NAC's comedy of errors
by Virginia MacKenny
Who is actually reading the proposals submitted to the National Arts Council (NAC) this year? The question is asked not because a number of worthy projects of proven sustainability, professionalism, and national and international credibility have been rejected (which they have, but we all know there is never enough funding for all worthy projects), but because seriously constructed proposals have not been read properly and have been summarily dismissed for supposed "lacks" that have clearly been fulfilled.
One of the projects so cursorily rejected was an Artthrob initiative. Artthrob was rejected for putting in a funding proposal for a website. NAC policy, it was explained, was not to fund "websit [sic] and site maintenance". Leaving the rationale for this policy aside, Artthrob's application was not for the website but for the production of a one-off CD-Rom publication on the past five years of South African art, with substantial funding already promised by the Royal Netherlands Embassy. The CD-Rom is planned for distribution to educational and art institutions both here and abroad and will, if it gets off the ground, be an invaluable resource for students, researchers, curators and others.
The NAC's inability to read and/or understand a proposal is not a one-off failing. Artist/curator Greg Streak's critically acclaimed 'Pulse' project was also rejected, it would seem, for much the same reason. Supported by the world-renowned Rijksakademie and substantial funding from abroad, it would appear to be a highly suitable project fulfilling the NAC's stringent criteria for success. Streak received a rejection letter signed by Funiwe Kubalo (someone who clearly does not bother to read what they sign). It was full of errors, the most glaring of which was a sentence that simply ended midway: "The National Arts Councils mandate is to provide funding for" - with no conclusion and no full stop. Included was a reminder to Streak to check the ACT for guidelines next time he wished to apply.
The letter raised concerns for Streak that the substantial supporting documentation he had submitted with his application had not been read properly. His feelings were validated when he received another letter on the heels of the first - apologising for "the error in the first letter". The completed sentence was now seen to read: "The National Arts Councils mandate is to provide funding for South African citizens." This was the prime reason, it seems, why the 'Pulse' project proposal was rejected. Streak's anger on reading this was understandable, for embedded in his proposal was a clear statement, underlined, that the funding he was requesting for this international project was to be utilised for South African artists.
Such stories must surely be topped, however, by the experience of the DASART group, currently showing 'Transmigrations' at the Pretoria Art Museum. Included on the exhibition is a board covered with bureaucratic detritus from the organisational side of the art world, on which is included is a formal rejection letter from the NAC in 1998, accompanied by another slip of paper - its handwritten draft. Written in a dismissive tone, the draft ends with the sentence "Get a life", which has subsequently been crossed out.
Clearly this note was not meant for the rejected artists' eyes, so how did it come into their hands? Visions of furtive forays into NAC offices under cover of darkness are soon replaced by a far more embarrassing truth: the scrap of paper was mistakenly included in the envelope when the official letter was sent to the artists notifying them of their rejection. (Incidentally, the rejected DASART project, despite the NAC's dismissive comments that it was ambitious, expensive and not adequately organised, managed to get itself an international tour to locations including Mexico and Los Angeles.)
It would be a comedy of errors if it weren't so sad. It reveals an institution that seems to be not only ineffective in carrying out its mandate (its declared mission is to "develop and promote excellence in the arts", and its central priority is to "give the best possible service in the development of the arts"), but downright damaging. Accountability? Professionalism? Transparency? No wonder this country is losing many of its top artists. It is hard enough to survive without the very people who are meant to promote you not treating you seriously.
The NAC's visual arts committee, headed by National Gallery director Marilyn Martin, with incoming members Avi Sooful, Alette Vorster, Vusi Khumalo and Richard Baholo (see story on new appointees), is going to have to work hard to regain credibility. Such a lack of professionalism on the part of the NAC bodes ill for confidence in the funding body, but, more seriously, it bodes ill for the health of this country's artistic and cultural growth.