Cultural Space Making and South African Cities

The Community Arts Workshop featured last week, provides a springboard for this follow-up blog on cultural spaces, discussing how South African local governments could support the development of communities and cultural ecosystems, by providing access to state owned property for cultural use. 

Guga S'thebe Arts and Culture Centre, Langa 

Guga S'thebe Arts and Culture Centre, Langa 

How could South African municipalities support creativity, social cohesion and economic development in its (often still segregated) cities, in the face of dwindling budgets and without getting caught in aiding a cycle of dependence?   One way to do this is to provide support for the city's cultural sector to enable it to be more self sufficient, while making a difference to their communities. The black hole of arts funding -the almost endless demand for funding for culture and for the arts from its civil society - as some call it, is a real issue and it is extremely hard to mediate needs and demands of citizens with the challenges of equitable  city making and management in resource constrained cities.  While it is true that cities in South Africa could be doing much more to support the cultural life of its cities (and a 1% support would be a good start),  many cities in South Africa are still battling to provide basic effective service delivery.  So how do they provide cultural support when there is no constitutional mandate compelling them to do so?

In this piece I suggest, that the way a municipality can make a difference, is by providing what most local government's are often not short of - property.  Many South African cities have properties they struggle to use and to maintain, and so often, for various reasons including the fear of complex regulatory frameworks, they leave them empty.  This is the case in a number of major cities including Johannesburg and Cape Town.  At the same time, these cities have large, active and vibrant cultural sectors, more especially those who have been operating for some time, whose main need is often not general operating money, but rather the finances to secure and rent space over a long period of time for preparation and presentation.  This space they can then leverage through a range of means, including ticket sales, catering, sales of cultural products, art classes, fundraising and the like to increase capacity and further their mandate.  The need for simple and affordable space has been raised in a number of research studies and needs assessment focussed on the cultural sector - it is often a number two priority after funding support.   In last weeks piece I showed that if a city could provide even a simple space to a group of committed creative people,  these will in turn leverage it to make a big and lasting impact through relevant content.  Cities need to recognise that they have a considerable resource with its cultural sector, and rather than seeing this sector as a challenge and a burden, municipalities need to begin to understand it as a reservoir of creative positive energy and to facilitate its ability to do what it does best.  The end result is a win-win for all aspects of a city.

I plan to show in this article, using two examples in the city of Cape Town, how a municipality could best provide cultural space within the confines of its regulatory contexts.  These examples show what is possible, as well as how to approach a challenging situation innovatively.

Rust-en-Vrede in Durbanville

Rust-en-Vrede in Durbanville

Rust-en-Vrede

The Rust-En-Vrede Gallery is based in Durbanville, on the edge of the Cape Town municipality, a distance from the cultural hub of the central city.  It is in a restored heritage building which was given on a long term lease at a peppercorn rental, through a tender process to the non-profit Durban Cultural Society in 1981.  Initially a modest grant was offered for a few years to maintain the space and as a startup grant for the arts centre's management.  Today local government only provides basic maintenance to ensure the integrity of the building and its security.  It also maintains the public gardens around the center.  Working with a skeleton staff, the centre ensures a strong program of visual arts via its gallery, clay museum and through arts classes.  It also rents out part of its space to a café and to some creative businesses.  The Durbanville Cultural Society members all pay a membership fee as well as provide voluntary services, managing finances, assisting with the programs and fundraising amongst others.  This brings in all the necessary finances to allow the centre to function as both an important community space  and as a hub for artists in the area and its surrounding.  It is a primarily white middle class neighborhood and while it is on the edge of the winelands, it does not receive much of a tourist trade.  By providing a relevant service to its local constituency, with consistently strong artistic content in a beautiful old building, it has managed to use its asset base effectively to stay afloat without requiring a government grant for operations.  

What was learnt was: First put out a tender on a three year basis for a municipal space, narrowly pitched for a functioning community based arts non-profit.  Ensure a  startup operating fund.  Once the body has proven it can make the space work, and following evaluations in the final year, a long term rental on a pepper corn rental can be provided.   Local government needs to ensure there is enough potential in the property to host relevant activities and for catering.   In this case the city managed basic renovations.  However it is always a good practises to involve the tenants, or specialist arts managers, in the initial basic set up of the space.   

Performance at the Guga S'Thebe Arts Centre in 2010

Performance at the Guga S'Thebe Arts Centre in 2010

Over time, as in this case, the arts centre management enhanced the spaces at its own cost and according to its operating needs, with the city only providing a basic maintenance budget.   Because this was a heritage building, the budget for maintenance had to ensure specialist care for the building's walls and roofs.  In addition because the centre was based in a tranquil garden that the public from a busy shopping street could access, the city provided a garden service.   Working with an already established cultural group ensures that there are already systems, finances and a voluntary capacity in place to activate the centre early on. 

