We don’t need a new theatre. We can barely sustain the ones we have

Charl Blignaut
Charl Blignaut

It could only have been electioneering, some sort of grandiose appeal to our national pride, that led Finance Minister Tito Mboweni to arrive at his only statement on arts and culture in his budget speech this week.

He said: “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 National Treasury and the arts and culture department will consider proposals for the development of a new national theatre and a new national museum, and also consider financial support for the national archives, a national orchestra and a ballet troupe,” he said.

Any of the committed experts working tirelessly in the arts and culture development space will tell you straight up the minister is messing with our hearts and our heads if he thinks we need new theatres, museums, orchestras and dance companies.

We have plenty. We are barely able to sustain them.

Their budgets are steadily being eroded, their assets in danger of going unpreserved and their communal visions undermined in the process.

And that’s if they’re lucky. City Press has, for over a year now, reported systematically on the capture of the boards and councils of many of the state’s theatres and cultural agencies by self-enriching cabals and professional board members, who are far happier to fly themselves around the world first class than to spend the money on arts practitioners.

The state’s arts funding agencies stand accused of supporting those with access and not those who need it most.

Forensic reports are flying, whistle-blowers are being victimised and suspensions ahead of disciplinary actions abound as legal and forensic auditing bills pile up.

But we must get new arts structures, apparently. Why can’t we efficiently manage the ones we have, rather?

And why – while we’re at it – do we continue to glorify ballet and orchestras, colonial and Western art forms?

How about the state helps the State Theatre with extra funds for the crucial Dance Umbrella contemporary dance festival, which is barely able to keep the lights on after 30 years of pioneering work?

How about the state helps the Johannesburg Art Gallery stop the leaks and structural damage to its building, which are threatening to destroy priceless art?

And where will the money come from if the minister’s new plan is already cutting the budgets of every single one of our museums, theatres and cultural agencies just to be able to bolster the National Archive of SA, the only cultural institution to receive a boost in the new budget?

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