We hear a lot of talk about how the arts can “diversify” our economy. In most cases when I hear someone say that it makes me sad. Yes, artists should be able to live from their art, but please, let the art come first. Economic diversification will sort itself out, making it the goal of art is killing the art before it gets going.
The arts have a far more important role to play in society. The arts help to define our national identity, our national psyche. Not just crafts and traditional dance, as some people simplistically accept, but all dance, theatre, music, literature, sculpture, painting. Art gives us space to push to the edge of where we now are, to find the other possibilities, to have space to consider the impossible. Art helps people develop empathy for others. Art is where human imagination can soar and find excellence beyond the mundane confines of the economy or the drudgery of daily survival. Art should be part and parcel of all of our lives, it should not be out there somewhere away from the community. It should be our community. The quality of a country’s art says much about the quality of the nation.
Currently the organisation and the funding for the arts and its development in Botswana are scattered and haphazard. Some money comes from the Department of Arts and Culture, often decided by people who have little knowledge in the particular sector of the arts that they are attending to. Some arts projects are funded by CIPA and the blank tape levy. Most likely given to people who produce a coherent proposal and then actually use the money that they received on the project they proposed. The education of artists is occasionally covered by the Ministry of Education and Skills Development. The National Library Service sometimes runs workshops for writers and Thapong helps painters here and there. Money and help is flowing into our arts community, but in a disorganised manner that creates one step forward, two steps back, taking us almost nowhere.
What about just basic research and information about our arts community? Is there anywhere a person can go to find out what’s happening in the country in a certain sector of the arts? A database of arts organisations and artists? I once was asked to submit information for such a thing, but what became of it I don’t know. Instead we’re all working away in isolation.
As for the promotion and development of our artists, to help in their professionalising, and in marketing and selling their art, I’ve seen very little. I once attended a meeting where Brand Botswana said they had some interest there as long as the art promoted the country. That was demoralising, to say the least.
In general the development, support, funding and promotion of the arts in Botswana is disjointed and chaotic with no solid clear vision or mission. This could be solved if we had a well-established and operational arts council.
Let’s start with the dream—what would be my dream arts council?
First, the board would be made up of a wide array of people, all with a strong commitment to the arts. There would be some experienced members from the various sectors of the arts, selfless artists with high levels of integrity. But the board also would have arts administrators, lawyers, experts in public policy and research, business administrators, people adept at marketing and promotion, communications and branding, members from the government and people with expertise in under-represented groups. The main criteria would be that the people have a commitment to the arts and its excellence.
What would my dream arts council do?
They would give grants to artists and arts organisations for projects, development, and festivals. They would fund degrees in the arts. They would keep a comprehensive database of the artists in the country and what they’re doing. They would promote our artists and our art both in the country and abroad. They would hold workshops on areas of weakness. They would bring the arts and the community together in innovative and exciting ways. They would link artists and arts organisations with businesses and private donors looking to support the arts.
The arts council would coordinate the arts in a holistic way, pulling all of the strings together so that they form one strong rope that cannot be broken, and one that’s pulling in a single direction, instead of the hundreds of ways they are being pulled at the moment.
Am I crazy? Is it impossible?
No, it’s not.