Keep the lights on!

Once upon an era, circa 10 BC (Before Change) there was an art competition called the Cape Town Triennial, which aimed, according to its first press release in 1982, “to bring together the best contemporary art being produced in South Africa”.

It beckoned to  the brightest and bolshiest of artists’ intent on deconstructing the fictions of South Africa’s oppressive history and fractious identity. This heralded the emergence of what is now known as “competition pieces” — characteristically big, bold works produced predominantly by subversive sophisticates (read academically trained, mainly white artists) intent on elevating art — despite the country’s cultural isolation – from its “also ran” status into the global cultural stratosphere.But several years into its incarnation as South Africa’s premier competition, the Triennial was deemed too elitist. A radical restructuring took place in order to broaden the selection and evaluation of artists. In 1991, the competition imploded on its democratic intentions, creating a cultural crater that was filled only partially by the erstwhile Vita Art Now Prize, sponsored by First National Bank, before its demise in 2002. The moral of this cultural fable… we shall get to that later.

Suffice it to say that today, circa 14 AD, art competitions and awards have become as integral to the South African cultural landscape as braais and power failures to the South African psyche. As managing editor of online magazine ArtThrob, Michael Smith observes: “As long as I’ve had a sense of the practice and production of contemporary art in South Africa, it has been coupled with an awareness of art competitions.” The newest addition to a litany that spans almost the entire alphabet is the Spier Contemporary, which showcased a refreshingly — sometimes haphazardly — diverse display of media exploring sexuality, interrogating history and revisiting childhood traumas [See reviews, p.90]. Presenting such a mixed bag of work constituted the competitions greatest strength and weakness because it straddled the sublime and the downright appalling. But it wasn’t just the scale of the show that was noteworthy; it was the fact the “competition piece” had morphed into intrepid collectives, multidisciplinary performances and video installations. So, depending on angle of vision, Spier Contemporary might be heralding a brave new and improved era of art awards, or, will be little more than a viticultural variation on a Kebble theme.

And what, after all is the point of an art award without the customary whine? While the competition times, formats and pieces might have changed inexorably, the debates have not. Even when recycled they still revolve very much around issues that dominated the Triennial’s halcyon era, namely access, representation, follow-up and a sense of “cultural entitlement” that competitions fill the holes in government funding and cultural leadership.

Recently cultural sabres were rattled at the 2007 ABSA l’Atelier Competition and the patron body for the competition, the South African National Association of the Visual Arts (SANAVA) over the disproportionate ratio of white finalists to their black counterparts.

Then there was the letter published in ArtThrob by Nomusa Makhubu, the 2006 recipient of l’Atelier’s Gerard Sekoto Award, who complained of ineffectual follow-up and indifference on the part of sponsors and patrons to her financial plight. “Maybe the prize was designed to illustrate the life of paucity that Sekoto lived in Paris,” she ruefully suggested.

Both SANAVA and Absa denied her accusations, and in the wake of the negative publicity the bank is probably wishing that it had opted to sponsor an award for a wildlife society instead. But Makhubu’s complaints have been echoed by several artists, who point accusatory fingers not at Absa specifically, but at the systemic deficiencies in art competitions, courtesy of South Africa’s unbalanced history. Defensive benefactors, dependent stakeholders and an art community that often appears a contraction in terms augment these deficiencies.

Says artist Guy du Toit, who was one of the judges of the Atelier competition: “Competitions need to be more pro-active in sourcing talent, facilitating access and implementing effective outreach programmes for marginalised artists. We also need to move away from ‘Excelsior’-style formats into awards that address the practical needs of artists, not just their aspirations.” Towards this end, competitions like the Sasol New Signatures have established structures designed to make the competition more accessible and representative. “Before the competition deadline I travel to collection centres countrywide to conduct workshops on the competition, presentation techniques, as well as issues related to new media and submitting work via the internet,” says Franci Cronje, an art educationist and New Signatures Chairperson. “As a result we have seen a substantial increase in the number and standard of works submitted by artists.” But art is also entitled to its Oscar moments, with lavish award ceremonies, celebrity treatment and a substantial cheque at the end, a la Kebble. One of the prime objectives of the Kebble Award was to focus on the mutually beneficial opportunities that arts patronage can provide to both artists and investors.

