In our view

Calling for a leap of faith - 16 Aug 2011 - Independent Online

By Gillian Mitchell

THIS YEAR’S National Arts Festival in Grahamstown again delivered an amazing programme of performance, visual and literary arts that traversed cultures, disciplines and countries – and dazzled audiences from morning to midnight every day.

However, amidst the euphoria of outstanding and inspiring productions, some serious notes were struck in the Thinkfest where discussions were held around problems perennial to the arts, namely those of value, funding and sustainability. These are not new discussions and will always be part of the world of the arts. However, it struck me that what has been missing from our deliberations over funding and value in these past years is talk on the role that philanthropy should play in sustaining the arts.


We have had many exchanges in South Africa on the role of philanthropy in alleviating social deficit, and for good reason, as the social demands in our country are massive. Delivery of fundamental human needs such as sanitation, access to clean water and basic health care and education are still immense challenges. Without question, our best efforts should focus on ensuring that these – and other basic rights – are accessible to all.

One of the consequences of that focus, however, is that, in the face of such urgent social need, we have come to eschew the discussion about long-term, ongoing philanthropic support of the arts, and, as a result, the arts are at constant risk of being deemed peripheral rather than integral to our social well-being.

For at least the past two decades education, health, capacity building, and now increasingly the environment, have been at the forefront of philanthropic support. In contrast such support of the arts has diminished steadily and is fast reaching crisis point in South Africa. This is, however, not a simple arithmetic equation in which giving to one automatically impoverished the other.

Demand for basic societal needs in South Africa has grown exponentially, but so has the philanthropic “bucket”. Giving has been growing steadily as demand has increased and causes have become more visible. Corporate social investment programmes increasingly operate as integrated components of business. People are also more aware that philanthropic engagement is an avenue of communal assistance open to everyone, not only those with disposable wealth.

However, the sheer magnitude of social need has had the effect of corralling philanthropy into narrowed areas of giving. In addition, with only the best intentions, government incentives have further herded corporate social responsibility and investment programmes into an almost exclusive relationship with education, health, and housing. These are unquestionably critical spheres of social dearth which require committed and sustained support, but there needs to be an acknowledgement that there is room for an expansion of philanthropy into other vital spheres of engagement.

Support to the arts has declined in part because of the switch to the more social priorities, but also because of government incentives which make corporate social investment contributions to specific areas of need a requisite to doing business.

As important a factor is that the arts have lost prestige and value as a critical contributor to growing and nurturing our society.

So often over the past 15 years I have heard some version of the following question: how can one justify supporting a dance company when there are children who cannot count on one meal per day? This is a valid question which would have a straightforward response in a simple environment. However, our human experience is anything but simple and we should not make the mistake of defining our environments as closed zero sum equations. Every gift we make, every programme we support comes at the cost of support to something else.

Although often portrayed as such, artistic value and social value are not opposite ends of a single straight measure. The notion that to support the arts is to disadvantage other areas of demand is only true insofar as it is true that to give funds to a hospital means that a university will be disadvantaged because it won’t be receiving those funds. The ideal is to find a balanced approach to giving and to ensure we are assigning true value when assessing giving support.

Inevitably the crux of the matter is whether we perceive the arts as having true value in advancing our society. Inescapably linked to this is how we ascribe value to the arts. Increasingly we see that non-profit and non-governmental organisations are expected to operate like corporates and justify their programmes and impact through hard statistics, cost/benefit analyses and complex evaluative models.

For many of these organisations the cry is often that, although these forms of evaluation have an important place, the intangible impact which cannot be reduced to numbers or percentages is often the most important indication of the success of a programme or intervention. The arts are the last bastion of evaluative rebellion.

Do we fully value the arts as a highly necessary contributor to our human experience worthy of considerable financial support? Do we see the development of our society as a set of sequential steps that requires a to be completed before we can move on to b and then c? Or do we see our society as one which develops as a result of our ability to respond to the opportunities and challenges across a continually changing spectrum? If the latter, then surely we cannot deny the necessity and value of the arts in our lives.

Our history shows that the arts and the fight for democracy were inseparable. The use of the arts as one of the most successful media for expression, dissemination, engagement and assuaging of tremendous human suffering is documented. It is one of the most remarkable aspects of the South African story and one without which we could not have reached this point in our development. As such they are deserving of strong, visionary philanthropic support.

I am likening philanthropy in this instance to that of the arts patronage of the mid-15th to 17th centuries, which generated and sustained the exceptional artistic yields of the European Renaissance. Philanthropy in this sense is a form of giving and support which recognises the intrinsic value of the arts as fundamental to our human experience and that artists must be encouraged and given the means to develop their talent.

Arts philanthropy is a form of support that views deadline-driven deliverables, conventional assessments and the relationship between effort and effect as issues that require flexibility and, often, a supreme leap of faith. It is a form of support that recognises that engagement is sometimes the most powerful tool for illuminating our condition, not the outcome. Arts philanthropy is venture trading at its most elemental. It is not for the faint-hearted, but for those with the vision to engage in it, the rewards are genuinely inspirational.

Gillian Mitchell is an associate of the South African Institute for Advancement (Inyathelo).