Art and Work in East Africa: New Engagements in Art Curating

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: School of Arts and Cultures

Abstract

This impact and engagement project focuses on practical interventions that will support the sustainable livelihoods of the visual art community and capacity in the creative industries in in East Africa, an international development priority. It will do this through engagements that respond to the needs, ambitions and priorities articulated by visual art professionals and the organisations that support them. These priorities are also set out in government policy and development reports on the creative economy in East Africa commissioned by the British Council.

Extended evidence-gathering has identified that a deficit in skills, experience and capacity in art curating is a significant constraint to the development of a flourishing and sustainable visual art ecology. As well as providing an intellectual framework and context for East African art, curators source funding for exhibitions, document and bring publicity to the work of creative artists, assist artists with essential elements of professional development. They are job creators and market movers. They bring attention to artists, some who might otherwise not become recognised, or are unable to meet the barriers to entry to the professional art world. They present artists to potential buyers and give them vital exposure. A resource of experienced curators will lead to an increase in not just the quantity but also the quality of exhibitions. A deficit of curatorial skills therefore constrains the role and capacity of the visual arts within the cultural economy.

Balanced against this, young curators are eager for opportunities. The enthusiasm and energy for practical initiatives is evidence that emergent generations in the visual art community - already identifying themselves as key future players in the creative economy, will respond enthusiastically to opportunities offered to assist their professional development.

The project has been co-designed during workshops organised as part of the AHRC-GCRF funded research network 'Networking New Opportunities for Artists in East Africa'. This has brought together visual art professionals from diverse backgrounds, including artists living and working in deprived areas to collaboratively scope interventions that will support the sustainable development of their livelihoods. The network's activities focus on identifying pragmatic approaches to shared problems, practical initiatives that will impact directly on real life experiences and make definable contributions to building capacity for visual art activity in the creative economy, thus working towards EAC and international development goals.

The project team comprising Makerere and Newcastle Universities, visual arts organisation 32 Degrees East, Ugandan Arts Trust, the British Council and Kampala Arts Trust have collaborated on plans that will benefit not just curators, but the wide visual art community including artists, writers, technicians and gallerists and the wider public. If features a pilot project developing entrepreneurial and business skills in curators. This innovative approach to nurturing emergent voices in the visual arts, fostering a new generation of artistic curators and providing them a public platform is structured around a year-long activity programme that includes exhibition making, workshops, mentoring and audience engagement. Members of the visual art community will be equipped with the key skills, knowledge and experience which are currently lacking and which will assist them in the development of sustainable livelihoods. The project develops its impacts within a context where the importance of supporting visual art professionals and growing the creative economy has been recognised through measures such as the passing of the Creative and Cultural Industries Bill (2015), but where government support remains minimal. The impacts that will derive from this project are therefore urgent and vital.

Planned Impact

Within the international development context, the project will impact on those communities identified in the reports and policies highlighted in the Case for Support. These are i) visual art communities in East Africa, for whom career opportunities and livelihoods will be enhanced ii) organisations and platforms supporting curators/artists working in society and encouraging greater public engagement with the visual arts.
The project therefore impacts directly on individuals and on organisations. These impacts in turn will develop capacity within the creative industries. Through this pathway the project offers the potential for public benefit. Government policy and reports confirm that the creative industries will have an increasingly important profile within East Africa. Their development is a priority both for their potential for positive economic impact on individual livelihoods but also for their capacity to bring less quantifiable benefits: to 'promote creativity, optimise skills and human resources...and express messages that foster understanding and peace' (Uganda National Culture Policy 2005).
The project is designed to impact on those curators, visual artists and arts organisations who engage directly with project activities; on other members of the visual art community in East Africa, and on stakeholders in the creative industries. There will be impacts on the public who engage with project exhibitions.
The focus is on practical approaches, impacting on visual art professionals' curating skills, including those which will enhance their capacity for entrepreneurship and project management. Emphasis is on how these new skills will promote sustainable careers, including freelance work. These new skills will enhance art professionals' capacity to access opportunities, afford them greater visibility, build confidence, reputations and promote themselves. The mentoring programme will enable early-career curators to gain from the expertise of international and African mentors, and giving them further opportunities to work in the public realm.
Project collaborators and partners will benefit through a deepened relationship with their stakeholders, and through the new knowledge and experience they gain about the value and relevance of art curating, mentoring programmes and the relevance of entrepreneurship skills in the creative industries.
The three public exhibitions will give audiences an opportunity to engage with more developed discourses about contemporary art and stimulate future interest in and appreciation of the contemporary arts and their significance within the creative economy in East African society.
Through making more widely visible and understood the work of curators, artists and art writers, and by raising their profiles, the project will positively impact on the status of visual art professionals within their communities, improving stakeholder perceptions of the role and value of creative practitioners. Within a political context where recognition of the value of growing the creative economy has been demonstrated through measures such as the Creative and Cultural Industries Bill (2015), but where there is still little evidence of governments providing significant support, the impacts which will derive from this project are significant.
This impacts of this project will be sustained in tangible ways, through future opportunities to organise and curate exhibitions with our partner gallery and art festival, through the broader development of a culture of art curating in the region, bringing wider local and international recognition and appreciation of contemporary E African artists and, as future generations of aspiring curators and visual artists are encouraged by this project, recognition of employment opportunities within the visual arts ecology.

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