Open letter to the Visual Arts Community of South Africa

To the Art Times, Artthrob and the Visual Arts community of South Africa,

Having read The Cry of Boycott Raised as DAC Leaves Regional Stakeholders in the Dark published on Artthrob by Matthew Blackman, and Kirsty Cockerill’s Open Letter to the visual arts community, followed by  Gabriel Clark-Brown’s ridiculous call for the boycotting of the Department of Arts and Culture’s Visual Arts Indaba, I couldn’t help but think that the full story is being avoided. Superficially the arts industry is highly fragmented and  insular, peppered by reactionary individuals and  multitudes of obscure agendas affecting how we each are participating within, and outside of, our industry.  In my opinion we need more open and honest discussions; we need to each be scrutinising more closely our reasons for the beliefs that we hold and whether those reasons and beliefs are still reasonable in the current South African climate.

I chose to attend the Visual Arts Indaba: Towards A Visual Arts Framework, held 25 and 26 October 2012 (and yes I am advantaged because I live in Johannesburg and so could easily attend). I chose to attend because I believe that unless you engage and attempt to get as much information at events of this sort you have no right to comment or complain. To do so would only encourage fallacies and ignorance; if you were not there you did not know what happened.  In addition, I run a non-profit visual arts organisation called Assemblage that is trying its hardest to have a positive effect on artists and art production in Johannesburg .  Through our organisation we are seeking to network, to share and to look for as many ways as possible to uplift and better firstly the Johannesburg visual arts community and hopefully later the larger South African visual arts community.  We recognised months ago that we needed to engage with the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) in order to advantage what we are doing, and so we attended the Indaba.

The Visual Arts Indaba was interesting and I think productive.  That more people weren’t present was highly problematic and unfortunate.  The DAC clearly failed to communicate news on the event effectively.  This was brought up during the indaba and the decision was made to extend the deadline of Visual Art Task Team (VATT) nominations and to allow for more inputs on the recommendations put forward during the indaba. I felt that this was an acknowledgement by the DAC and indaba delegates that the visual arts industry was not truly represented at the indaba.

Further concerns were raised as to communication strategies for circulating this information to the broader visual arts community and I really hope that delegate recommendations on the use of existing online platforms and to also circulate hard copies of the research report will be implemented.

The purpose of the indaba was to go through the research report on the Visual Arts industry, lobbied for by VANSA and commissioned by the DAC in 2008/2009.  If you have not yet read it you should. Go here.

There were 25 recommendations put forward in the report, several of which have already been taken up by the DAC.   One recommendation was the establishment of the VATT to act as a  body representing the visual arts industry as a neutral consultancy for the DAC.  This is a great idea and desperately needed. I would urge the visual arts industry to support this initiative.  The deadline for nominations has been extended until 30 November 2012 so you can still nominate individuals you think would be good at representing our industry.

A couple points in reference to the articles published on Artthrob and the Art Times.

Gabriel Clark-Brown’s call for boycott, struck me as a highly reactionary and immature piece of writing, never mind the grammar and spelling mistakes!  The outright dismissal of the DAC and the indaba seemed to me to be a reaction and response to something much deeper; perhaps anger at not being more included in an event of this nature?  Or perhaps it is an unawareness of our country and the continent we live in – this is Africa, with a complex colonial and in our case apartheid past. South Africa has 11 official languages, with many more tribes and cultural groups represented. Communication is going to be a problem; it’s the nature of our country!  Perhaps the Art Times needs to show more understanding, and write for artists across South Africa, rather than simply in the Cape Town region.

Some of the statements made in Clark-Brown’s article were fallacious or misinformed. To say the delegates were “totally overloaded from Gauteng” was not true.  I was aware of delegates from Cape Town, Pretoria, Bloemfontein, Kimberley and Limpopo, all of whom spoke and offered opinions during the indaba. This also goes for facilitators.

To recommend that the visual arts community “reject visual arts organisations lap dog desire to seek financial or political scraps from the current DAC” is insulting and shows a complete lack of understanding of what it is like to run a non-profit organisation in this country, never mind trying to be an artist.  The DAC has money and is willing to give it to the visual arts community. They would not have held this indaba if they weren’t, but if we do not engage with them we will never see any of that money.

Calling for the liquidating of the department and resignation of the minister etc is ridiculous.  We live in a country with laws and political systems in place, and though we may think we are important and our industry must be heard we are not nearly as important as we think.  The VANSA research report (which, by the way, is not “totally outdated and … irrelevant” again to quote Clark-Brown) estimates our industry at 18000 people. South Africa has a population of approximately 51 million.  That means that the total visual arts industry is only 0,04% of the total South African population. We are insignificant.  So the DAC is showing us unimportant people some attention – let’s respond!!

Another point to note, in his opening address the Director-General, Sibusiso Xaba, stated that the DAC is limited; they want artists to be involved and to hold the DAC accountable.  So are we, the South African visual arts industry, listening? The DAC is admitting that they are limited; they are not artists; they do not know our needs; we need to tell them and, fortunately or unfortunately, must do this through the proposed channels.

