The Art of Economic Instability

Art, performative or otherwise, has for a long time thrived on public interest. Opportunities for funding artistic projects existed from numerous organisations. In Uganda, these organisations were mostly cultural organisations, like the Alliance Française (AFK) and the Uganda German Cultural Society (UGCS), or different diplomatic missions and non-governmental organisations that needed the arts so that they could work with communities for various reasons.

Written by Samuel Lutaaya

As a practicing artist, I have a stake in the future of culture. I am keen to see how we, as artists, could possibly navigate the waters of our native economies.

Samuel Lutaaya on stage during Bayimba 2011.

Whereas the interest in the music industry is at an all-time high in Uganda, there is a reverse effect in the amount of resources organisations – both public and private – are willing to commit for other artistic projects, like in the areas of dance, theatre, poetry and fiction, and fine arts.

The recent global economic downturn has given people in both public and private sectors a big fright, causing them to cut funding in various areas. Worldwide, developed nations that were vastly affected became more prudent with their funding and resource allocation. Culture and its related industries has taken a huge hit to the gut as a result of this.

Looking for a dance partner

Dance Week Uganda, the premier contemporary dance platform in Uganda, is a particular example. For seven years DWU has hosted a festival where a great deal of talented dancers have gotten a chance to showcase their talent on a professional stage.

Image from Dance Week Uganda Facebook-page.

While there has been some interest in the festival in the past years, the organisations that used to offer support to the festival – AFK and the UGCS – have become more aloof to the organiser’s cries for help. As the premier contemporary dance platform in Uganda, the festival has taken a heavy blow since the funding carpet was pulled from under its feet.

Nowadays, all that these organisations offer is support in kind and this does little to ease the burden of the now popular festival and further does the job of stifling growth of the sector.

A web of cultural supporters

Technological invention and innovation, however, has afforded us chance to connect on a grand scale and gain access to resources from across the globe. The Internet has been more of the artists’ friend than foe, providing them with access to information never before seen or heard of.

It is an age of immense opportunity as well as immense challenges globally.

Technology makes it possible for us to create linkages with our counterparts thousands of miles away in real time. Therefore, it must be harnessed on a wider scale to facilitate survival and eventual growth in this post economic nightmare period.

Many of the major funding organisations, like HIVOS, The DOEN Foundation, and The Commonwealth Foundation, are headquartered in Europe. To get access to such financial support, Internet may seem like a requirement. Hence, the net has created immense possibilities for artists to access resources that up until now only has been available to the selected few.

Global services like brings artists closer to a crowd of microfunders.

Public sector must support arts development

Legislation is not helping matters, either. The politicians are not so concerned with culture and its long term benefits in society. But we all know that culture has a vast potential of contributing to the economy, more than before when it was more a matter of cultural identity.

The ones in power need to understand that the cultural sector might help raising the country’s Gross Domestic Product, otherwise art will continue to struggle in the darkness. Lasting solutions for the future are embedded in the arts, but this can only become a reality if there is support from public institutions for cultural initiatives and the creative industries.

Faisal Kiwewa, Director of Bayimba Cultural Foundation.

According to Faisal Kiwewa of the Bayimba Cultural Foundation, artists need to concentrate on the art and let arts managers manage them: “It depends on the art you are selling. Different arts require different elements to work. Music, dance, theatre and visual art must all be developed and marketed differently. We need to understand the economics of the art as well as the production of the art. There is a market for art. If we package it well, we can grab the attention of our audience and even grow it to a much bigger level,” explains Kiwewa.

He maintains that the potential of the arts is enormous and we need to exploit the best of the opportunities available.

What are our options?

Because of the recent turn of events economically, terms like creative industries and cultural entrepreneurship have been coined by various proponents. These are signaling the need to consider the adverse effects of not being attentive to the business side of art.

The mechanics of the industry have been further complicated by the metamorphosis of the economy into a monster that is proving difficult to tame in the short term.

So the choice I pose is this: Should we just sit back and wait for someone to feel sympathy and donate some spare finance? Or should we start to think proactively and become more financially literate about our sectors?

I propose that we look at the latter as a workable solution.

Develop the entrepreneurial mindset

Artists and arts groups must think beyond the fantasy of flamboyant creations. In addition, they must look at the business side that moves it. Finance, management and the related elements are crucial parts of the artistic process and require equal amounts of attention.

I am not suggesting that we get rid of these capital intensive projects. Rather I would like us to be pragmatic and look at how we can thrive in the prevailing economic times. We must start to think of the bottom line and its effect on our final product.

We must look at our projects as economic goods that are affected by the fundamentals of supply and demand. Furthermore, explore ways to attract, maintain and eventually grow audiences in the short, medium and long term.

Once we start to think of ourselves as entrepreneurs—who we are in a sense—then there is a good chance that we will thrive in this era of uncertainty.

No news but online news

Stakeholders in the creative industries should take a long and hard look at the prevailing times and the resultant precarious situation. Consider for a moment the newspaper industry:

They provide a unique avenue for the advertising of artistic events, but they are dying a slow and painful death, partly thanks to their lack of foresight with regard to digital media. They failed to foresee the possibility of their customers gaining access to content online. People are not as interested nowadays in print as they are in online content which, increasingly, is available free of charge.

In other words, for one to buy a physical paper no longer makes as much sense save for the die-hard readers. News gets to us in real time. Charging for such content means that the customer will look for it elsewhere, at the speed of their internet connection.

Develop business and finance skills

Artists can no longer just be passive creators who are unaware of the business side. They must consider the businesses surrounding the arts scene. Then learn how to create products that are not just expressions of their inner life, but a marriage of the customers’ expectations as well.

