South Africa

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Op-Ed: Should philanthropy be funding arts and culture?

Op-Ed: Should philanthropy be funding arts and culture?

South Africa has a deluge of challenges to be faced to shift its levels of poverty and inequality. These are the key focus of government policy, the UN Sustainable Development Goals and even for corporate social investment. So what happens to arts and culture in times such as these? How are they resourced and why should they be sustained at all? Surely arts and culture are private issues, according to some critical voices. Are arts and culture mere luxuries as long as there are poor people in our society? Well, yes and no. By SHELAGH GASTROW.

In 2014, government decided to consolidate its funding for arts and culture through the establishment of an entity called the Cultural and Create Industries Federation of South Africa (CCIFSA), a structure imposed on the sector yet allowing for election of office-bearers by its members – and who wouldn’t join if they needed government support?

However, this was seen by many to be another site of state capture, with enormous opportunities to access another quite substantial pool of funding. Its website explains that “it was formed as a non-profit company to promote and develop the social and economic interests of the cultural and creative industries and to act as the controlling body for these sectors.”

It outlines a number of strategic objectives which seem to focus on access to finance, skills development and collaboration, ending with a marketing and branding campaign to strategically position CCIFSA as the sole controlling body of the cultural and creative sectors in South Africa. No doubt a recipe for in-fighting and contestation, but no matter the outcomes, government holds the purse strings and ultimately those that are aligned with government will cash in on the goodies. In many ways this is a major blow for independent players in the sector, whether individuals, organisations or institutions.

Governments around the world now tend to view arts and culture as tools to build the economy or create industries. When setting up CCIFSA the Department of Arts and Culture focused on the economic outcomes of the sector, rather than its inherent value in society. Government is not entirely wrong and we can see how craft has become closely linked to tourism, as has indigenous culture, which has in many instances become commodified.

However, defining it narrowly as an industry ignores the unmeasurable passion, dedication, intellectual effort and love that often defines artistic activity.

At a global level, when plans are developed to deal with poverty and inequality, arts and culture also face challenges. The United Nations Millennium Development Goals did not include culture as a contributor to development. When the UN Sustainable Development Goals were developed (for 2016-2030), a global campaign ensued, entitled “The Future We want Includes Culture”, which promoted the inclusion of culture in the SDG Outcome Document.

A statement from the campaign on 23 September 2015, shortly before the adoption of the goals, indicated concern that the final document did not understand or affirm the importance of culture to sustainable development. The campaign believed that culture itself was a “driver and an enabler of sustainable development”. Culture was viewed as being as essential as the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainability.

The campaign believed that “holistic and integrated development could only be achieved when the values of creativity, heritage, knowledge and diversity were factored into all approaches to sustainable development. This meant guaranteeing the availability and accessibility of cultural infrastructure (e.g. libraries, museums, theatres, community centres, arts education centres) and the implementation of long-term cultural programmes and projects.”

Despite the campaign, the 17 goals outlined in the final document still did not include anything specific relating to arts and culture.

Where does philanthropy fit in this space? When philanthropic foundations or individuals develop their giving strategies, they often seek social change and impact. It is easy to measure impact when projects are linked to housing, vaccinations, feeding schemes, bursaries or new businesses. However, it is difficult to quantify the impact that a single piece of art has on society, or a particular performance or a new book. Even worse is using market forces to measure income or audience numbers without reference to the intrinsic value of art, culture or heritage.

A question that should be asked by philanthropists is what is the role of arts, culture and creativity in building successful societies? The role of “creatives” in enhancing cities is well documented. Cities and communities without the performing and visual arts, writers and producers, promotion of heritage, the production of craft together with the creative industries such as community radio, design, neighbourhood markets, publishing and digital media linked to this energy, are usually dying. Those places where these thrive attract new populations and other creatives, in turn enabling growth, building economies, work opportunities and transformation.

It is no accident that Cape Town, one of South Africa’s art and culture hubs, for example, is drawing in new populations, both rich and poor, local and international. If philanthropy is exploring social change and economic impact, arts and culture are ultimately a critical part of the mix.

Through which prism should we then look at arts funding? Our government has narrowed the arts into a sector linked to job creation and economic development. There is no doubt that arts organisations can provide economic outcomes, especially when involved with youth and skills development. However, as citizens we should perhaps be seeing art as a social justice cause involving freedom of expression on the part of artists, both visual and literary, but also freedom of association when people come together in the performing arts which often portray new thinking and ideas or at cultural events which bring together communities and build the social fabric.

According to Chris Stone, President of the Open Society Foundations, through the arts, philanthropy can foster “societies where dissent flourishes, scepticism and criticism thrive, and speech – not violence – is the primary instrument of politics”.

He points out further that when the foundation finds it difficult to identify points of entry in closed societies, they support “the arts and … storytellers – whether through film, photography, dance, theatre, fiction or comedy.” He believes they “are probably the elemental building blocks that we try to support wherever we can”.

Is there a relationship between the arts and social change? Art is in many ways a political statement and reflection on society. The arts cannot be seen through an instrumentalist framework but are part of our everyday lives. There are few spaces where art does not impact on us and the attraction to beauty, thought-provoking concepts, new dreams, emotional impact, social analysis, ingenuity, imagination, inventiveness and intellectual engagement is a daily experience. Art and culture are fundamental to the human condition and to claim elitism merely shows ignorance. Art and culture thrive even in the poorest communities.

Should philanthropy fund arts and culture? Simply put – yes. DM

Photo: US Investor George Soros arrives at the 51st Security Conference at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof in Munich, Germany, 06 February 2015. EPA/ANDREAS GEBERT


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