Jul 18, 2016 News
By: Kiana Wilburg
As history shows us, poor funding, absence of policies, lack of an enabling environment and archaic legislation, among other factors, have contributed significantly to the erosion of two of the world’s most revolutionary platforms—cultural institutions and music.
Undoubtedly, these two pillars have demonstrated time and again, their power to profoundly deepen our sense of self and understanding of the world around us.
Bearing in mind the invaluable impact of these two platforms, I would dare say that it becomes imperative for the relevant authorities to play their role in the preservation and promotion of these key aspects of culture and arts.
In the Guyana context, the troubles which have plagued our cultural institutions and musicians are not unheard of. And with a new administration in place, the expectation is that the Department of Culture within the Ministry of Education will take the proverbial bull by the horns and address issues in these areas with practical solutions.
Cultural Advisor, Ruel Johnson, shares with this newspaper, his thoughts on taking music and cultural institutions in Guyana to the next level and the plans in place to get the ball rolling.
Here is an extract of that interview.
Kaieteur News (KN): Some of our cultural institutions have been struggling for some time due to financial constraints, among other reasons. What measures will be taken by the Department of Culture to change this state of affairs?
Ruel Johnson: This is one of the more tragic truths because billions of dollars have been spent over the past 10 years purportedly in the name of culture. I would say that easily, half of that money has disappeared without any trace, as exemplified, for example, by CARIFESTA X which was said initially to have cost $500 million but which was revealed to have cost over $1 billion. The recently published audit of the Sports and Arts Development Fund, which was intended in part to assist struggling financial institutions, shows that $168 out of $300 million spent between 2012-2014 could not be verified. This is just during the years the current administration had parliamentary oversight. When I read the report, even with the supposedly supportable expenditure, there are line items in there that are questionable at best, for example, taxi bills for Cuban boxing coaches. And then there was the Caribbean Press with close to a $100 million spent supposedly to publish around something like 80 titles amounting to what is supposed to be about 56,000 copies. Yet, I’ve been unable to find anywhere close to that number, particularly not in the school system. What will be one of my concrete recommendations is that first of all, the Ministry’s internal accountability mechanisms be completely reformed; following which there should be the development of an intelligence-based funding mechanism for cultural institutions as well as creative industry associations.
The challenge herein is that deliberate marginalization which is in part responsible for the financial constraints you’re going to find in many of these groups has resulted in diminished operational capacity and poor systems of governance, the sort of anti-best practice characteristic that would disqualify these entities from accessing funding.
Therefore, over the next two years, I want to focus support for new as well as existing groups in developing capacity to adequately access and manage financial support. In fact, I was in Barbados recently along with UNESCO technical officer, Tonya France, taking part in a training workshop for capacity building to access the International Fund for Cultural Diversity, following which the Ministry will engage in training, through the UNESCO National Commission, in both guiding groups in how to access the Fund as well as other international financing mechanisms.
I’ve also established a working relationship with my counterparts in Trinidad to establish a similar mechanism to the one they’ve established to fund registered cultural and creative arts groups. That said, even as we’re looking to government for funding, there has been no better time than now for external cultural funding once you know how to access it and have the capacity to execute projects. I’ve been the recipient of a Prince Claus Fund grant which significantly boosted my cultural policy work as an independent person, but usually such funding is reserved for properly managed, effective collectives. I have been also seeking to encourage dormant associations to revive themselves, people involved in steel pan production for example, or arts and craft, as well as supporting new groups like Guyana Animation Network by providing advice as well as a meeting space for them.
KN: How do you propose that we can use our cultural wealth as a dependable revenue earner?
RJ: This is too complex a question to answer fully here but in brief, we need a creative and cultural industries strategy plan to refine and otherwise enhance the value chain for the delivery of cultural goods and services not just to local markets but beyond our shores. The mechanics of how that will most likely be done would need a separate article or more probably a series.
KN: The Jamaicans and the Trinidadians have done a great job at marketing themselves as a cultural brand. How do you suppose Guyana can do the same?
RJ: Simple – consolidation of our identity as the basis for our own brand and then strategically marketing that identity. The problem has been that our ethnic division in particular has made it difficult for some to identify a single brand but I’ve always argued that our ethnic diversity is a positive, a general offshoot of our overall diversity, which is what our real brand is. We are the world in microcosm in a way that you will find in no other place, not even in our closest rivals in that regard, Trinidad and Suriname.
KN: I would like to take your attention to the music industry. There have been cries that the Ministry over the years, failed miserably to really support the development of musicians here. Do you agree with this perception and how is the department of culture setting itself apart in this arena from its predecessors?
RJ: I’ve argued for years that the Department has failed creative people in general, not only musicians, and my position on this has not changed – the difference is that I am now in a position to advocate internally as well as in public for the policy-based reform that is necessary to create the environment that is conducive to the creative arts as a holistic sector. Much of my first year in office has been building the general framework for policy development and mapping key initiatives, particularly in the creative industries, and linking them conceptually. The thing is, concurrent and probably complementary to the failure of the Department of Culture is the failure of the music industry to develop strong representative associations to advocate and lobby for proper support. Mr. Burchmore Simon has been trying with the Guyana Music Network but support has been down.
KN: What is your proposal for how we can better promote our musicians locally and beyond our shores?
RJ: The model I have in mind is wherein the reformed Department of Culture serves as an intelligence unit for creative industries development until the eventual introduction of a Creative Industries Development Authority or Commission, one that provides capacity development services, technical assistance, and strategic funding support for creative artists. Locally, specific to the music sector, one of the key initiatives is providing a system that uses quota benchmarks in the public sector and incentives in the private sector to stimulate the hiring of local musicians. What this means in plain language is that in a particular year, government agencies hosting public events should have a specific number of those events featuring a local musician who will be paid a standardized fee for the event – and in the private sector, companies can earn tax rebates or other concessions based on their engagement of local musicians during a particular tax year. Externally, what we need is a strategy based on ensuring promotion of our artistes within the region beginning with a credible system of CSME certification and bilateral cultural exchange programmes internationally. We can then move towards targeting of developed world promotion of our musicians, particularly shifting the usual focus from the conventional wisdom of targeting the United States and aiming for European and Asian audiences, Germany and Japan for example.
KN: Do you think even with copyright legislation, it would be enough to help musicians actually live off of their craft?
RJ: As a creative person, I can tell you that even the best environment is not a guarantee of sustainable income from practice of your art. What is the government’s job is to provide the framework for development while work has to be put in by stakeholders, both as individuals and as associations. If we’re to use copyright as an example, government’s job is to create legislation and the subsequent enforcement machinery – however, it is up to the individual artists to educate themselves and to protect their own work, and to be part of an association that helps to collect royalties.
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