Corporate sponsorship of the arts: Friend or foe?

Art needs patronage. This could be provided by people of modest income who buy art on a regular basis to decorate their spaces and to use as gifts. These abound on the Ugandan art scene. But how useful are these art buyers to an industry that demands major capital injection for its growth?

By Henry Mzili Mujunga

Most of the money obtained from such patronage is spent on compensating the artist’s materials and living expenses.  Despite the fact that the global art market is now craving for works by artists from Africa and Asia, many talented African artists, especially those making contemporary paintings and sculpture, are invisible to the important collectors.

Is Uganda ready to claim its share of this expanding market?

Surely, there are many reputed artists working in Kampala today. The painters, who showed at the Kampala Serena hotel in a widely publicized exhibition dubbed Signature Art, are but a small fraction of this innovative and growing movement. However, they are very important in providing answers to the questions posed above.

Donald Wasswa at Serena Art Exhibition 2010.
Donald Wasswa at Serena Art Exhibition 2010.

Ronex Ahimbisibwe, Taga Francis, Paulo Akiiki and Joseph Ntensibe, to mention but a few, are all artists who have undertaken innovative measures to ensure that their work meets international art standards.

Artists like Ronex have pushed the boundaries even further by seeking corporate sponsorship for their exhibitions. In the recent past, he has approached local companies like Fireworks Advertising and Tullow Oil (a company prospecting for oil in western Uganda) to sponsor group exhibitions in Kampala. All these shows have had a huge but fleeting impact on the local art scene, as they have attracted huge crowds of expatriates and local opinion leaders affiliated with the sponsoring companies but only for an evening or two.

It’s granted that unlike in regular gallery shows, the participating artists have stashed their pockets with large sums of money. According to Ronex, the recent Kabira Country club show made a 25 percent commission of 7000 dollars (this is a lot in the ‘third world’) on the paintings sold.

Passing events?

However, this begs the question once more; does the industry as a whole benefit from these passing events?

It is a given fact that the people who organize these events are well intentioned and on most occasions privileged with access to corporate support.

When I visited the Signature Art exhibition, organized by the spouses of Tullow Oil’s senior management, I was struck at the entrance by the billboards of the sponsoring companies. Not a list of the artists exhibiting. In fact some of the artists I would have considered important were stashed away in barely accessible spaces.

Are the spouses of corporate people the right ones to make the necessary corporate decisions on behalf of the companies involved?

When the manufacturing giant Unilever decided to sponsor the Tate Modern in London in 2000, did they work through the spouses of their employees? If a corporation wants to make meaningful contributions to arts and culture, there is a need for research about existing efforts in that direction.

Edison Mugalu at Serena Art Exhibition 2010.
Edison Mugalu at Serena Art Exhibition 2010.

Need for a MAMU

Kampala Arts Trust (KART) is such an effort. It has put together a think tank of key players in the art industry and has published an art journal of four consecutive issues. KART wants to set up the Modern Art Museum of Uganda (MAMU), hold regular symposiums about art and culture, sponsor public works to improve the image of Kampala and on top of that it is advocating for viable auction activity to ensure a return on investment for the people who buy art in Uganda.

When the directors of KART approached these good people during their first signature show at Kabira Country Club to discuss some form of collaborated effort, one of the ladies expressed concern about duplication of intent and a possible conflict of interest!

The idea that artists need corporate people to make successful private exhibitions in Uganda is absurd. We have galleries. It is my strong opinion that corporate money should be used to fund more sustainable projects like Start Journal and MAMU!

When I interviewed Ronex Ahimbisibwe, one of Uganda’s most innovative artists, he was quick to defend his efforts and gave me an alternative view to corporate sponsorship in Kampala.

He sums it up this way: “The ladies loved the project (Signature Art) because it is their own personal initiative and is a successful one. They love the project and probably feel cheated when credit goes to Tullow Oil. But they also know that the artists stand to benefit more from this affiliation.”

He also highlighted the underlying concept of making money from these shows and re-investing it in subsequent exhibitions, an idea I found brilliant. His claim that Signature Art was the first exhibition involving Ugandan companies in the sponsorship of art is, of course, subject to contention. But one ought to admit that such a concerted effort among corporate entities, where Kabira offered the venue and Tullow and Nile Gold footed the bill for the cocktail reception, is indeed a rare occurrence in the Kampala art community.

Targeting upper class?

According to Ronex, the organizers wanted to bring art nearer to the people who had money, and Tullow Oil was targeting the upper class in Uganda that forms the bulk of its clientele.

In fact this was vital for a company that is new on the business scene. While companies like MTN fund sports and other popular activities, these tend to be exclusively masculine, unlike art, which appeals to a small, but gender balanced and influential group. In fact, it was evident that the second show saw more companies coming on board as co-sponsors.

The organizers used the concept of private viewing to create prestigious consumption which in turn boosted sales at the exhibition.

Art exhibition at Serena Hotel, 2010.
Ronex. Art exhibition at Serena Hotel, 2010.

Asked why Signature Art was not hosted by one of the existing galleries, Ronex correctly quipped: “The galleries we have in Kampala are too small for such a show”.

One then wonders why the companies don’t sponsor the building of bigger and better art galleries and naming them after themselves! Perhaps this could also be food for thought for successful business men like Mr. Mulwana (Nice House of plastics, Uganda Batteries) or Mr. Mayul Madhivani (the sugar mogul). Such a prospect is more likely to leave a more profound legacy as well as help solve real problems within the art industry in Uganda.

