sustainable under a different minister or director general of arts and culture, or a less arts-friendly Lotto board?
In expecting a flowing tap of funding every year, they were much like my Kenyan friends who never looked beyond what would happen when the funding was turned off. They were much like governments that provide healthcare and education with donor funding and then become paralysed when the funders refuse to give anything any more.
What would make an arts organisation sustainable in a world where many think the arts are a hobby and not work? One of my favourite models for arts funding at the moment is the Abantu Book Festival. Although, yes, they did get funding in the first few years, they have also thought about what may happen five years from now should the funding not be forthcoming.
What they have done is ask members of the public who have had a memorable time at the festival to donate as little as R50 a month to keep it going in future. My experience is that no one ever donates just R50 a month.
Will there be donor fatigue from these individuals who are donating R50 a month and have done so for the past two years?
Perhaps. But one hopes that, by then, Abantu would have used some of its savings to venture into more sustainable models of keeping afloat, be it selling books or publishing services.
As long as there is donor funding, though, these monies are invested to run future festivals, in the same way as our taxes are invested and later used (or should be) for social services.
A major strength of Abantu has been realising what it has and marketing it to its constituents. The organisers realise that they have created a space where people can be themselves unapologetically.
Other arts organisations, then, also need to understand what it is they are selling and use that as a strength to become sustainable, be they a publisher, a music production team or a dance company.
In the same way, African governments need to understand that the world needs their resources and, if they work together, they can set the prices that are favourable to their most important shareholders — their citizens.
As long as both arts organisations and governments do not realise their worth, they will forever be at the mercy of some donor funder or government that will pull the plug whenever it feels like it.