ART, CULTURE and CRISES
Opportunities and Challenges in Uganda
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Triumph of Death (detail), c. 1562, Museo del Prado, Madrid
Never waste a good crisis – Winston Churchill
Most of us are being confronted with yet another crisis in their lives, this time a global health crisis. Given the magnitude of its impact at individual and societal level, this very crisis has made us question the old ways of doing business. We are required to rethink our approach for now and the future.
Although strategic rethinking should not be reserved for times of trouble only, crises provide an opportunity to dramatically change strategic directions. If taken on as an opportunity rather than a threat, crises can lead to systemic change: to new standards, improved policy, reformulated roles and responsibilities, simplified procedures etcetera.
For us to take this path of systemic change, an open and questioning climate is required to challenge the norm, the procedures and traditions we have been satisfied with thus far. We need to question ourselves, and our leaders, to find solutions outside the usual compass. We need to get out of our comfort zones as we are sailing against the current.
What do we need to cause systemic change? I would like to use this opportunity to elaborate on three elements I deem important.
1. Need for a paradigm shift
One of the reasons that led me to work in the arts and culture sector was because of its transformative power. Culture is a dynamic force.
However, culture is often still seen as an entirely social functional phenomenon that comes into being within a community. And its definition is often reduced to the preservation and promotion of heritage and tradition, thereby ignoring contemporary expressions.
This approach to culture is a remnant of colonialism when culture was narrowly defined in terms of traditions. Traditions which were perceived as primitive and backward and an obstacle to development. Countries like ours, with a colonial past, despite the fact that colonialism has been long left behind, often still adhere to such a static definition of culture, resulting in an aversion against the “contemporary”, thus diminishing its transformative power, stifling innovation and development.
Rather than taking a static approach to culture – as something from the past – we need to recognize other aspects and roles of culture, embracing both heritage and tradition AND the contemporary, stressing culture as a dynamic force in transforming society whereby a diversity of cultural expressions and values produce a wealth of information, ideas and views that are a source for innovation and that produce both social and economic benefits.
In short, we need to embrace the concept of the “creative economy” which places emphasis on valuable (paid-for) goods, services and activities of a cultural, artistic or heritage nature whose origin lies in human creativity, whether past or present.
It also means that we need to acknowledge that such outputs of human creativity originate in private initiative, whether individuals or organisations, which implies that the creative economy is in its nature a private sector affair, whereby outputs of human creativity – including those of a more social nature – are distributed to reach a public and/or a market. Value chain and market development become herewith key priorities.
Accepting this private sector nature has implications for development strategies and roles and responsibilities of the various actors. But I will get back to that later.
2. Need for deep investments
We accept and continue to stress that the creative economy provides significant opportunities of income, work, education and investment and, hence, options for contributing to social and economic development. However, in crisis times, our sector shows itself extremely vulnerable to shock, with large losses of income and job opportunities.
It is therefore time we rethink our focus of investment. We need strategic interventions that are DEEP investments to enhance the resilience of our sector so that next time there is a crisis we are better prepared to anticipate and prevent as well as to respond and adapt to stress or shock.
These DEEP investments focus on the essentials for value chain and market development and would include:
Investing in human capital so as to produce:
- quality artists that are entrepreneurial and can make a sustainable living;
- quality arts managers that can develop and sustain organisations;
- quality arts service providers across the value chain(s) to support the creative industry.
Investing in lasting (infra)structures so as to ensure:
- fully fledged and structured arts education institutions;
- adequate and affordable spaces, facilities and tools of the trade;
- access to local public and private financial support mechanisms (incl. emergency support mechanisms);
- access to affordable and revenue generating distribution channels.
Investing in a conducive environment so as to ensure:
- a diversity and freedom of cultural expressions;
- an effective and supportive legal and regulatory framework;
- adequate documentation, archiving and data collection.
3. Need for a shared public-private approach
To achieve these deep investments, public and private actors will need to come together
… united and formulate a SHARED vision for creative sector development that they will collectively support. A true partnership between government, creative practitioners, external funders, private sector and the local public would be the ideal, with specific roles and responsibilities defined for each, that allows for coordinating interventions in support of the shared vision, with a focus on making deep investments that will have a real and lasting impact while promoting value for money and accountability at all levels.
Embracing the concept of the creative economy means accepting that private initiatives form the basis of creative sector development. This implies a government that is responsive to the needs of creative practitioners, which are their clients. Instead of managing or taking centre stage, the government needs to take on a facilitating and supportive role towards creative practitioners, with a view to provide the necessary conducive environment, as highlighted before, for the private initiative to thrive.
Embracing the creative economy concept also means that creative practitioners are to be regarded as actors in their own right, as entrepreneurs, even if in many cases they are predominantly social entrepreneurs. We should do away with the idea that creative practitioners are merely on the receiving end, as beneficiaries or recipients of aid and support from others.
However, for creative practitioners to effectively engage as private sector players and to operate on business principles, entrepreneurial skills will need to be promoted alongside professional artistic skills.
Moreover, to ensure that the business environment is indeed conducive and meets their needs, creative practitioners will need to organize themselves in an effective manner for the purpose of lobbying and advocacy. This requires strategic thinking skills as well as practical skills to see through implementation of such strategies.
Unfortunately, many attempts to network building have failed in the past because individual or organisational interests are too often put before sector interests and practical sector-wide strategic thinking. Renewed efforts in collaboration, as opposed to competition, and selfless leadership are required to adequately represent actors across the creative sector and to contribute to the required systemic change.
Creative sector development to a large extent still depends on support from elsewhere, be it foundations or cultural institutions. This support continued to be heavily fragmented and uncoordinated due to the lack of a shared vision for creative sector development. Such a joint vision would allow external funders to provide support to government and/or creative practitioners in their respective roles and responsibilities.
Although support from the private sector towards arts and culture has improved, it continues to be limited and selective. It focuses on sub-sectors where market risk is manageable and profits can be maximized, is therefore limited to actors while it shuns long-term investments. As such, the private sector fails to assist in promoting new art forms and discovering and grooming new talent, and misses the chance to invest in the country’s future workforce from which they would ultimately also benefit. A dedicated effort is required to mobilize private sector actors to sign up to supporting a shared vision for creative sector development.
Local public support:
Support from the public is still limited. The public does not necessarily qualify culture as goods, services or activities worth the consumption or investment. The public’s interest continues to be skewed towards popular arts forms while a local practice of philanthropy in support of the arts and culture is close to absent. Dedicated efforts are required to mobilize the public as potential consumers (audience building/customer acquisition) and to prospect and cultivate a body of local patrons (philanthropists) of arts and culture.
4. Concluding remarks
Let’s take this crisis as an opportunity to bring about systemic change that will alter the status quo of arts and culture in Uganda, make us – individually and collectively – more resilient and less dependent on outside support, and allow us to join the global arts and culture scene at par with others.
THANK YOU VERY MUCH!