The Guga S'thebe Arts and Culture Centre

Guga S"thebe is based in Langa and opened in 2000.  Langa is relatively near the city centre and has a largely working class black community.  It's proximity makes it the preferred site for "township tourism", but it also has a long and important political and cultural history in Cape Town.   Guga S'thebe is a beautiful architectural piece, designed by Carin Smuts, built through a three way partnership between national, provincial and local government as part of a (largely failed) national RDP Arts Centre programme in the late 1990s.  The Centre was established as a result of community activism and was managed by a local committee of artists, with its heyday in the early 2000s.  It was maintained by the City after construction, who also employed its program staff.  The collapse of the committee and the departure of the  centres arts trained manager, led the City to begin unilaterally managing the space as a tourist hub rather than addressing the problem behind the centres breakdown.  This decision led to both the local community and the artists in the area being displaced from the centre.  Over time its arts content became increasingly geared around servicing a narrow international tourism market, with Guga S'Thebe, functioning largely as a stopping off point for township tours to Langa from around 2007.  This created significant resentment with the long standing arts community in the culturally rich suburb.

In 2013 work began by local government to return Guga S'thebe to its original arts and culture centred focus.  This had four key elements.  First, rebuilding community trust in local government by recognising the mistakes made and opening the space up to the arts again.  Second, providing support and training to enable the community arts groupings in the area to gain capacity to eventually take over management . Third, restructuring the staffing component and the ways in which the city provided support to the centre, recognising that the city itself was not the ideal manager of the space.  Fourth, upgrading the built fabric of the centre so it could be more functional and enabling the centre to commercialize its content better.  One critical challenge of the space was that it had very small spaces for the public - its main performance space was outdoors and subject to the regions inclement weather, preventing it from being used for longer runs.  When the space became a tourism hub, its already struggling café was closed.  This cut off a potentially important attractor and an income stream.  Thus adequate public access spaces had to be provided to enable arts content to be shown well, protected from the elements.  These needed to be complemented with access to refreshments for visitors and users of the centre. 

As a result of a design-build project by two German architectural schools including generous donations, a new multi-purpose "Theatre" space was innovatively constructed using shipping containers and local recycled material on city land that had lain unused for almost two decades behind the centre.  This expanded the potential of the arts centre.  A café was also planned. Although the change process is still ongoing, the new space has already attracted local user attention and been used for several events.

The Guga S'thebe Arts Centre Theatre - built out of shipping containers and clad with recycled material.  It can host 200 people seated as a formal performance space for music, theatre or film, but is also multifunctional.  It has ample storage space, a recording studio and a coffee shop.  It was designed and built by lecturers and students from German universities who raised the funds for it, while the City provided land and essential services.

The Guga S'thebe Arts Centre Theatre - built out of shipping containers and clad with recycled material.  It can host 200 people seated as a formal performance space for music, theatre or film, but is also multifunctional.  It has ample storage space, a recording studio and a coffee shop.  It was designed and built by lecturers and students from German universities who raised the funds for it, while the City provided land and essential services.

The learning out of this project was that local government needs to play less of a driving and more of a facilitative role, which included working more closely with an supporting local stakeholders and their primary needs.  It cautions against the state driving projects to become narrow tourism driven initiatives and cutting off local interest.  This  means understanding the center in the context of the city as a whole and not just narrowly in the neighbourhood, and recognising its specific cultural history.  While architect driven designs can raise profile, these are potentially challenging in terms of functionality - simple secure spaces that can hold at least 200 people seated, and that can serve a variety of functions are necessary to ensure sustainable arts usage.  In this case an innovative project was created and donated to the city to make the centre more functional for cultural use.   This serviced the needs of the centre and also resuscitated interest in it.  Once the arts community regained some control, it was able to influence and improve content,  A cautionary aspect is that once a local municipality looses the trust of a community around a project, the road to repair is much longer than with a new project, where enthusiasm is often higher.  This means a municipality needs to pay careful attention to relationship building and to annual collective evaluations, working to address challenges as they arise.  This is a function of staff who are dedicated to the task and who could manage more than one centre, while the non profit cultural body does the day to day running of the space. 

Cultural Spaces in the City of Cape Town

One of the internal spaces in the new Theatre at Guga S"thebe 

One of the internal spaces in the new Theatre at Guga S"thebe 

These two centres form part of a portfolio of cultural spaces under the City of Cape Town's Arts and Culture department.  This relatively small department with a R40m budget, or under 0,13% of the overall city budget is responsible for a range of activities.   In addition to cultural spaces, it handles public art, cultural mapping and community cultural development.  Its work excludes libraries and heritage preservation managed by other departments.  The Department's cultural spaces approach was codified in the 2014 Arts, Culture and Creative Industries Policy, the first of its kind for an African city, which was recognized as a good practise document by UCLG Agenda 21 committee.  The policy is currently, reportedly, not active, but the CIty's programmes continue.  While the department has a small staff component to oversee its eight cultural spaces , the learnings documented above and basic policy recommendations, are relevant for use in a variety of city contexts, and can be activated even without a dedicated arts and culture unit.  They also provide the basis for citizen action to convince their local government to activate its underutilized property stock and in so doing claim new spaces to advance creativity, culture and the arts, and to help foster social cohesion in communities.