Different aesthetics with Tope Babayemi
The last time I went to the National Theatre of Nigeria to see a production was two years before the demise of our leading cultural icon, Ambassador Segun Olusola. I attended the event in his honour at the venue to pay my last respects as a stakeholder, to a man who had done more for the arts and culture than most Nigerian living or dead. I just had to be there and I remain glad that I did. Since that event six years ago, I have not stepped inside any of the facilities of the National Theatre to see a production. I decided to professionally boycott the space because I did not want my continued patronage to be seen as endorsing mediocrity and accepting ‘next best’. For me, it is not negotiable that the National Theatre be seen as setting the highest possible standards and perceived by the all as an example of best practice in arts management. I therefore refused to grace the venue with my presence until it begins to operate as the nation’s premier arts centre.
Why did I boycott the place? I had gone to see a play advertised to start at 3:00pm on a Sunday afternoon and invited two guests; one an investment banker and the other an architect. We left the hall at 5:00pm and the play had not started. Yes, the event had been organised by an arts association and therefore was not a production of the National Theatre; nevertheless, it very clearly demonstrated to me and my guests, the culture of incompetence and mediocrity within which much of our arts and culture is being promoted. The truth is often bitter.
In an environment where definitions and terms of reference in the arts and culture are not generally agreed, you find people claiming to be what they know little or nothing about. Producers, directors, performers, managers and agents are operating in the industry…uncertified by training or experience. The same is going on in the public sector where the capabilities and training of civil servants is not at par with their competence and requirements for the work they do. That is why most of our cultural institutions are in a mess. The requisite skills and experience for making those institutions viable are simply not there. As I have often said, you cannot employ a plumber to the position of an electrician and expect that someone will not get electrocuted.
I am not arguing in support of the position that granting private organisations concession to run our cultural institutions is the way forward. No. I am saying government should acknowledge, honourably, the systemic failure of management of our cultural institutions that has led us to where we are now. Thereafter, government should get proactive and invest appropriately in infrastructure and human capacity in its agencies and institutions. Giving these institutions out to concessionaires without strict adherence to the philosophy and principles underpinning their establishment will be nothing but a betrayal of public trust and the rationale for their establishment in the first place. It will also not yield good result in the end.
When you visit Terra Kulture Nigerian Arts Centre in Lagos, you will notice the ramp leading up to the gallery from the ground floor. The ramp is aesthetically pleasing yet functional. It was built to facilitate disability access. In contrast, the facilities at Muson Centre apart from the restaurant can only be accessed through stairs which are not convenient for physically challenged people. Cultural spaces must consider the range and needs of the constituents that make up the market in the conurbation in which they operate.
Many venue based promoters are lazy about programming. You see venues like the National Theatre competing with amusements parks, churches and event centres for programme. They appear too lazy to develop and produce coherent and recognisable programmes for their audience base. Others are opportunistic and seasonal in their programming and only react in terms of complimentary programmes for seasons when they think there will be a market.
Pricing policies for arts and cultural centres are usually concessionary and dependent on the venue’s policy on access and programming.
Whether privately run or government run, all cultural centres must, in order to be relevant and recognisable to the market, develop and implement policies of access, programming, and pricing as a critical step towards developing audiences for cultural products. It is about the market in terms of ‘bums on seats’ and visitor footfall. That is arts business.
In all, I will reiterate the point made earlier, which is that government cannot take a back seat in the process of catalyzing our creative economy. She must intervene at the highest levels and take active steps to invest in infrastructure and the development of human capital in the arts if our strong local culture and creativity is to deliver a sustainable creative economy.