Really, Tito? We need another theatre and museum?

Yusrah Bardien. Picture: Robyn Davie Photography
Yusrah Bardien. Picture: Robyn Davie Photography

On Thursday, much to the surprise of those in the arts, the finance minister Tito Mboweni dropped this nugget in his budget speech:

“Finally, the global renown of South Africa’s art and culture is an expression of our soft power and our heritage. Our public finance choices should reflect an intention to preserve and add to our cultural canon. Officials from the National Treasury and the department of arts and culture will consider proposals for the development of a new national theatre, a new national museum, and also consider financial support for the national archives, a national orchestra and ballet troupe,” Minister Mboweni.

Do we need another theatre and museum?

A basic look at our cultural funding situation suggests not. The arts and culture department already oversees 27 public entities, of which six are performing arts councils and 15 heritage institutions.

Arts organisations are notoriously underfunded and almost a fifth of these agencies have undergone forensic investigations in the last year alone, due to issues of poor governance and financial mismanagement.

Bloemfontein hosts the small but significant National Museum and arguably we have a national theatre, in name at least, in the South African State Theatre – both of which are already entities under the department. What is the reason for a new national theatre and museum?

The Opera Theatre at the South African State Theatre

Aside from Bloemfontein, Ditsong is described by the department as the flagship museum of the north, and Iziko the flagship museum of the south.

To create a “national” theatre would mean to create an institution with an agreed-upon ideology that will keep some ideas in and some ideas out.

As a nation we battle in pursuit of the ideal of social cohesion because finding commonalities remains a challenge in post-democratic South Africa.

The establishment of a national theatre or museum at best dilutes the impact of current structures but more so runs the risk of directly opposing the nationally-mandated principles of social cohesion which embrace cultural diversity.

Instead of having a fixed building for a new national theatre and a new national museum, one could consider a national agenda in the form of social cohesion. Except, all cultural institutions which are agencies of the department already subscribe to this notion.

According to Loren Kruger’s book Our National House, the idea of a national theatre stemmed from 19th century and early 20th century writers in the United Kingdom who wanted to separate the ‘good’ theatre from the ‘entertainment’ theatre – thinking which ultimately influenced the founding of the National Theatre in London in the second half of the 20th century.

However, these ideas are rooted in British cultural supremacy and the assumption that audiences for this kind of programming exist in the first place.

The minister further considers the need for financial support of the National Archives of SA, a national orchestra and ballet troupe. The national archives already existence so we assume this is an increase in existing support.

Our ballet has seen national formations come and go over the years, in name at least, based on the nature and availability of funding.

The Gauteng-based South African Ballet Theatre was renamed Joburg Ballet in 2013 after generous sustainable funding was granted by the City of Joburg, implying there was no (or at least not enough) support from national government.

Recently, the Cape Town City Ballet fought for survival after its lease at the University of Cape Town School of Dance was not renewed. Neither of these companies has a regional touring schedule of any significance.

And choosing a base for a national orchestra or ballet company would be a challenge in terms of fair geographical representation. As it is, we have a National Youth Orchestra which only plays together a few times a year, in part because of the cost and logistics required to bring 50-odd people together.

We currently have three orchestras (Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, KZN Philharmonic Orchestra and Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra), and two ballet companies (Cape Town City Ballet and Joburg Ballet) serving the major urban areas, in addition to a host of smaller organisations – what value would a so-called national entity offer under these circumstances?

A national orchestra or ballet company could be feasible if we had functioning versions of them in the provinces which could feed a national company, as is done in sport. However the majority of provinces remain under-resourced and under-served.

Many non-governmental organisations in the arts are struggling to stay open in a landscape which lacks adequate operational funding. Gauteng Opera has recently shut its doors, as has significant Joburg jazz venue The Orbit in addition to a wealth of cultural organisations in Durban being told to find their own funding.

The idea of funding brand new institutions pales in comparison to that which is required by existing organisations with established track records who face closure.

Unless this is all just electioneering, a stirring of some sort of national pride. After all, the budget vote on arts and culture does not list the budget for these new developments as yet.

The arts and culture sector has, for the last few years, worked on a revised policy. This consultative process did not result in a call for the content of the minister’s nugget, so where does it come from? As a sector, we’re certainly excited about being included in the conversation but – as always seems to be the case – it sadly remains one-sided and not actually engaged with the realities of its constituents.

* Bardien is a behind-the-scenes arts specialist with keen interests in audience development, the arts economy and international relations. She was recognised as one of the Mail & Guardian Top 200 Young People for 2018 and is a director of Creative Fix Arts Consultancy

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