Artists must learn business skills such as marketing, human resource management, budgeting, finance, corporate law, and strategy. We are no longer just creators, but business men. To ignore this is like putting your head in the sand. No sane artist can afford to be apathetic in this regard, as this will eventually spell certain doom.

Artists need to look to the private sector and alternative sources of financing, to enable them produce their works free of any real economic constraints. Gaining some decent amount of knowledge in finance will definitely not hurt as part an artist’s toolbox.

The more we take charge of our finances, the more adept we will be at developing and implementing artistic projects that will pay attention to the creative and business side of the arts. This is the future and I am looking forward to it with relish.

The music industry shows it’s possible

The importance of being more financially savvy cannot be overemphasized. Creative industries have enormous potential to contribute to the economies of numerous countries. A good example is our very own country Uganda:

The money that major musicians make and the lifestyles they lead only serves to show us that we can afford to place a great deal attention on the arts and reap big from them. Gone are the days when we had to fight to prove the legitimacy of the creative industries and the positive effects they can have on creating inflows. We should not ignore the arts as a way of generating revenue that can be used to develop the social and economic landscape of our nation.

Some possible suggestions

  • Harness social and electronic media to generate brand awareness. Treat the art as economic goods which has perceived value.
  • Develop financial literacy to gain an understanding of business skills.
  • Collaborate. Across borders, both cultural and geographic. Partnerships work better when one brings together creative minds from different backgrounds. And it allows for sharing of the resource burden.
  • Create networks across genres to enable artists to share knowledge which informs their works.
  • Artists should not sacrifice financial common sense at the altar of artistic excellence. Balance must be achieved to enable them stay in business.
  • Develop lucrative products that will attract the private sector – which has more finance to play with – as opposed to the public sector, whose funds are earmarked for particular cause.
Everybody on stage now. Photo taken from the Umoja Ethiopia performance at the National Theatre, september 2011.

Samuel Lutaaya is a freelance writer with a varying range of interests namely; dance, film, theatre, music, photography, fashion.

3 thoughts on “The Art of Economic Instability

  1. I agree Faisal with your comments and think that for arts to thrive, there must be a deliberate move on both ends to ensure the success of the industry.
    I do know that there are people who are managing arts organisations that are thriving despite the lack of the label, Arts Managers being attached to them. I am not so sure whether the models of the perfect situation exist but I do know that there are people making an effort to make the arts better and more sustainable

  2. Thank you Sam for your thoughtful writing about some of the major topics that have for along time dragged us back in the creative sector … and I think we still have along way – unless if we put our act together as team of mindful, careful culturalists to help our arts and our country to realize the there is a lot at stake if we do not balance the way we play our cards.

    Allow me to respond and elaborate on a few of your topics and suggestions;

    Looking for a Dance Partner:
    With the observation and experience of how organizations like Alliance and Goethe tend to offer support, they do not do it on a personal basis, all the time they have to justified their support to Dance Week or Bayimba or Startarts journal to their governments or Embassies that they work for, and most of the time … non of us ever attends those meetings as the beneficiaries to help them explain what went well and what went wrong. But because of the personal relations some of us (the organizers) have with the directors of these organizations, they feel ashamed of failing the requested financial support yet we bump into each other everyday at Iguana or Bubbles… therefore, they resort to in kind support that they will not have to struggle justifying/explaining to their bosses.

    But also looking for support for any project, it does not necessarily need to 100% rely on other organization/foreign support but to also have some home ground support … which I credit the Dance Week for having managed to pull of the Dance Week without support … but may be somewhere somehow having the home ground support is not good enough … more efforts have to also come from/put in branding the initiative/project/event and making it a must perform/must attend platform … I think this approach would give the more project/initiatives/events value and more visibility.

    Public sector must support the arts;
    Thats true … but I also think that not only the public sector nor the government or the private sector should sorely support the arts … with this question, or topic we further need to understand and analyze the environment that we operate in … organize ourselves to know where we stand and map out away forward as a sector (the creative sector). Then we look into how to cut across sectors (involving others like the government and private sector). For example, a Ugandan private sector company would support a miming CD launch because of the direct return on investment and won’t even look at a three day Dance Week Festival or a whole week art exhibition … but this does not mean that we have to go back to zero and think how to deal with them, lets work with those initiatives that are already established and give a hand to those that are struggling to find their way in to the market.

    The other perspective … if we also look at the public sector at a local level, we will be talking about Alliance Francaise, Goethe Zentrum, Embassies and other culturally interested institutions … but all these institutions can not afford to support the art and culture the way they should because their budgets are too small and its not government priority. The government want them to teach their languages (Germany, English and French) and provide security … sometime or most of the time, buy arms. So, to ask the Public sector to support the arts in Uganda, you have to first convince the government to add arts and culture on to their agenda, and am afraid – they don’t have a plan soon yet. So what do we do … I think we should do it ourselves.

    Proposing on the options;
    … I truly support your thought of letting us start to think out of the ordinary and focus our energies on innovative ideas and initiatives that will raise the profile of the arts, that will also provide jobs and opportunities for sustainable income. But the question is, what are the success stories in this area, who are our role models to help us understand the hardship and pass on their skills and knowledge to the new arts managers and artists… If find everyone very interested in who they are and what they want to be. I request for some examples here Sam!

    And here I also propose that initiatives/organizations should also focus in addition to their activities and agenda … the option of training new entrants in the sector, schools and academies to aim at educating students the skills marketing the arts, running art institutions and being good/professional artist… so that we can create a new workforce of brilliant entrepreneurs for the success and respect of the sector.

    Thats it for now …

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