What Public Art Policy?

When public art in Cape Town comes under discussion between city officials and curators, politicians and artists, spin doctors and activists, it brings to mind that old first-year philosophy thought experiment: how do you know your colour blue is the same as my colour blue?

In Cape Town, the very word “public” is fraught with a sort of looking-glass dissonance. Who is this “public” that this art is for? And who gets to say what is art and what is not? Recently stencil collectives have been bringing, through graffiti deemed illegal by the City of Cape Town, the idea that “this city works for only a few” into the public consciousness. In this usage I am referring to the public as being those who live in the greater Cape Town metropole; not the tourists who arrive to disburse their euro and their dollar to experience a picture-perfect Cape Town. The City of Cape Town has a carefully managed public profile as a creative city. The World Design Capital has done much to reinforce this notion through a range of projects. A number of public art happenings roll out through the city on a regular basis, such as Infecting the City, the Live Art festival, and the monthly art walkabout First Thursdays, among others. These are facilitated through  Cape Town’s department of arts and culture, which is managed by Zayd Minty.

Further to this, operating in the upper-middle class area of Sea Point, the pilot project Art54 has, since 2009, been grappling with introducing the idea of public art into spaces such as the promenade, with the aim of rolling out similar initiatives in other parts of the city once the process is refined. Art54 has installed many different iterations of public art during the past few years, including semipermanent outdoor photographic exhibitions and sculptures in various forms. Art54 was also responsible for the Michael Elion sculpture Perceiving Freedom, which recently created a furore in the contemporary arts community. The latest Art54 project is a series of “quirky benches” (as referred to by ex Ward 54 councillor Beverly Shafer in a recent radio interview) along the Sea Point promenade.

Unlike Johannesburg, Cape Town has been operating without any form of public arts policy. This has led to frustrations within all facets of the art community. Just the other week the mayoral council of Cape Town passed the new arts, culture and creative industries policy, which according to the city’s announcement, “aims to facilitate cultural activity in a way that celebrates Cape Town’s distinctiveness and creates inclusive spaces for Capetonians to reflect and freely express themselves”.

Upon the announcement of the policy, mayoral committee member for tourism, events and economic development, councillor Garreth Bloor said, “The presence of a thriving creative industry significantly enhances the ‘liveability’ and quality of life in cities, which has notable positive spinoffs for job creation and contribution to the local economy”.

The first question this statement raises is why the mayoral committee member for tourism, events and economic development is commenting on arts and culture policy.

The answer is simple – there is no department of arts and culture in Cape Town’s mayoral committee. The department resides within Bloor’s directorate. Minty, who manages the department, is not an elected official. Twice when I sent Minty questions, first relating to who exactly greenlit Chris Swift’s SunStar, and later regarding the new policy document, he directed me to the media liaison for the mayoral committee. His last email stated that his answers “get checked by the leadership above me, adapted as necessary”, and further that he is “not allowed to speak directly to the media”. A source inside the committee told me that all requests of this nature are fed through the media, that no one in the arts and culture department, the very mechanism that is theoretically supposed to be advancing freedom of expression, is allowed to speak freely on issues pertaining to it.  This is borne out by the fact that every single person I try get hold of for comment that has a capetown.gov email address refers me to the same press liaison.

This minor irony aside, the positioning of the department under tourism and economic development requires examination. According to the City of Cape Town’s “brag book”, the “unit was established in 1996 under a social development mandate, with Cape Town being only one of two such local government arts and culture entities in the country. From July 2012, it officially became a department under a new directorate focused on economic development through tourism and events, signalling a new era.”

The same brag book states that the tourism, events and economic development directorate “is mandated to market and develop Cape Town’s tourism, events, arts, culture and visitor offering”.  Later in the book, Minty is quoted as saying that his department “ran an active programme, from 2012 to 2014, while simultaneously realigning staff, budgets and programmes to its new mandate focusing on the visitor economy”. If it’s not already plain, the department presents itself as little more than the design wing of tourism and economic development.

When asked if economic value was a key component to all artistic endeavours, Bloor replied: “In the current context, where South Africans are desperate for jobs and economic development, the economic elements cannot be downplayed, but this does not mean it is the key element of the policy.”

Independent curator, and consultant to the session of Art54 that approved Elion’s sunglasses, Farzanah Badsha says there’s no conflict of interest regarding arts and culture’s positioning within tourism. “The arts can be a part of a nuanced tourism strategy and can be used to market a city such as Cape Town. The area of tension would of be if all art and culture spending and other forms of support were directed to projects that targeted tourists and the needs of the citizens of the city were neglected. This need for balance is particularly important in a place like Cape Town, where geographic divisions are still largely also race and class divisions, and if all arts funding or support goes to tourist-friendly spaces and the neighbourhoods outside these areas are neglected, then it would be an issue.”

The City of Cape Town’s brag book also quotes previous minister of arts and culture Paul Mashatile just to make the point abundantly clear. ”The new vision of arts and culture goes beyond social cohesion and nourishing the soul of the nation. We believe that arts, culture and heritage play a pivotal role in the economic empowerment and skills development of a people.”

