On Art Groups and Societies

What are art groups and societies and what is their purpose?


Are they fulfilling their mandate and adhering to their constitutions?


Where to?


What is the purpose of Art Groups and Art Societies? An interesting question.


Did the founding fathers and mothers create them merely to provide a bit of fun for hobbyists, or did they have something more profound in mind?


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 they are?


• Are Groups and Societies regional treasures and reservoirs of skills and experience that should be protected and shared with new aspiring artists as well as the public?


I and others who think as I do believe they are regional and national treasures and could be reservoirs of accumulated knowledge and irreplaceable skills and their potential should be maximised and encouraged. It seems however my vision for them may only be shared by a small minority of arts friendly people. By far the majority see these societies only as a venue where Sunday painters and hobbyists can tinker away happily. For others, as is the case with some organisations, the collective it seems is the exclusive domain of certain academics or even pseudo-academics.


This article is not intended to single out any particular group or society and flog them, but it is an expose of sorts, and an incisive look at these organisations as they present at this moment.


I think we need to go back in time and try and understand why groups and societies were created here in the first place. I do realise and acknowledge that individual organisations have individual needs and origins but having been a founder-member of many of the organisations and groups in KZN and in South Africa I have some little knowledge and experience of what went on at that time, why they were conceived and started, and why there was a need for these organisations in the first place.


To give some indication of my experience of the setting up of these bodies I was a founder member of National organisations such as the South African Watercolour Society (WSSA) in the early ‘70’s, The Visual Arts Network of S.A. (VANSA), Network of Arts and Culture South Africa (NACSA) and locally, Arts Interactive and KZN Visual Arts (KWAZUNVA) as well as helping to set up groups such as Ballito Visual Art. I personally knew many of the people who created groups and societies such as Constance Heatherington whose brainchild the Upper South Coast Art Association was. I knew Meta Orton of the North Coast Art Group very well, and Henri Wood who started the Highway Art Group. Besides that I have served on a number of councils and committees of groups and Societies so am not just sucking my thumb when I discuss matters pertaining to the above organisations.


One thing that I’m really certain of, is what all these organisations had in common, was that they were not started as hobby groups or for mild entertainment but because the people that started them were concerned about the standards in art at the time they were started and 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 which was not the case in South Africa up until then. The intention was very serious and that was to raise the bar and create public awareness as to the merits of watercolour.


Meta Orton had arrived back in Umhlanga Rocks in Natal after studying art in London after the war. What she found on arriving back was the art being made locally was less than desirable or acceptable. She spent almost all of the rest of her life (with great success) trying to improve the standard of painting and sculpture on the North Coast of Natal (KZN). As mentioned earlier this was also the case with Constance Heatherington on the upper South Coast of KZN.


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 exhibitions 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 more recently 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 is being addressed and reversed and is once more starting to flourish. In some correspondence that has come to my notice BAASA KZN are also starting off the year in a delightfully proactive and positive manner and there can be little doubt that we are going to hear much about them in future. We can only congratulate these two organisations and wish them well)


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.


* 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 wider sector of the visual arts. I know that up until recently and probably still the case now that there has been no policy document on local visual art for Durban. I doubt whether there is one for this province of KZN.

* I guess we can also blame the slide on lack of availability of venues and exhibition space. Some groups and organisations do though have excellent venues and exhibition space but still fail to draw the public, or in fact 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 they have in the past still done some sterling work.
* Violence and fear of leaving homes, especially after dark? Many groups meet in the day in public places. Members still go out to exhibitions and other pursuits in the evenings so not attending meetings in the evening is little more than a lame excuse or a cop-out?
* It 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 but then only for the Durban based organisations.


What is the real cause of the apathy or lack of real success?




My feeling is that certain essential elements for successful Groups and Societies are lacking or being abused here. Is this a reason for these organisations not performing as they should? I have heard all the excuses such as the economy, education, the electronic media, conspiracies against things like watercolour paintings and painters and all the rest, and although they may play a small part I believe that these are essentially excuses rather than real reasons.


I believe that the most important elements required for success are dynamic and well documented and used Constitutions and Mission-Statements/Manifestos, and strong inspired committed and visionary leaders. Those things barely exist here now.


When I started writing this article I contacted all the groups and societies I know of, and am very pleased to say that they all said they would let me have copies of their constitutions. I was really delighted and surprised when all but the Upper South Coast Art Association (They either reinforce what I’m saying or perhaps do not have such a thing as a constitution or manifesto/mission statement?) kept their word and sent me the required documents.


