Future Africa debate: Would national arts institutions make art more accessible or more elitist?

Posted on March 28, 2019

Playwright and president of the African Cultural Policy Network Mike van Graan recently led a public debate at the University of Pretoria (UP) on whether South Africa needs a national theatre and national museum.

Hosted by Future Africa, UP’s “game changing” new institute, the debate stemmed from Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s recent Budget speech in which he stated that National Treasury and the Department of Arts and Culture would consider the development of these two new national institutions.

Van Graan, who was awarded an honorary doctorate from UP for dedicating his career to uplifting arts and culture in South Africa, was joined by leaders in museum and theatre management, including CEO of the Ditsong Museums of South Africa Annabell Lebethe and founding director of both the Apartheid Museum and the Javett Art Centre at UP Christopher Till. Performance artist Nondumiso Msimanga, who is also an academic in performance studies, and CEO of the Arts & Culture Trust Marcus Desando were also in attendance.

The question of supply versus demand threaded the discussion. While there’s no shortage of “supply” of the arts, demand seems questionable. There are almost 500 museums in South Africa, Lebethe noted, and while their role as custodians of social memory is recognised, so many of these museums have been “severely neglected over the years” said Till. Freedom Park is an example of a museum that cost the state millions, only to become a shadow of the intended vision.

Creating demand can be achieved – local projects like the Nelson Mandela Capture Site in KwaZulu-Natal have successfully attracted ongoing interest – and by exposing more people to theatre and museums, the demand for arts and culture can also be realised, says Van Graan. “But this won’t be achieved by creating national institutions, as this will only isolate them and set them up as exclusively for the elite,” he said.

Theatres are struggling to keep their doors open – limited funding and a lack of interest are forcing companies to shut down. “We don’t need a national theatre; we need national interest in existing work,” stressed Desando, former CEO of Gauteng Opera, which closed its doors after 19 years. He questioned what a national theatre would achieve that existing institutions such as Artscape and the South African State Theatre wouldn’t, and whether a national institution would create bigger divides, thereby making the arts more inaccessible to South Africans.

Msimanga believes the only way to achieve national interest in the arts is to descentralise arts and culture institutions. “Theatres need to tell the stories of who we are, and museums need to show who we are – at ground level.” By telling these stories, theatres and museums begin to matter again to South Africas, but they need to be local in order to be accessible.

“While billions have been spent on arts and culture budgets over the years, very little of this money has made real change in the lives of South Africa’s poor,” said Van Graan. Government expenditure on projects has failed to unite the country as well as independent theatres or privately funded platforms like the Apartheid Museum have. Independent companies such as the Arts & Culture Trust are working to upskill and capacitate artists, arts, culture and heritage organisations to break through poverty lines and ensure that creativity and the arts are a viable, sustainable option for South Africans to consider.

While recognising the success that privately funded institutions can have, the panel noted that getting these funds to come in requires drive and dedication. Government support of local projects is desperately needed. “Rather than fund elitist institutions, these funds should be repurposed to smaller community-based projects,” said Van Graan.

- Author Louise de Bruin

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