Kirsty Cockerill’s statement in her open letter that “the AVA is apparently a member of the audience that has been suggested to assist facilitate the 9:15 – 10:45 Breakaway Session on 26th October” is incorrect; the AVA was never intended to be a facilitator at the Indaba.  This becomes clear if you read the indaba programme, which states that on the second day all “attendees can choose a stakeholder group.”  Under each stakeholder group organisations were listed on the programme.  The organisations listed on the programme in each stakeholder group are suggestions for what type of organisation  might be part of the group. The facilitators for each group are separate, which can be seen if you read the document carefully.

See the programme here.

Some organisations were listed under multiple headings, which shows that groups were not set and as participants you could decide which group was most appropriate.  The organisation names are examples - some of those organisations/galleries were not even at the indaba.

There was an indication of lack of research on the part of DAC.  Greatmore Studios being listed as a suggested tertiary institution in the Education stakeholder group was one example of this. It was the responsibility of the DAC to do their research; a simple Google search would have sufficed. Alternatively, this reveals that perhaps the DAC has very little understanding in the difference between an artist-led residency and an educational institution – a further sign that DAC needs our help!!

Ironically we never broke into these groups because there were too few attendees (approximately 100 on the second day).

I would appeal to Kirsty Cockerill not to dismiss the VATT so quickly, and to engage with the nomination process.  The AVA is held up as an effective example of an artist-run initiative in the research report.

To Matthew Blackman: Your concern about DAC and its ability to organise events and manage its resources correctly is honourable and valid. However, perhaps a closer reading of the programme was needed.  Monna Mokeona ended up not being one of the facilitators and  I didn’t see him at the indaba (this doesn’t mean he wasn’t there).  Your concern that there is some sort of bias towards Mokeona may be valid, but perhaps not relevant in this context.  If anything this was a VANSA-dominated event, although there were sessions facilitated by all sorts of different characters including: Riason Naidoo of the Iziko National Gallery; Michelle Constant of BASA; Dr Cobi Labuscagne; Melissa Goba; Avril Joffe; and Bridget Thompson.  There were panels made up by all sorts and varied individuals – a reminder that our industry is perhaps more diverse than we initially suppose. Were these the right facilitators and panellists for the indaba? Perhaps or perhaps not, but the very nature of this type of event is that you are not going to be able to include everyone as a panellist or facilitator.

As to the galleries and their being represented, I got the impression that the galleries weren’t really interested in being there (why? that is a whole other discussion).  The one commercial gallery representative I met at the indaba came from Cape Town, which makes your point on a lack of Cape Town representation invalid.  The list of proposed galleries were only suggestions for breakaway groups and not submissions for VATT representation. A closer reading of the indaba programme would have clarified this point.

I would be interested in knowing what was spent on the indaba so please do keep pushing the DAC for an answer on this.

In addition, you [Matthew Blackman] do seem to be the one person who is concretely and consistently attempting to hold the DAC accountable and transparent on financial records and other issues. I commend you for this and please continue to do so. The art industry needs more advocates.   Perhaps you should consider standing for the VATT – this is said in complete sincerity; I would happily nominate you. Venice was mentioned and you can read what was said here.

The art industry is so much more expansive and dense than we think it is and dismissing the DAC is not going to help anyone or make our jobs easier.

At the indaba, the DAC struck me as sincere but clueless, They want to help the visual arts industry and they know they have done things incorrectly in the past.  We need to be more understanding and more forceful since, after all, the DAC is made up of people who know nothing about visual art. Consequently, they are trying to reach out to us without knowing how to do this.  If we do not respond to the DAC, then we are screwing ourselves and when everything goes wrong we only have ourselves to blame. At this point I am reminded of the Dinokeng Scenarios, which says this exact thing.  If you are unaware of the Dinokeng Scenarios then go and download the document and read it; it shows us a way to make our country work.

The research done by VANSA and the Human Science Research Council is fascinating and we need to engage with it. It is certainly not outdated and useless, as Gabrielle Clark-Brown would have us believe. The report shows that we have a lot of issues but that there are also many opportunities within the visual arts industry.  The indaba was supposed to look at all the recommendations put forward in the report, get industry input and start doing something with them - interestingly the DAC has already started addressing some of the recommendations – hence this is not a useless document.  The recommendations are doable and it would be really amazing if they were implemented.  It would certainly make it much easier to be an artist or run an arts organisation within South Africa.

But this will not happen if the art community continues to be dismissive, arrogant, ego driven and abusive.  Interestingly one of the findings of the research was that we are a highly suspicious and untrusting industry.

I would be interested in hearing your responses. Dialogue and debate are needed for us to move forward as an industry.

One Correction: The report is an HSRC report, not a VANSA report, VANSA was not a formal partner.

Kind regards,

Louise Van Der Bijl