CityLife Arts

Department of Arts and Culture needs to be more transparent

An artist this past week posted a request for advice from fellow artists concerning her recent applications for both Covid-19 related relief funding and for a project she and two other artists intend to carry out. It turns out that her request for relief funding was turned down, but her application for grant funding was successful with the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture.

But then was immediately faced by two problems, one the fact that her application for relief funding was unsuccessful during these hard timees for artists, and two, ironically that the application for a grant was successful.

In the first instance, it is understandable why she had a problem with the unsuccessful application for Covid-19 relief funding. But it is in the second instance  her problem becomes complex  because of its complicated nuance. At face value, the artist should not have a problem but be happy. But she has to an extent that she sought advice from fellow artists on a social media platform.  Why would she have a problem when indeed DSAC has granted her funding? Now here is her problem: She is not sure whether to accept this funding  or not as after all. And the reason she is giving is that by accepting this funding from DSAC’ she would be giving the heavily criticised department a marketing tool to go public and use her and many others i a similar position as her, that they have funded as an example of how they are assisting artists and are assisting to develop the arts in the country. The department would then argue that contrary to the  popular narrative by artists that the department at best is useless when it comes to funding the arts, and at worst, the system is opaque and corruption ridden, is factually incorrect.

 In other words the artist was wondering whether the best thing to do under the circumstances is to reject the funding grant after all and soldier on, like the rest of the artists struggling to get funding from DSAC. In other words, she has a dilemma, and that is that If she accepts the  funding, then she has to admit that the system of funding put in place by DSAC is working perfectly, and a clear example of the efficacy of the system is her successful case with DSAC.

But deep down she knows that this is just an isolated case of success as many fellow artists with even projects better than hers struggle to get assistance from DSAC under its current funding mechanisms. In other words, she is not comfortable associating her name with a department whose reputation for assisting artists is currently in bad shape.

Now here is the issue. Currently the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture is under extreme pressure from artists besieged by the effects of the lockdown as a result of Covid-19, which has  taken away the opportunity for artists to earn their living through practising their art. Theatres have shut their doors and so have museums and art galleries. Concerts and festivals have been either postponed or cancelled, and so have art fairs and other income generating activities associated with the arts, leaving artists even more vulnerable to excruciating poverty and hunger than under normal circumstances.

The artists  are now looking up to DSAC to assist them navigate these Covid-19 related difficulties through relief funding, and yet the full story of how the R150 million the department announced in March to assist artists and athletes under the grip of the lockdown is yet to play itself out in the public domain. For now what is known is that the department last week released a list of 488 artists that it funded with amounts ranging from R1 650 to R20 000, out of the R150 million it diverted from its normal budget for funding projects to create the Covid-19  Relief Fund.

The number of artists assisted out of the 5000 that are said to have applied is just too miniscule to make even make a slight dent on the scale of the  problem of poverty and the need for assistance to the arts community during these hard times. Granted, there is simply not enough money to assist every artist, and that is the reality of the situation, and DSAC can do very little as far as having enough funds for everyone is concerned in its kit.

But there is something that DSAC can do and it needs to do that as a matter of urgency to regain the confidence and the trust of an arts community, which is increasingly distrusting the very same department that belongs to them, to look after their interest and help their careers strive. And what the department needs to do, and do it now, before it is too late, is to build (and some will say actually restore) its reputation as a just, proactive and favouritism and corruption free department at the heart of the development of the arts in the country. It is needs to be seen as a department staffed by efficient, well qualified and professional bureaucracy that is at the top of their game when it comes to catering for the needs of the arts sector.

Right now, the perception, and unfortunately perceptions matter, is that its bureaucracy is not a well oiled machinery ready to prevail and serve the sector efficiently and fast, especially when facing an unprecedented challenge, such as the current situation of the Coronavirus.

Already some artists are calling for some heads to roll, and this suggests that there is a deficit of trust between DSAC and the sector that it serves.  The stage has been reached where artists feel uncomfortable for their names to be associated with the department,  even in some cases when DSAC has actually done the right thing by granting such artists funding, such as the case of this artist who was not sure whether or not to accept the grant she got from DSAC. Now that is sad, really sad.

And to be fair to DSAC, not everyone is not unqualified. Not everyone is not competent, and certainly, not everyone in that department loves a brown envelope.  In fact a good number of people employed at DSACare professional people ready to serve the arts sector competently and professionally with university education behind them. But the few that may not be doing what they have been hired for, are spoiling it for everyone. And most importantly, there is a need to build (or restore) the reputation and the credibility of that department, and it can be done. It is not too late to do so.

For example the publication of the names of the 488 artists DSAC assisted through the Covid-19 Relief Fund n the name of transparency last week, is a move in the right direction. Now it must go further and publish the names of those artists whose applications were not successful and give reasons.

 DSAC must also in the name of the same transparency  publish the names of the adjudicators so that the arts community can see that the people who sit on the obviously difficult job of adjudicating so many applications from artists are people with integrity and their credentials in the arts sector are beyond reproach. It has been done before and this is not asking for too much by the arts sector.

This way, everyone will then be able to see that the department has nothing to hide and everything that it does is ultimately in the interest of the artists and the development of the arts and culture sector as a whole. Anything less than this, people will continue to talk in closed doors and unfortunately sully good people’s names in the process.

Under the current circumstances of suspicion, mistrust and perception, doing anything less than full transparency over how and to which artists the R150 was disbursed and which artist’s application were unsuccessful, is unhelpful in defusing the tension between the artists and DSAC.

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