Where are our arts and community centres?

Different aesthetics with Tope Babayemi

Twitter: afinjuadaba

When you travel out of Nigeria to countries where the people and their leaders understand the important role that the arts and culture play, not just in the process of development, but also in the way they help to ennoble the human condition, you see state investment and promotion of culture. You see state effort in public enlightenment and education to keep reminding the people of their history, heritage and their place in the scheme of global development. You therefore see policy and infrastructure established to support development in the arts both traditional and contemporary, in heritage, in libraries, in leisure and in recreation. You see publications that inform the local population of facilities available at local government, borough, county and city council levels. You also see publications and publicity promoting the opportunities available to visitors and tourists.

All over the world, arts, community, civic centres, libraries and museums are cultural institutions that help to celebrate community. They help to define and cement the social, cultural, political and economic fabric of community and promote social cohesion.

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, we in Nigeria have not been able to harness the potential that cultural institutions represent as cornerstones of meaningful, coherent and sustainable development. We have allowed cultural promotion to become an all-comers affair with both venue-based and independent promotions unregulated and without necessary leadership and direction in terms of programming.

In Nigeria, most venue-based promoters because of a lack of the requisite, specialised skills in cultural programming, are unable to develop appropriate programming and pricing policies to underpin their work and distinguish them apart from the general ’run of the mill’ venues. As such, majority of venues simply engage in ‘lettings’ of space for social events and not ‘own programmes’ with cultural content targeted at different segments of society and for discerning audiences. It is obviously much easier and less stressful to run an events centre than to run an arts centre. The problem is that many of the so-called events centres actually contribute to confusion and incoherence in the cultural landscape in terms of provision of facilities and in some cases actually contribute to the promotion of negative stereotypes of Nigeria and Nigerians.

There is no doubt about the negative and corrosive effect of elements of Western culture on our development especially regarding the younger generation of Nigerians. The gradual but definite relegation of our values has had a devastating effect on cultural production and advances in information technology and globalisation have further combined to reduce our people into consumers of foreign cultural products instead of producers of original products with potential for export and earning on the international scene. First, the cinema halls and other spaces available for recreation disappeared to make way for churches and religious institutions. Then consistent poor management of the Nigerian economy turned majority of the population into hustlers and workers who only lived to work and had little or no time for leisure or recreation. The result is that the sensibility of a huge percentage of the citizenry is being conditioned by foreign values that are not compatible with the requirements for true and sustainable development.

In my article in this column titled “Cultural Promotion and Programming” I postulated that “In Nigeria, the difference between arts /cultural centres and event centres has become so blurred such that Lagos, the cultural capital, can only boast of no more than two or three arts centres with recognisable programmes. In the main, the business of cultural promotion takes place in beer parlours and pepper soup joints. Event centres cater for all types of functions and venues dedicated to the promotion of the arts and culture is hard to come by”.

Lagos is the ‘melting pot’ of Nigeria in terms of cultural production and she reflects most vividly the cultural diversity inherent in Nigeria. It is therefore disturbing to note that only two venues can be described as viable arts centres in the state. These are Terra Kulture on the Island and the Ayo Bankole Centre for the Arts and Creative Expression on the Mainland. These two venues are the only ones with recognisable programmes dedicated to the arts and recognised by audiences. Of course there are others that programme cultural activity but their programmes are not consistent and recognisable to the general public.

In Lagos, at least 80% of disposable income spent on the arts and culture is located on the Island with a saturation of mainly privately owned facilities (usually galleries) servicing the affluent. The Lagos Mainland, generally speaking, is deprived of facilities and majority of the population can be considered as ‘culturally deprived’. The National Theatre of Nigeria which is centrally located and boasts standard facilities has failed to be the catalyst institution it should have been and has negligible impact on the lives of citizens. In fact, if care is not taken, that institution is soon going to become a liability to the efforts of the Lagos State Government in nurturing a viable and vibrant creative economy.

As an unapologetic believer in the fact that the arts and culture drive tourism, I am delighted to see the recent reshuffle in the cabinet of Governor Akinwumi Ambode of Lagos State. The former special adviser to the governor on arts and culture has now been appointed acting commissioner, tourism, arts and culture. Many of us consider this as a manifestation of a listening government and indication of a better future for the creative industries in Lagos. Lagos State should have creative hubs in each of the five zones in the state with a central creative hub in the Surulere axis. There is also a need for an audit of cultural spaces in the state and intervention in terms of the management and programming of those spaces.