ISN’t it funny how good news often comes with a hidden caveat? The education minister will trumpet, for example, how the matric pass rate is up, but buried in the fine print is the fact that grade 12s only had to achieve 30% in most subjects to struggle across the finish line. Or last week’s statement that the sprawling Artscape theatre complex has launched a R1.5bn revamp with much fanfare — but has yet to secure the necessary funding and approvals.
It’s commendable to have a positive, can-do attitude, in the spirit of the baseball film, Field of Dreams: build it and they will come. Or, in this case, announce it and the funding will come.
And it certainly is important to project confidence in SA’s performing arts sector as a catalyst for job creation, economic growth and prosperity. This is especially so in Cape Town’s Foreshore area, where this potential is ripe for exploitation among the local arty set as well as the millions of culture-hungry tourists.
The envisaged arts academy and concert hall, as well as several studios, rehearsal spaces and seminar rooms — plus the development of adjacent land to form one of Africa’s largest cultural precincts linking business, arts and society — could be instrumental in finally escorting the Cinderella that is South African performing arts to the ball in suitably grand style.
But without trying to pour cold water on this tempting mirage, one has to hope that the Artscape Live Vision 20!20 will not prove to be too ambitious.
Last year, the Department of Arts and Culture and the provincial government contributed about 85% of Artscape’s total revenue of R129m, for both operational and capital expenses.
The complex estimates that it contributes R541m a year to the economy and creates, directly or indirectly, more than 1,000 jobs in the sector — which is arguably quite a tidy return on investment.
But where is the theatre going to get a whopping R1.5bn, even if it is spread over several years?
While the National Lottery may lend a hand, the obvious answer is that the corporate sector will have to step in. But with business sponsorship of the arts still languishing behind sports sponsorship — with some notable exceptions — and with a moribund economy, there will have to be a sizeable incentive for companies to dig deep into their pockets, such as offering naming rights to the entire cultural precinct.
Artscape’s optimistic announcement comes against the dour backdrop of other theatres battling to make ends meet. Yet again, the historic Victory Theatre in Orange Grove (or, as they prefer to pitch it, in Houghton Estate) is facing closure.
In fittingly dramatic style, a white Phantom of the Opera-style mask with tears of blood welling up from its vacant eyes advertises a campaign to "help save the Victory".
This Johannesburg heritage site underwent substantial renovations in 2007, in the hope that the theatre boom the city was experiencing would endure. But now the privately owned theatre is battling to repay the R24m spent on sprucing up the venue — not to mention its high running costs.
The sword hanging over the Victory’s facade places the livelihoods of 102 staff members and performers (particularly in the resident musical production, Umoja) at risk.
Among the proposed solutions are for individuals to purchase a permanent seat or a personalised plaque, and for companies to buy the naming rights to the theatre. The Victory is also encouraging more schools and drama societies to stage their productions there.
But what it, and other venues, really needs is buy-in from the surrounding communities and the integration of arts, culture and live entertainment into people’s day-to-day lifestyles.
We have already seen too many performing arts companies closing or scaling back their operations due to funding potholes.
It is clear that if the department’s Mzansi Golden Economy strategy is to work in promoting the arts as a driver of economic growth, it is going to demand creative thinking in addition to positive thinking.
The rose-tinted tag line for Field of Dreams was: "If you believe the impossible, the incredible can come true." Fair enough. But in the real world you need others to buy into those dreams too before your fantasy baseball diamond — or multibillion-rand cultural precinct — can be built.