As of 1 April 2014, the Department of Arts and Culture no longer exists. According to the Public Relations Officer (PRO) in the Ministry of Youth, Sport and Culture, Mr Kristian Mmusi, the Ministry has been re-organised to improve efficiency and “to improve delivery of services, particularly to the outlying areas of the country”. But have no fear, according to the PRO, “The Ministry will continue to run programmes such as the President’s Day Competitions, Constituency Art Competitions, Exhibitions and the Arts and Culture Grant”. The only one on that list that makes any difference to writers is the arts and culture grant. And how will these proposals be dealt with now?
“Arts project proposals will be dealt with appropriately by the Financial Requests Assessment Committee and the Grants Assessment Committees in line with MYSC priorities for development of the arts. Specific offices have been assigned to look after this function just like other functions of the Ministry mandate.”
And to top off the entire exercise with a pretty rotten cherry, the PRO added- “In any case MYSC programmes mostly centre around the young person and therefore staff should be able to deal with issues.” I’m an artist, a professional writer, but I’m 50, so how do I fit in? In their world there is nothing like an artist over 30, right? We’re invisible, not important.
Right there, actually, is where the government’s approach to the arts goes wrong. The fact that the arts are thrown in with the youth and sports shows that the government believes arts to be a hobby, something to keep the youth busy until they move on to more serious things. They give lip service to the fact that the arts can diversify the economy, but they don’t mean it. They have no policy to implement that. They pour money into the President’s Day Competitions -but are they making any real impact? Do the winners move forward? Do they develop and become sustainable? Are they professionalising? What actually is the point of the Competitions except to throw a bit of money around? You see the groups on President’s Day, they compete, they win, they get their money, and go back home until the next year.
I find nothing wrong with people doing art as a hobby, that’s fine, but I don’t think the government should aim their policies toward that objective. If the government believes the arts are meant to be a hobby, as their recent actions suggest, then be honest about that. Say it. Don’t talk about the arts diversifying the economy when everyone can see that it is only lip service and that their actions say something else.
The Department of Arts and Culture was not perfect, but at least it was a step in the correct direction. The PRO says that the former structure in the Ministry was hierarchical and top heavy, he says there was duplication of efforts. I can’t comment on that. I’ll accept that was true, but couldn’t that problem have been addressed without scrapping the Department of Arts and Culture completely?
And though he says that the new Programme Officers will have enough knowledge to cover the issues that will arrive from sports, the youth, and the arts sector, I find that hard to accept. Even when the officers were only responsible for the arts, the field was just too wide. They needed to know the intricacies of the publishing industry, the writing world, the music industry, the world of dance and painting and sculpture and acting… only to mention a few. That was more than enough, and as I’ve said in the past in this column, I had hoped that the move would be toward having more specialised arts officers: experts in each of the disciplines. People who knew what was happening with writers in Botswana, in Southern Africa, and the world, so as to help our writers find their way to professionalism and actually earning a living through their art. Now, as far as I’m concerned, that hope is gone, never to be seen again. We have taken a huge step backwards in my opinion.
In my perfect world, Arts and Culture would have its own ministry headed by a person who truly cared and understood the arts and knew that the arts are the practical expression of culture, the place where culture is stored. They would understand that artists need training, and schools, and programmes need to be set up in our institutions. They need professional advice. They need to get grants to travel to residencies and festivals to see how others do things. If our arts were truly supported and developed, it would bring people to our country, it would sell our country outside its border. It would feed our souls and our economy at the same time.
But it’s not supported. It’s all just a Wizard of Oz type scenario, pull back the curtain, and despite our wishes, there’s nothing there.
(This appeared in my column It's All Write for 23 May 2014 in The Voice Newspaper)