Opinionista Andrew Miller 6 December 2012

The art scene cocktail round: Anyone bored yet?

A call for more business skills, and fewer CSI cocktail parties, in South African art development.

Can we please stop with the art fairs? The expos? The brand cocktail parties masquerading as CSI art showcases? The relentless maximising of ROI from CSI spend? The presentation of another corporate arts calendar, written up as if the CEO personally scoured the streets of Jozi for the hottest stuff he could find?   

Isn’t anyone bored yet? 

Doesn’t anyone worry about the victory of verbiage over substance, of marketing over reality?  

There is a self-validating, self-perpetuating cycle that comes with many arts showcases and expos that is pretty hard to stomach. One of the toughest things to digest is the blanket refusal by the funders, organisers and curators to recognise that art is at least 50% about business. And that arts business matters to the country as much as any other kind.  

Ok, wait. Context. 

Somewhere deep in Sandton, far away from the prints and the watercolours, JP Morgan says it wants to drive entrepreneurial growth in South Africa via its SME Catalyst for Growth programme. The firm cites statistics from the 2010 Finscope Small Business Survey in support of its quest. One of the most interesting titbits it offers through this research is that 94% of South African small businesses have never utilised any form of Business Development Service (BDS). 

Leave aside the uncomfortable fact of JP Morgan’s multi-billion dollar losses via its derivative adventures (a fact which should, in a sane universe, preclude the firm from advising anyone on anything). Let’s focus on that percentage. If 94% of all South African small business owners have never utilised BDS, the figure in the arts world must be many increments less than that. But will we see any arts activity from JP Morgan’s philanthropic programme? I doubt it. CEOs like to look at art. Investment bankers like to sip cocktails while they engage with creativity. When it comes to business, the suits like manufacturing and IT. The knowledge economy. Marketing. 

And yet take a quick glance across our youth horizon and you see, on an empirical level at least, that the majority of genuine entrepreneurial activity (in other words, activity that is started and maintained by the individuals concerned, with or without formal support or encouragement) appears to take place in the arts. Hip-hop gigs. House parties. Street art exhibitions. Township fashion shows. Spoken word sessions. The arts form the last frontier of expression and economic hope for our young people. The arts dominate entrepreneurial life in the land of the young. 

Of course, one of the hallmarks of struggling third-world economies is that we have too many crafters, too many poets and too many artists on the street hustling in the only area that seems viable – flogging creativity to tourists. The fact that so many of our young people believe their best opportunity to earn a living lies in their poetry, their rapping, their painting, should worry us a great deal. Everyone knows the world of the arts is a crappy place to make a living – that’s why our parents want us to become accountants. 

Still, this is the world we live in, and, as a national economy we could benefit from re-looking how we engage with the arts. 

Currently, the majority of arts investment appears to fall into two categories: 1) training (teaching people to paint, act, draw etc.) and 2) sponsored events and expos. Anyone operating in the world of South African arts will admit an obvious lack of BDS for young artists – and within this context I can personally testify to the fact that the digital literacy levels of our emerging trained artists are worse than pathetic. They are embarrassing. 

In our current arts development paradigm, the middle-aged managers are effectively the parents, filled with innate knowledge and wisdom. The students are the children. They receive the parental knowledge via industry osmosis. By, in other words, rubbing up against the middle-aged while creating art and hanging it on the wall.

The parents receive arts funding because they possess the complex skills necessary to create viable proposals, and they put the funding to work in an arty kind of way. They do not do business. They do not, by and large, believe that art is fundamentally about business. There is little recognition from the parents that selling paintings requires a very similar skill set to flogging second hand cars, or launching a pyramid scheme, or becoming a successful brand manager.  

The inability of our arts academics, funders and managers to even broach the idea of the business of art is worrying. We have a litany of subsistence, survivalist arts businesses in our country that could – with the right support and skills – move on to become operational entities that employ people. That could, in other words, contribute very positively to the national economy. But for this to happen we need to do three things.

1. Accept that the broad world of the arts is as much a business as a creative calling – and support it accordingly with real BDS.

2. Move (far) beyond the idea that an expo or arts showcase has inherent value for the artists. Indeed, we need to be honest enough to accept that in many cases these expos are in fact a meal ticket for the NGO merchant classes, and that equally often the artists themselves are only required as grease on the wheels of a greater transaction. 

3. Aggressively seek to expose young artists and creative business people to real digital literacy. 

The last point is, I believe, particularly important. The lack of bandwidth in our impoverished communities is having a catastrophic impact on our economy. And what applies in real life applies in the arts. We are internet illiterate as a people, and as artists, and it’s really hurting us.  

I recently held a business workshop (one in a year-long series) with a class of bright, talented, motivated and well-trained second- and third-year students from a very good arts NGO. Of the twelve students, none had internet access, ten had computers in the house somewhere (five of these students had the machines in their own bedrooms) and all of them had cell phones. Shockingly, not a single student was even aware of the fact that it is possible to use the cell phone as a modem and to connect to the net. None were even vaguely aware of the different pricing structures of data bundles, nor of the fact that the current special from 8ta will give you 2 gigs of anytime data, plus another gig of late night usage – all for R150 (a similar amount to what is blown monthly by many of our youth on out-of-bundle rates when using Mixit, WhatsApp etc). 

And yet these gigabytes can, and do, change the world of business completely. Free cloud services are booming. It’s now possible to access full online project management portals online, as well as image editing software, mailing systems, social media, music making and streaming services and downloading services. It’s now possible to run an e-shop for free. You can also use Blogger – a free service linked to Gmail – to set up and run a blog in matter of minutes. It will then cost you the grand total of R135 a year (about R12 a month) to set up your own domain and add a URL forwarder to establish your own .com, which you log into and manage using your Gmail account details. Digital is the new frontier of business in general, and arts business specifically. Across the world young creatives are going wild with the new tools of digital communication and content production. Not only do they use digital for business, they use it as a creative medium as well. 

And what do we do? We stuff our talented artists into computer rooms and, at best, teach them how to use Word, and Power Point and Excel. At worst we slap an automated education disk from fifteen years ago in the CD tray, shut the door and leave them to do it on their own, sans internet. Then we hold another expo where their job is to smile in beautiful encouragement at the buyers, not eat too much of the free food and deal with the fact that alcohol is not allowed – to them anyway.

If we started to seriously push business skills and digital literacy, we could make huge strides. Not only within the arts, but across our economy as a whole. But to do that, we would have to leave much behind. We would need to abandon many of the sponsor-branded arty cocktail parties. We would need to get the big shots off the board of the NGO and behind the PC’s with the artists. We would, most of all, require that the leaders of our current arts development organisations begin to educate themselves thoroughly in terms of business and digital skills. You can’t teach what you don’t know, and many of our arts leaders are anything but digitally or commercially with it.

And then there’s the final frontier – handing a significant portion of current arts events controlled by middle-aged parents and their marketing friends, relations and colleagues to the young artists themselves. This is an idea so terrifying to most South African arts practitioners and sponsors (thanks to our fear of failure, looking like we’ve failed and, worst of all, reporting on failure) it is unlikely ever to be broached, even on the broadest philosophical level. 

My belief (a completely naïve belief, I concede, but I hold it nonetheless) is that when we see arts events genuinely run by young artists, we will finally be observing signs of progress: artistic, economic, cultural and social. Until then, we are likely to continue circulating in politely futile circles, while claiming aesthetic victory. DM

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