The phrase “social cohesion” appears multiple times in the brag book, and multiple times on the policy announcement. It’s an interesting phrase that, featuring so prominently, needs to be unpacked.

In my reading, when one applies the phrase to creative expression, to self-expression, or simply to representation, it presents two options for interpretation.

The first is that in order to promote social cohesion, artworks and all manner of self-expression should present a South Africa that is at harmony with itself, regardless of actual social issues.

In the second approach, promoting social cohesion requires that artworks and all manner of self-expression should be fearlessly honest in addressing issues of social importance, thereby bringing the contradictions and injustices in society to light, and fostering communication to improve society as a whole.

It should be fairly obvious that the second approach has a much longer game in mind, and that the first approach is more likely to aid economic growth in a sector focused on an economy determined by a rainbow nation narrative.

The first approach would lend itself to work that tends towards the decorative; approach two would lend itself to work that tends towards the interpretive.

The second approach is more likely to create uncomfortable and/or provocative works that foster conversation and dialogue between ordinary South Africans about social, intellectual and cultural differences and issues.

The first approach is more likely to result in a giant meaningless light sculpture on Signal Hill, wrapped in Robben Island fencing in an act of political opportunism.


White Horses, Dragonfly Girls and Graffiti

Added to the tourist economy imperative behind the decision-making process of arts and culture is a further complication in the way public art operates in Cape Town; the lack of a clearly communicated system of applying for public art space, and the absence of a clear document or department that guides the artist through, or handles for them, the processes and permissions the city requires to erect a public artwork.

A further layer to this is the lack of funds for public artworks. While it is hoped the new policy will go some way to addressing these lacks, certain precedents have been set by a number of public works and it is instructive to examine how these sculptures came into being.

The first two large public art projects that graced the Sea Point promenade in 2010/11 came into being through entirely different processes. Both were supported by then councilor for Ward 54 and now mayoral committee member for safety and security, JP Smith. He is important in the story of public art for two reasons: he was actively lobbying for a public arts policy as far back as 2009, when the thought hadn’t seemed to cross anyone else’s mind other than gallery owner and Visual Arts Network of South Africa chair Jonathan Garnham. Garnham got involved with the process that resulted in the artwork White Horses by Kevin Brand, a permanent sculpture commissioned and selected by a committee chaired by Gavin Younge of UCT’s Michaelis fine art department. Garnham said Smith was instrumental in making the project a reality, describing him as a “doer”, and said that although Smith might not have fully embraced the final artwork, he understood the value of the committee system in choosing the work.

Echoing this, Smith said: “We committed to a process, and I saw that process through. I may not like the final artworks, but that is not the point.” Smith took a moment to contemplate, “You know, the art aficionados, they loved the horses. I don’t like them. But those same art aficionados hated the Dragonfly Girls, and the public loved those.”

The Dragonfly Girls that Smith refers to were a series of almost 20 life-size concrete casts of a girl in the process of morphing into a dragonfly created by artist Marieke Prinsloo-Rowe . These sculptures did not pass through a consultation process. Writing at the time for Mahala, Linda Stupart said: “Unlike other public art, there was no consultation with any arts governing body (yes they exist, and function even). Rather, the sculptures were offered at no cost to the city by the artist and accepted without consultation, with the agreement that they are on temporary loan for a year. Said year, however, has passed, and the sculptures are still there, again with no consultation with arts bodies or, for that matter, the broader public (whoever they may be).”

When speaking to Sea Point ward councilor Schafer, Stupart was told that “the artist paid for the sculptures herself and invested more than R300 000 in them. She also, at her own expense, maintains them.”

Stupart went on to conclude, “That Prinsloo-Rowe is provided considerable space in the public sphere because she has the money to produce and maintain (albeit very shoddily; the works are already falling apart at the ankles) the work herself, in essence buying exposure and ownership of public space.”

This purchasing of public space echoes in 2014 with Elion’s Perceiving Freedom sunglasses sculpture, which was paid for with the help of a sunglasses brand, and Swift’s SunStar on top of Signal Hill, which was paid for by Southern Sun, which surely is part of the visitor economy the department of tourism is so invested in.

Because of a lack of public funding, artworks were given permits based purely on whether their creators could produce them at no cost to the city. It is notable that all three of these artworks funded by artists or sponsors are textually bereft.

That this granting of permits to those who can afford to build, or have the resources to attract sponsors, and the time to navigate the city’s bureaucracy, only entrenches class divisions by favouring those with privilege should go without saying. When asked, in reference to Elion’s work, whether any black artists had been considered for public artworks, Schafer said, “Why has race come into public art now? Why on earth are we putting race into art? Why should it not be just public art?”

