Arts bodies unite over funding cuts
South African arts bodies, squeezed by inflation and fewer handouts, have banded together in an effort to lobby for better funding from the National Arts Council, to which they have sent a petition requesting a change in strategy.
The major concern is a decision by the council to tweak the rules for arts company funding, a move that has troubled some arts bodies and left others without government funding.
The petition requests that the council board reconsider a decision made this year to grant arts companies one-year funding and not the three-year company funding as was the case until last year.
Arts representatives are upset no communication was received before March 15 to alert them to this change, leaving them insufficient time to re-apply for 2012 funding.
The 11 signatures on the petition, recently sent to Department of Arts and Culture director-general Sibusiso Xaba, include the heads of highly respected operations such as Durban’s award-winning KickstArt theatre company and Flatfoot Dance Company, as well as top arts bodies such as SA Ballet Theatre, Artscape, JazzArt and Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre.
The petition was initiated and drafted by the head of Cape Town Opera, Michael Williams, who is also behind the formation of the South African National Opera Association which hopes to unite opera organisations to lobby for more funding through a collective appeal.
In response to the petition, received last week, Xaba said he would look into the issues raised, but pointed out that three-year company funding had not been put on hold.
One-year interim funding, he said, had been provided to allow the council to review the funding model and align it to the new strategic plan approved in March.
Xaba added that a call for future proposals would go out later this year on the NAC website and in newspapers.
All well and good but, Williams maintains, arts bodies are still not happy.
“We were not informed in time to apply for one-year funding and were told by senior officers at the National Arts Council that we cannot apply for both company funding and one-year interim funding.
“We are now told there will be a new call for proposals in August, but by the time they have made their decision and allocate funds, the year will be over. Essentially the National Arts Council has neatly skipped a year of funding companies that have been supported.”
Commenting on this, Xaba said: “Recipients of the interim funding and those companies that applied but did not receive funding will not be prevented from submitting applications to the new call.”
The petition maintains the National Arts Council was not supporting the sustainability of companies established to create a professional arts industry that provides sustainable employment to artists.
“To develop talent, promote cultural diversity and advance nation building, companies need consistent, sustainable financial support.
“Building future audiences and changing the artistic and cultural landscape of the country cannot happen in a context of diminished resources and drastically reduced arts funding,” said Wiliams.
Among those who signed the petition to the National Arts Council is Steven Stead, artistic director of Durban’s most successful production house, KickstArt, established a decade ago.
KickstArt is among a number of Durban arts bodies now fearing for their future because of inadequate government funding.
From 2006 to 2011, KickstArt, the company behind hits such as The Wizard of Oz, Wit, Noises Off, Little Shop of Horrors and last year’s Cabaret, recently staged in Joburg, enjoyed government funding which accounted for up to 25 percent of annual operating costs.
This year, however, there was not only no handout, expected in March, “but also a stony silence as to why”.
Stead believes funding is not being channelled to sustainable projects and companies, but being parceled out to once-off, often grassroots projects, which results in the money vapourising after the projects’ conclusion.
With the withdrawal of the small but regular support, companies are forced to downscale, change ways they operate or shut down, he said.
He said no reason was given for the cash stoppage and KickstArt only discovered from the National Arts Council website that it had been refused funding this year.
“This will affect audiences and artists alike quite hugely. Withdrawing funding from successful, well-managed projects/companies is incredibly short-sighted and destructive,’ he added.
Stead was holding thumbs KickstArt would be able to survive the shock, but said: “We wish we had been given some warning.
“We would have tightened our belts and not scheduled the most expensive show we have ever done (Walt Disney’s lavish Beauty and the Beast, lined up for Durban’s Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre over the festive season).
“It is too early to know how badly we will be impacted. We will only know what the damage is next year.”
Also feeling the pressure is Durban’s Dingalings Productions, a company that has never received arts funding, but which is noted for a decade of hit comedies and stage shows for children.
It also has a laudable mentorship programme that sees a newcomer included in nearly every production the group presents.
Discussing tough financial times, spokeswoman Kumseela Naidoo said: “Due to lack of funding for the arts most artists ply their trade elsewhere, in full-time jobs, instead of following their passion”.
She believed the National Arts Council had a responsibility to develop the arts “as the arts have such an immense role to play in this still-transforming society – they can be a tool of reconciliation and a uniting medium for cultural groups”.
Seasoned Durban theatre practitioner Themi Venturas, discussing National Arts Council funding as the national general secretary of the Performing Arts Council of South Africa, said: “For 18 years emphasis has been on levelling playing fields and artist development. We feel this has not necessarily been accomplished in a strategic, successful manner.
“One is constantly told there is no budget and then one hears of several million suddenly being available for one or other pet project.
“The time has come to fund operational and infrastructural entities so those entities, in turn, can create jobs. This needs to be strategic and medium- to long-term, ensuring stability and tenure,” said Venturas.
Discussing government funding, Venturas said it had always been erratic, “with no norms or standards being applied”.
He added: “If the National Arts Council is required by central government to fund the government’s needs – as in 2010, when money was directed to the Fifa World Cup opening and closing ceremonies – then the council just informs everyone there is no money and cancels any calls for proposals.”
Edmund Mhlongo, head of the K-Cap theatre company at Ekhaya Multi Arts centre in KwaMashu, believes the NAC is targeting the right organisations, “but selectively… and it’s not enough!”
He added: “More funding should be allocated to community arts centres, developmental programmes, performing arts festivals and funding for productions.
“There should also be enough funding for international exchange programmes – to promote KwaZulu-Natal through the arts internationally.”
Mhlongo said the Ekhaya Multi Arts Centre, established in 2004, received only R532 000 in arts funding... “a drop in the ocean considering the centre requires a R2.2-million budget to run effectively”.
The centre deserved more support, he said, “because it’s a community-based institution servicing the needs of artists, and runs artistic events and programmes that empower artists in the province”.
Robin Opperman, director of Durban’s former Umcebo Trust, now Umcebo Design, a business-focused crafts organisation creating employment opportunities for marginalised artists, said most organisations he knows, “doing the most amazing work for a broad cross section of people”, either get minimal or no government funding.
The National Arts Council often sponsored an organisation, or hired a facilitator, for all the wrong reasons, he maintained.
“Many decisions are purely political, and simply crash and burn on take-off, as opposed to invigorating and revitalising the arts and craft sector in KwaZulu-Natal.
“During the time when we were a trust, we had to battle to cobble together funding applications, which eventually had to fit outdated and often very narrow definitions of what should and should not be funded. If we were lucky, we would manage to get between R20 000 and R30 000 a year.
“We still work with community and student groups, and an annual government grant would allow us to expand these programmes and the number of people we work with, as well as the possible opportunities we can create.”
Opperman said in his experience with government funding, “no reasons were ever given… and funding was given as and when the mood took the powers that be”.
He believes those in power lack understanding of what constitutes good arts and craft, and how best to develop it.
“I just worry that we are set to stay in this rut forever.”
Approached for comment on their dealings with the National Arts Council, a Playhouse Company spokesman said only: “Unfortunately, we are contractually bound not to disclose any information regarding our funding, and therefore cannot respond.”
Asked if South African arts funding had declined in recent times, Xaba replied: “The National Arts Council budget allocation for 2012/2013 is R87.5m, a substantive increase from R68.4m in the 2011/2012 financial year and R65.6m in the adjusted appropriation for 2010/2011.
“In terms of the National Arts Council Act, 75 percent of the annual allocation constitutes grants to the arts community.”