Artist Zwelethu Mthethwa was a judge for the two years of the Kebble awards, prior to its patron’s murder in 2005. “I enjoyed the debates I had with fellow judges Penny Siopis, Lucia Burger and Julia Meintjies — all of whom had very different histories to mine.

That made for a robust, vibrant discourse. And there was no need to prescribe or overly nurture the artists who received the award. It was their prerogative to do what they wanted to do with the money they received.” He adds: “I don’t believe competitions should try to be all things to all artists.”

Indeed corporate awards in other disciplines seem to proceed without the hand wringing, breast beating and mud slinging that characterise many art competitions. The 2007 Vodacom Journalist of the Year Award, for example, attracted veteran business journalist Bruce Cameron and cartoonist Zapiro, alongside less experienced professionals. Apart from an Editor’s Choice Award, designed to support and encourage up-and-coming journalists, there was no attempt on the part of the sponsors to exceed their mandate beyond the parameters of the award itself.

Perhaps it is unrealistic to demand that awards and competitions compensate for the iniquities of our past and the deficiencies in our present. The most prominent fault line running through our competition system — and the moral of the Triennial fable — is that the role of art competitions and awards, by definition, are limited and dependent on curatorial agendas, diverse constituencies and divergent bottom lines. Yet globally, in the last 30 years, dwindling government spend on the arts worldwide has galvanised the private sector to step up to the cultural podium. Initially it was in the form of the passive purchase of an artwork that served a expensive wallpaper before being slotted into the corporate social investment (CSI) budget of big business, and filed under “cc” which stood more for charitable causes rather cultural commitment. But in last decade, business has begun to embrace the strategic benefits of support of the arts through awards and exhibitions, and artists have learned to capitalise on this trend. In a global economy characterised by an unceasing battle of the brands, shrinking or over- subscribed markets and cynical consumers, brand building through art awards has become less a business strategy than a finely-honed craft. The Hugo Boss, Daimler Chrysler and other like-minded awards prove unambiguous confirmation of this trend. In the process business sponsorship of art competitions has become predicated less on the imperatives of social responsibility than savvy PR.

Nicola Danby of Business Arts South Africa (BASA) confirms as much.
“Our research confirms that corporations have shifted support of
art from their CSI budgets to their marketing budgets,” she says.
At the 2005 Business Day/BASA awards held in May 2006, Annie
Williamson, MD of FCB Impact and a member of the Business Day/BASA
Awards judging panel, observed: “Smart marketers have realised that
sports and global events are over-sponsored and are looking to other
types of sponsorships — such as cause-related events or arts
sponsorships – to add value to their brands.” As former art critic
Brenda Atkinson observed in her review of the 1999 FNB Vita Art
awards: “The organisers, artists and sponsors have to ‘add value’
to these events by creating the conditions under which they are most
likely to succeed for everyone concerned. Sponsors need to see
artists as professionals who cannot live on bread alone, and artists
need to engage with the broader public — including the private
sector – to educate and shift attitudes about art.”

Obviously art competitions need to undergo self-scrutiny in terms of outmoded
formats or judging processes, as well as re-assessing the value of
their contribution to contemporary art. But there is always going to
be a bottom line and the shift from the ‘something for nothing’
arm’s-length sponsorship model to a ‘something for something’
contract inevitably entails a tradeoff.

But in the face of Department of Art’s appalling fiscal
sloppiness (it failed to spend a staggering R12-million of its 2006
budget, with over R3-million spent irregularly, and no quarterly
reports published, as demanded by SCOPA), competitions like
l’Atelier, New Signatures, Tollman Award, and the recently
established Spier Contemporary represent an essential energy surge
for a sector depleted of a sustainable power supply.

Hazel Friedman is an art critic, investigative print and
television journalist and author of Hijack! (2007)