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THE STATE OF THE ARTS (article first published : 2001-07-20)

Doreen Nteta, Chief Executive Officer of the National Arts Council, has released the following open letter to the media:

Since the closure of the State Theatre late last year by the Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, Dr Ben Ngubane there has been much talk about the state of the performing arts in this country, which state I think is extremely healthy. There is a lot of new work and inclusiveness in the arts, especially in the allocation of resources for the arts.

I have listened and watched quietly with a sense of growing alarm and amazement at what people who profess to hold the interest of artists and the arts close to their hearts have done to discredit the sector and shoot themselves and each other in the foot as it were.

There are some clever people who need to channel their energies in a positive manner. Some of the people who are vociferous in their criticisms of the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, and the National Arts Council were there at the beginning. They were there when DACST was established, and the NAC came into being. They are aware of the NAC Act and the procedures being followed by the NAC to arrive at decisions and policies.

At the beginning, two days were set aside for the NAC to develop its goals and objectives and no time was set aside to develop a business plan and seek strategic staff. The NAC's mandate at that time was to make grants to organisations, especially the previously disadvantaged artistic community.

The criticisms of the NAC have not always been open in the letters that have been written by various people. In many cases it has been treated with veiled contempt. In recent letters there has been accusations that some members of the Board make unilateral decisions about funding, and more specifically that the Chairperson of the Music and Opera panel acts on his own. Recently there were rumours that a certain Board member, who is not even a member of an Advisory Panel, had influenced the decision regarding NAC support for the Venice Bienalle.

These accusations come from people who are very familiar with how the NAC Board decisions are made because they were part of making those rules. Advisory Panels and Board members were selected and appointed from nominations made by artists. Surprisingly, people have forgotten that, and in fact do not even know who these people are. The decision-making process at the NAC is very long, inclusive and transparent.

Any member of a Panel or Board who has direct or indirect interest in the subject or project being discussed makes that known and recuses her or himself. To suggest that this is otherwise, implies that NAC Panel and Board members lack integrity. This cannot be further from the truth; all decisions are open and fair. It is regrettable that within the arts community there does not appear to be respect for confidentiality of Board discussions. This unfortunately does not happen only in the case of the NAC, but other arts bodies that I have worked with.

To those who have aired their views, I would like to say that their acrimonious criticisms of the NAC suggest unhappiness with themselves. The good intentions, if there be any, are lost, and I do believe they have many of those. I suggest they use their good brains to channel their energies in a positive manner.

No one is suggesting that they accept anything and everything, the NAC cannot know everything, and after all we are all new in this thing. The NAC is only four years old. We all need to work together to make it a success if we believe that it is indeed a result of good consultation and thinking. If our individual ideas are not incorporated or acted upon, there is no need to bash the organisation. We need constructive engagement, and I have not had any suggestions.

The notion of arms-length, which has come under so much attack, does not in anyway, suggest irresponsible independence. It means consultation and co-operation. If artists attack it, that makes government suspicious and unwilling to let go. Like all organisations, the need to change is recognised and is being attended to. People very quickly forget why certain decisions were taken and in the case of the NAC they are unhappy but do not or cannot come up with constructive suggestions.

As for myself, I am here because I was intrigued by the idea of a National Arts Council in a very new democratic society. If I thought it was corrupt, I would have left. I am enthused by starting something new and seeing it prosper. I have no desire to die on the job. I will not pontificate, but I must say that we need to move forward as one for the sake of the sector. Why should anybody want to spend their hard-earned money on a group of people who do not trust each other or appear not to know what they are doing?

There is an African saying that "when elephants fight, the ants get trampled upon". Artists need funding to continue to do their art. They are not interested in this pointless fight for territory and neither am I.

Issued by: Mrs Doreen Nteta, Chief Executive Officer of the National Arts Council. Tel: (011) 838-1383-7, Fax: (011) 838-6363 or e-mail: info@nac.org.za




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