Jul 25, 2016 News
By: Kiana Wilburg
The area of culture and arts is not without its own issues of transparency and accountability. However, armed with new and improved programmes, Cultural Advisor, Ruel Johnson intends to remove all elements of corruption from the field.
In an exclusive interview with this newspaper, Johnson shares how he intends to help the Department of Culture within the Ministry of Education in this regard as well as take the sector forward in a number of areas such as the nation’s relatively young film industry.
The Cultural Advisor also revealed his thoughts on the involvement of the private sector in supporting Culture and Arts and the need for an investigation into the controversial Caribbean Press.
Here is an extract of that discussion with Mr. Johnson.
Kaieteur News (KN): Would you be calling for an investigation into the Caribbean Press anytime soon given your well-known views on the matter?
Ruel Johnson (RJ): I’ve called for an investigation into the Caribbean Press even before I came into this position and I definitely still think one is warranted. I know that there has been resistance to it because I believe it is embarrassing to otherwise upstanding people who were fooled into thinking it was some credible machinery. They supported it. But as a basic measure of public accountability, there needs to be closure on this issue that was basically flagrantly waved in the face of the people of Guyana. There is a great opportunity for sustainable publishing growing in the region and either the Caribbean Press was a best practice example that should be built upon or it is what I’ve said it was, a black hole of accountability and governance – either way, it has lessons for literary arts development and I intend to find out precisely what went on.
KN: What are the plans for our film industry?
RJ: Film presents the greatest, most potentially profitable area of sustainable economic diversification via the creative industries, one which has scope for a tremendous impact in every other creative industry sector and tourism, but for financial and legal services as well. The key government interventions I’ve planned for film is a National Film Commission, an accredited film programme at a legally established Institute of Creative Arts, an incentive regime for external investment in local film production, co-production treaties with other countries, technical assistance from countries like Argentina, and a special fund for film investment linked to our oil revenue, much like the model that exists with Petrobras in neighbouring Brazil.
KN: What initiatives are in the pipeline to get more youths involved in the arts?
RJ: Certainly an expanded arts programme in schools is an ideal place to start and concrete steps have already been taken in developing teacher capacity in music education. But I am also looking at community-based arts programmes that are designed upon community priorities and traditions as well as standardized allocation of dedicated creative arts education and performance spaces in municipal and community development centres. All those white elephants that were funded under the previous administration in the name of development are prime infrastructure for community based arts development that government doesn’t even have to get involved in beyond technical support. What should be noted is that these plans are not merely part of a proposed national cultural policy but are currently included as a specific component of the National Youth Policy.
KN: Given the way Trinidad has been able to market Carnival, where do you see Mashramani in the future for Guyana?
RJ: Twelve years ago, in 2004, I wrote an article on precisely this issue for The Caribbean Beat. This is how the article ended: “…A viable Mash industry is not unlikely in the near future. Incrementally but steadily, Mashramani is becoming a cultural festival that may someday boast enough pomp, pizzazz, and spirit to rival even Trinidad’s Carnival itself.”
Of course, the reverse has happened and next year it is going to be a challenge in changing that direction to get it back to where we were getting in 2004. Festivals are considered to a cultural industry so even as we look to develop other festivals, Mashramani remains the festival with the most potential. That said, we don’t need to aspire to Trinidad’s level of development and the reality is that we can’t. Trinidad’s Carnival evolved out of several socio-cultural dynamics while Mashramani was more of a political state initiative that gained some cultural traction. I personally believe that we have other cultural festivals, like our beautiful Phagwah for example, which is more organic in development even though given subsequent state imprimatur, and which can, if given support and promotion, attract a large international following even greater than Carnival.
KN: How would you evaluate current government spending and efforts in culture and arts?
RJ: Firstly, I should say that structurally, it has remained largely unchanged, but the reality is that there is no system in place to monitor and evaluate government expenditure because that sort of programme was anathema to the former administration. Evaluation is harder than you’d imagine since not only do you have to ascertain what was spent but if it was accountably spent. For example, there was the Sports and Arts Development Fund, which was ostensibly used in part to fund arts initiatives external to the then Ministry of Culture. Questioned in Parliament in 2012, former Culture Minister, Frank Anthony claimed that he spent monies on film and the Caribbean Press, yet the audit of the Fund doesn’t provide any evidence of monies spent. We have expenditure on the Guyana Prize that reaches as high as $17.5 million, yet the prize payout is a maximum of $5.2 million.
Then there is the fact that funding on culture and the arts is really spread among ministries other than the culture portfolio ministry both in major and minor ways –whether it is a Ministry of Finance paying for a painting or the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs giving money for the preservation of indigenous languages, it all counts as arts funding that isn’t immediately identifiable as such.
Over the upcoming year, as part of preparing Guyana’s Quadrennial Periodic Report on the status of the implementation of the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of Cultural Diversity, I will have to conduct a four year assessment of public expenditure on culture, which of course means mapping not only the monies allocated but offering an analysis of the efficacy of that expenditure. Then we can have a clearer evaluative picture.
KN: What role should the private sector play in developing our cultural systems and are you satisfied with its efforts thus far?
RJ: I haven’t been satisfied with the role the private sector has played in general, but I applaud the insistence of the companies that do support the arts, because I recognize that they are doing so in the absence of any proper policy environment that incentivizes their contributions. Going forward, particular in the area of cultural and creative industries development, we need to stop perpetuating this dichotomy between culture and business. ‘Captain America vs Ironman’ has so far in the few months that it has opened most likely earned more money than the top five businesses in Guyana combined over the past five years. It has certainly earned more money than GuySuCo in the past ten years. The “orange economy” is increasingly recognized as the best option for sustainable economic diversification for developing countries like ours seeking to move away from primary products. If Guyana as a whole does not restructure the way it operates then we could miss riding a very lucrative cultural wave that is taking place in larger markets. In the medium to long term, we need to create an environment in which those with capital are more sensitive to investment opportunities in the creative and cultural sectors, while those involved in creative and cultural practice develop a sense of entrepreneurship.
To be continued …
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