Archive: Issue No. 55, March 2002

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The way forward
by Doreen Nteta

In the last article I wrote about the relationship between the arts and heritage. Today I thought we could reflect on how the institutions whose responsibility it is to preserve, interpret and use art for the greater good can promote its production.

We tend to demarcate spaces in a manner that limits their functions, in the same way that we categorise people that work within those spaces. For example, curators work in museums, artists work in studios etc. The state spends millions of rands building theatres near libraries, museums, churches, schools, universities and community halls. This is because of the belief that each building has specialised functions. It assumes that people who work in these facilities are only qualified to work in these categorised disciplines. It also assumes that the general population categorises their culture.

In working with artists and cultural institutions what is needed the most is imagination. Many artists in this country are either self-taught or have limited formal education and training in the arts. They have limited access to formal institutions. The only halls they know are school and church halls. Nowadays museums and galleries and theatres are open to all, but their use by the greater community is limited. Nobody has taken the time to explain to the people what they stand for.

I once lived in a city that for many years had one museum and art gallery, and the only hall, apart from the city hall, was the exhibition hall in the museum. No art was taught in schools, and whatever was taught informally was taught by retired schoolteachers and housewives. A hopeless situation, you might say. I worked in the museum and art gallery, and decided to do something about the situation. I was convinced that curators are artists, teachers, promoters, conservators and administrators all in one.

We therefore started visual art lessons in the museum, and ran them until we succeeded in persuading the ministry of education to start offering visual arts and music in schools. We had art competitions as well as temporary art exhibitions. We encouraged the use of the museum for music examinations. We held concerts, symposia, craft exhibitions, traditional dance competitions, and eventually established a mobile museum service that brought back artefacts and art competition entries and recordings of stories. The curators allowed their imaginations to soar and they became promoters of art, using one building for a variety of art forms.

We are indeed in this together. After all curators are supposed to bring history to life. They merge the old with the contemporary. Unless they can exhibit, educate and entertain through their collections, they will have performed only part of their duties. We have limited resources in this country, so it only makes sense to share the available ones. -

Doreen Nteta is the CEO of the National Arts Council (NAC). The views expressed in this column are her own, and are not necessarily those of the NAC or of