Do We Still Need Collectives?

A few years back, resulting from a perceived drop in the standards of many of the Art Groups in the province it was decided to embark on a networking exercise. An organisation was formed to pool all knowledge and skills to the benefit of all of these KZN groups. Some embraced the idea and others fought it tooth and nail. I have never come to understand why that was. I can only assume that it was seen as a threat to the comfort zones of certain groups and individuals. The questions that often arose at our committee meetings were “Do we try and encourage all to raise the aesthetic ceiling or leave groups as and where they are?”


I do realise and acknowledge that individual organisations have individual needs and origins but having been a founder-member of a number of the organisations and groups in KZN and  in fact in South Africa I have some knowledge and experience of what went on at that time, why they were conceived and why it was considered important to have them.


I personally knew many of the people who created our groups and societies, and one thing that I’m really certain of is that what these organisations had in common, was that they were not started merely as hobby groups or for mild entertainment, but because the people that started them were concerned about the standards and future well-being of art at the time they were started. They had the desire and vision to do something about the situation.


A good example of this was there was no organisation that represented watercolour painting up until the time Marge Bowen called a meeting at her Carlton Centre Gallery one winter’s evening in the early seventies. Those that met there wanted watercolour to be viewed on an equal footing with other mediums such as oils, and the new acrylics, and this was not the case in South Africa up until then. The intention was very serious and there was no talk of it being a fun thing. The sole intention was to raise the bar and create public awareness as to the merits of watercolour as a serious art medium.


We can take this further and consider older and more famous societies such as the KZN Society of Arts (KZNSA–and previously known as the NSA) started in 1907, and also The Eastern Province Society of Arts and Crafts (EPSAC) started in 1918. The KZNSA was the life blood of Natal art in the early days and the NSA Winter Exhibition was for many years one of the leading, if not the leading exhibition in the country. The entry lists read like a ‘who’s who’ of South African art. This organisation at one time boasted +/- 1000 members but today struggles to find 200 paid up members. So too was it with EPSAC, once the bastion of Eastern Cape art, which no more than three or so years back found it was being rejected by artists of standing as no more than a venue for hobby-painters and bored retirees. Happily in the case of EPSAC this situation was taken very seriously and addressed and reversed and is now once more flourishing. One has to be really disinterested or complacent not to wonder what has happened to cause the decline in our art and especially our art organisations. There are some that are showing some improvement mainly due to the efforts of individuals but as soon as those individuals stand down those collectives revert to where they were.


Can the blame for the decline in quality and meaning in the Arts Organisations be laid at the feet of Government? I think a big chunk can (National, Provincial and Local Governments) as they seem to have little interest in the visual arts sector in general. I know that up until fairly recently and probably still the case, that there has been no policy document on local visual art for Durban. I doubt whether there is one for the province of KZN. It would be interesting to know what the situation is in other cities and provinces in S.A.


I guess we can also blame the slide on lack of availability of suitable venues and exhibition space. Some groups and organisations do however have excellent venues and exhibition space but still fail to draw the public to their exhibitions, or garner members in meaningful numbers.


Money is always a problem, but this has always been the curse of visual art organisations.  In spite of limited resources many organisations have in the past still done sterling work. Some still do!


Violence and fear of leaving homes may be a factor in limited support for arts organisations, especially after dark? Many groups meet in the day in public places. Members however still go out to the cinema, restaurants and follow other pursuits in the evenings, so not attending meetings in the evening is little more than a lame excuse or a cop-out.


The decline of art collectives cannot be blamed entirely on the electronic media either, as there are visual arts organisations overseas that have hundreds of members and are hugely successful. I am told that there are three thousand flourishing Art Groups in the UK. So why there, and not here? Perhaps the old excuse ‘Durban Fever’ can be trotted out for Durban and KZN but then what about the rest.


What is the real cause of the apathy or lack of real interest and success in so many visual arts organisations?


My feeling is that the essential elements for successful Groups and Societies are lacking or being neglected here. Could this be the reason for these organisations not performing as they could or should? I believe that the most important elements required for success are dynamic, well documented, well understood, and well used Constitutions and Mission-Statements / Manifestos, and strong inspired committed and ‘visionary’ leaders. Those things appear to be in short supply now.


When I decided to write this article I contacted many groups and societies and asked them to let me have copies of their constitutions. I was really delighted and surprised when most kept their word and I then spent hours reading the documents and also spoke to some of the leaders and committee members who sent me the required document.


The thing that seems to be a common factor in all of them is that they pay scant attention to the rules and guidelines contained in the pages of their own constitutions. Some constitutions or blue-prints are hopelessly out of date, and others have few or in fact no workable objectives in their OBJECTIVES section whatsoever. How can you have a group or association that does not know why it exists or where it wants to go? No clear reason for its existence? No manifesto or mission statement and some that do have this section included, but have never updated it! This going back as far as 1982 in one instance. The whole world has changed since then. The Arts certainly have changed, as have the collectives and communities these groups supposedly represent. Things that applied in 1982 are now very ancient history.




Where to indeed? To a place that has some real value and meaning: where Awards, Fellowships and Associateships have real clout in the wider arena, and are not just ‘pats on the back’ by one’s immediate peers.


I really believe that part of the solution lies in the way members approach the AGM’s of their organisations, and the way they cast their individual votes must be considered. Only they, the members, can be held responsible for what they inherit and the legacy they will pass on. Complacency amongst members is almost criminal and each person purporting to love art needs to search their hearts and minds and to ask themselves honestly if they are not somehow complicit in the decline of these organisations?


Let me end this with these wonderful words by Eleanor Roosevelt:


“Ones philosophy is not expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes. In the long run, we shape our lives and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And, the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility”


Is that not worth thinking about? I love it!


Written: November / December 2012

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