The tendency to give business to fellow tycoons, such as the Tullow Oil – Serena Hotel or Tullow Oil- Kabira Country Club scenario, is rather short sighted if the objective of corporate responsibility is to precipitate long-term gains within the affiliated cultural facet!

The question is; does corporate sponsorship seek to augment or exploit the art industry?

Discussion points

Start Journal would like to hear the readers’ view on the role of corporate sponsors in Ugandan Arts.

Signature Art, the non-profit group that organized the Art Exhibition at Serena Hotel, would like to share their own opinions on How to make Art interesting here.

11 thoughts on “Corporate sponsorship of the arts: Friend or foe?

  1. hi,am hamada an artist by nationality somalia i have 4 songs mixed som/eng therefore we are a group called BANADIR TWIN SARS WE ARE looking sponsership ……..

  2. Hey Henry, I faithfully do agree with you on the notion that all artists need to take charge of the destiny of this industry.
    In that regard, the issue of unity still crops up.
    I am a very big advocate of unity among our artists- both visual and performing.
    The time is now to get hold of that mantle and this way all those aspirations we have for the industry will be realised.
    It was nevertheless, very thought provoking for me to have this debate with you because i believe not only are you a very accompished artist, but your efforts to jet- prompell this industry are spledid.
    Thank you.

  3. It is my humble submission that all worthy artists should take charge of the destiny of this crucial industry. They should be able to generate free and frank debate about the industry . That is why Start journal exists.
    secondly, I insist that it is, in my capacity as a member of the above community (of Artists), my duty to suggest the necessary ingridients to grow the industry. I think that we need to draw attention to the absence of proper institutions for the display (no disrespect to the galleries we have at the moment) preservation and marketing of the visual arts. we have a pressing need for a proper museum of modern art, auction houses and more spacious galleries! if this is a selfish and domineering stand, then i proudly embrace it!
    Stand up for the count if you feel me!

  4. I was not necessarily getting personnal. There’ are certain artists who act domineeringly. They want to appear like they know everything in the Uganda visual art industry.
    Art is not like that. It is about learning all the time. What you are talking about sir is secondary and not the primary cause of the stuntness of this lucrative industry.
    Many of our mentoers like Godfrey Mukasa, Ntesibe and Taga where not like that. They are still together as a team. they do not advance selfish ideas or rather plagerise each others work.
    I am only putting things in perspective here and not making emmotional out bursts. Sometimes the reality hurts, but we need to face it Mister.

  5. Hi dominic, I hope you read and understood the article before you became personal. The problem with the visual art industry is not fragmentation as such, because this can help us to develop numerous schools of thought. The problem is the existence of groups or individuals who can’t hundle criticism. Signiture Art obviously has its merits! however, I was bold enough to ask the questions as to whether we as an industry (and that is not selfish!) could squeeze more from such entities (such as the organizers of Signiture Art) in order to consolidate real growth in th visual art industry.

  6. I am no art cornossenuer, but i know the real problem of the visual art industry in Uganda is fragmentation. I have been around artists for along time to know that what sets you all back is the lack of unity.
    Some of you are ego-centric; you want to claim absolute knowledge on everything that concerns art.
    Henry, Please, this is killing the industry. Many funders already are suspicious of you because they believe that which ever idea you have is advanced on the premises of selfish interests.
    Let us all unite and be one voice. This way we will be heard.
    It breaks my heart to hear some artists already claiming that they were sidelined at the Signature art exhibition or they simply chose to stay away because they believed that this was a project for a particular cacoon of artists.
    Wake up and lets be one. Otherwise, that was a very intersting article.

  7. Dear Henry,

    It is good to read about all the efforts to promote the Ugandan visual art. When more people see your works of art it might be a way to interest other companies in supporting a new museum. In that sense I think Ronex is doing a good job with those exhibition like Signature Art. The more we know about the quality of Ugandan art, the more change to establish the most wanted museum.

    Addy Beukema

  8. Interesting that Dubai is building a guggenheim Abu Dhabi (by Frank Gehry) and the Louvre Abu Dhabi (by Lord Norman Foster) all to open by 2014. With their oil money, these guys can attract master peices like Rembrandts ‘night watch’ to the Desert.
    Now,I hear the guys in Uganda have found oil 🙂

  9. Great Article Henry,
    I really love (have always loved) the MAMU concept.
    It should go a long way in permanently! making modern contemporary art a sustainable business in uganda (permanently!!!).
    But you have to somehow get it started, I see why the wives of the corporate companies are sceptical, however, I am confident you guys have what it takes to work to brush aside all challenges 🙂
    All these great art ventures are a means to the end, and MAMU to be the goal!

  10. Henry, brilliant article,
    I will join you to ask why the already Rich people don’t build galleries like the guggenheim, Saactchi in memory of there legacy? Why those that build highrise buildings don’t dedicate a space on the first floor for an art gallery/museum like the Ramoma on Rahimthula towers in nairobi, kenya? Why politicians don’t commission public sculptures of themselves? why the corporate companies don’t fund art projects through local galleries to make them better other than people complaining about existing local galleries as not being at international standards???????

  11. Uganda urgently needs a large modern art gallery. There are no properly finished ‘white spaces’ in Kampala. Modern well-lit white spaces can do justice to the work of some very talented artists. The city’s major galleries comprise small rooms in bungalows with little or no electric lighting. This does a great disservice to an industry that will not attract serious critics or buyers until there are serious spaces where the art can be exhibited.

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