Smith was also instrumental in passing the 2010 graffiti bylaw that distinguishes between mural art and graffiti, with the former being permissible under certain strict conditions and the latter being a criminal offence. The interpretation of this definition is left entirely up to the relevant city representative for the area concerned. Artists have to navigate the city bureaucracy to attempt to register as mural artists. While Smith made sure there are clauses that, if paid proper attention to, provide ways for mural artists to create works, the bylaw is complex and difficult to unpack, and there are no city resources publicly available that inform would-be mural artists of their rights or the correct procedures to follow. While the bylaw provides a mechanism for mural artists to issue their own permits to carry out work, only three such artists currently enjoy such rights.

Shani Judes of Art54, and a practising mural artist, said of the graffiti by-law process, “The problem with the bylaw is that it’s the same punishment for a tag/vandalism as it is for a work of art”. She went on to say that “every single time I need to arrange a permit we have to go through a tedious process, and most of the time the request is declined because one of the many departments that need to sign off says no. Some of the millions spent cleaning graffiti could have gone to programmes that are educational and inclusive. For example, the city could identify walls and open them up to artists.”

Badsha has similar sentiments towards the process behind promenade art. “There are mechanisms, but they are not sufficient and are not tailored to address the needs of making decisions about selecting public art with any kind of curatorial oversight or with the guidance of a coherent policy to guide their decision-making, so it is largely left to the personal judgment of technicians and officials.”

A pattern emerges. The City of Cape Town welcomes your public art, if you have the resources and the access to funding to navigate a daunting system. Both Swift and Elion faced huge difficulties in realising their projects. These difficulties would more than likely have proved insurmountable had they not being coming from a place of privilege. This is by no means a reason to lay fault with Swift or Elion; rather it shows just how unaware the City of Cape Town’s department of tourism is of how structural inequality affects the ability for self-expression.

Under these conditions, anyone with access to resources can make art; those without cannot. Hopefully the policy document in some way addresses these imbalances.


Understanding Public Art

The draft policy has been available for public comment for more than a year, yet within the arts community there was never as robust debate on the policy as there was outrage over Perceiving Freedom. When a petition was started to remove the sculpture, the opinion of contemporary artists was galvanised, but the draft policy was open to public comment and received little feedback. “The policy is where we should be engaging,” said Garnham, “Policy is boring, but that’s where we need to put our attention.”

Badsha expanded on this: “The department of arts and culture has tried to have consultations and has hosted exhibitions and workshops around the issues. It is an impossible task to consult everyone who needs to be consulted about public art, because by definition this involves the entire public. I think that rather than consultation, what is needed is to create more understanding in the public about what public art is.”

The Western Cape government recently announced the winner of its public art competition. The process that was followed was similar to the process that commissioned the promenade’s White Horses. There has been some concern in critical and contemporary art circles that the choice of winner, Open House by Jacques Coetzer, was not the best choice, but this cannot truly be assessed until the artwork has been built. What can be said at this point is that the process seems to have been more robust than the processes that resulted in the Dragonfly Girls, Perceiving Freedom or SunStar. But the fact that three of the panellists were either currently with or used to be part of the tourism, events and economic development department tends to dent its legitimacy somewhat.


Where is Cape Town’s Public Gallery?

Cape Town lacks a public gallery. Johannesburg has one, Durban has one, but Cape Town does not. The Iziko SA National Gallery is a national institution. Besides the not terribly well supported Gugs’thebe in Langa, and the small Arts B at the Belville Library, the City of Cape Town does not maintain any galleries of its own. This lack is curious, and in this case it would fall partially under the ambit of tourism. Once tourists are tired of the wine farms and the beaches, there is plenty of scope for cultural tourism – think of the queues at The Tate. But, more than that, a gallery maintained by the City of Cape Town that actively showed and collected South African artists would set up a new and more respectful relationship between the city and artists.

When asked if the policy document provides for the possibility of a Cape Town Art Gallery, Bloor replied, “Cape Town is a major centre for visual arts, with such spaces as the Iziko SA National Gallery, the Michael Stevenson Gallery, the Association for Visual Arts, Blank Projects, Greatmore Studios and Whatiftheworld, among others, creating a strong visual arts environment. As per a study by the Visual Arts Network of South Africa on behalf of the national department of arts and culture, Cape Town is on par with Johannesburg, despite Johannesburg having almost twice the population of Cape Town. In two years, Cape Town will have its iconic space at the V&A Waterfront called the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, in the old grain silos as part of extensions for the V&A Waterfront.”

Bloor seemed to misunderstand my question. I was not asking if there were commercial galleries to visit to buy art, nor was I asking for a progress report on the city’s latest tourist attraction. I was enquiring if the city had plans to start collecting and housing the works of the artists that form part of Cape Town’s public. Another minor point here is that Heatherwick is a designer, not an architect.

Earlier in the week, before I traded emails with Bloor and his PR team, I asked Garnham what he felt would improve the so-called art and culture department’s engagement with contemporary art, and the multiple and varied practitioners of Cape Town. After pondering the question, he replied: “It’s that thing about having a poet as a president. There are plenty of people who work for the city who are incredibly good at implementing practical steps, but there is no soul. It feels like the city has no understanding or respect for what art can do.”



 Main Pic: A Tokolos Stencil Collective intervention, see more on their TUMBLR

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