I have spent hours reading those documents and also speaking to some of the leaders and committee members of these organisations. One thing that seems to be common to all of them is that they pay scant attention to the rules and guidelines contained in those pages. Some are hopelessly out of date and others have few or in fact no workable objectives in their OBJECTIVES section. 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, have never updated it going back as far as 1982 in one instance. The whole world has changed since then. The Arts certainly have changed, as has the society and communities these groups supposedly represent. Things that applied in 1982 are now very ancient history.


A number of committee and council members admitted to me that they have never actually read the constitution or accompanying documents, and didn’t really know what was contained in those pages. How do you represent an organisation if you do not know what it stands for, what its rules are, why it was created or where it is going?


One has to ask the question “How many Chairpersons of these organisations have read and understood their Constitutions and other critical documents and have any kind of understanding of where they are taking their organisations?” Or is it merely a matter of the whole throng just stumbling along from one tired and barren meeting to the next? Sadly I believe that in most cases it is the latter.


I cannot count how many such meetings I have sat through as a member, committee member or as a visitor attending the meeting because I had to give a talk or do a demonstration. Almost without fail the meetings have been the same. The same old apologies and excuses why so many of the good members could not attend (Usually more than 50% absent – must tell us something?) Seldom is anything new introduced and I have yet to be delighted by some group president announcing that they would devote an evening or some specified time towards finding a new and exciting direction for their group. It is possible that they know their members so well that they feel it is not worth the effort because anything new and exciting will be given the thumbs down. I know even while serving on a certain council very few of my fellow members had the stomach or energy (Perhaps courage) to suggest anything like a new direction. So their meetings tended to end up with the same old dirge; except of course when one or other ‘heathen’ introduced a new idea and there was great animation, negative beating of breasts and gnashing of teeth till the idea was scrubbed and they could once again get back to the routine of doing more or less mundane and unchallenging stuff or nothing at all.


In an earlier article I described it as being essentially like a dog sitting on a thorn and howling but just too lazy and too uninspired to move. So much easier to carry on sitting on the thorn and howling is it not?


It may be obvious to some inspired people, and artists in our case, that by doing this, little ever has been or will ever be achieved. Perhaps for most the thought of going in new directions and into unchartered territory is just too disturbing. It is easier and better to get ones head firmly back in the sand. If this is one’s attitude what is the point of serving on a committee or council?


The question has to be answered honestly. Do we in fact want to move away from this rut? If of course we are in a rut, or am I just giving reign to my usual jaundiced view of the things that surround me? Many of you will say that this is in fact the case, but just think for a moment that I just may be right and there is a rut and we are in it! If I am then where to? How do we get our art and our groups and societies back on the route of adding some real value to our communities and to society in general?




Where to indeed? My gut feeling is that this rebirth of the Phoenix has to start with the current committees who need to ask their members (those that are left and have some love for art and their organisations), if they want to continue ‘sitting on the thorn’ or to move to a better place? This means 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.


Is there the will in our groups, societies and associations to create a vision for the future for our visual art in this country, or do we all intend to continue wearing the insular and elitist mantle that we have been wearing for the last decade or so?


Sadly this elitism is in essence rather a sort of protection. That of favouring the essentially small groups of entrenched individuals that exists in almost all of the arts groups and societies in this country, and of giving themselves a sort of misguided status and privilege. One could almost forgive them for this if they were embracing a worthwhile vision and cause, and the quest for excellence in thought and execution, but sadly the contrary is true and they are essentially interested only in furthering their own causes, that is in protecting their individual comfort zones and in general embracing a general mediocrity.


For many years we have discussed and debated this issue of the decline in quality of our art and the potential demise of the groups but few talk about it openly, I suppose for fear of being branded spoilers. I guess that brand suits me well so there it is said and in the open.


In generalising one can say that contrary to the early years of the groups where membership consisted of thirty and forty years olds, in a survey taken about five years ago it was found that the average age of group members was about sixty-two. By now that average age must be approaching seventy years and as there has been little or no desire or enthusiasm to attract younger members one can only deduce that in ten years from now few of these groups will still be around. 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 votes must be considered. Only they can be held responsible for what they have inherited and will inherit. 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?


So too must those who have been mandated with this precious responsibility tell us honestly that they have undertaken that responsibility with a good heart and the desire to serve their organisations and art selflessly and with vision that is not merely self-serving?


Praise to those who can say that they did what was asked of them and while in their care they advanced the visual arts as best they could. There is no doubt in my mind that they are very few and very special.


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?


Till next month….


Written: January 2010


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