South African Cultural Observatory:

Over the two day-long inaugural South African Cultural Observatory (SACO) national conference insights were shared and a confluence of ideas, methodologies and case studies achieved as speakers and delegates mulled over ‘Counting Culture’, the conference theme.

The conference saw South African, African and international speakers engage delegates on a collection of creative, cultural and economic topics relating to the work SACO is both undertaking and which will form part of a National Research Agenda.

Focused on mapping the impact of the South African creative and cultural industries, the Observatory is a new national research institute, hosted by Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University on behalf of the Department of Arts and Culture, with partnership support from the University of Fort Hare and Rhodes University.

The conference highlighted the growing economic influence of the sector – spanning visual and performing arts, heritage and museums, festivals, architecture, advertising, design and digital media – which is increasingly recognised globally for its socio-economic contribution, but not frequently or adequately counted.

Tasked with setting the national agenda, the speakers covered an array of subjects in the main plenary talks and the break-away parallel sessions. Monday morning saw the SACO CEO, Prof. Richard Haines welcome delegates, engage and shape debates leveraging off the diversity of participants.

 “What’s particularly exciting is the mix of academics, scholars, international speakers and role-players,” he said. “It’s marvellous getting together, and I’m so encouraged by the diverse set of speakers and participants in attendance.”

The Department of Arts and Culture Deputy Director General, Monica Newton, highlighted Africa Month and advised that those in attendance use their power and intellectual property to serve the continent. “Knowledge in this context is curated, and we must be sensitive to that,” she said.

She asked delegates to consider how the knowledge shared at the conference could be put to use and shared in the public domain.

 “The SACO wants to become a thinking organisation; contemplating this we must be critical of its impact. We must be reflexive on whether the Observatory is making a difference.”

She said the central mandate of the SACO should be to produce content, develop new research and then disseminate it.

The conference’s first plenary session concentrated on ‘Counting Culture – The Creative Economy and Cultural Measurement’ and saw Gabriel Zamfir of the Canada Council of Arts, Prof. Jen Snowball of Rhodes University, Dr. Jean-Pierre de la Porte from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Architecture and Infrastructure, and Avril Joffe of the University of the Witwatersrand discuss frameworks, intellectual property and cultural policy.

Delegates then broke away into parallel discussions focusing on ‘Culture in the Digital Age’, ‘Training, Education and Skills in the CCIs’ and a ‘Cultural Observatory Research Agenda workshop’, respectively.

Day one’s second plenary session saw leading Cultural Observatory expert, Guy Saez, the co-founder of the Grenoble Observatory, along with Prof. Haines and the Goethe-Institut’s Dr. Norbert Spitz discuss ‘Cultural Observatories and Cultural Institutions in an International Context’. This session allowed delegates to absorb perspectives and experiences from the French Observatoire des Politiques Culturelles, question the development agendas of the SACO and learn about The European Union Network of National Cultural Institutes (EUNIC).

The second bundle of parallel discussions considered three more topics: ‘Culture and Economic Development’, ‘Culture Heritage and Museums’, and the ‘Film Industry’. Experts under each of the themes engaged attendees in case studies and opinion, while specifically chosen facilitators chaired the talks.

The final plenary session zoomed in on Performing Arts and Festivals and saw seasoned professionals take the stage to discuss their experiences and views. Monde Ngonyama of the PE Opera House, Ismail Mahomed of the Grahamstown National Arts Festival and Rhode Snyman of the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees shared the past experiences, recent developments and future plans of their respective organisations.

The final day of the conference saw delegates return to engage in more academic discourse and cultural concepts. The opening plenary session focused on facts and figures, with international speaker Oksana Ryabchenko of the National University of Life and Environmental Sciences (Ukraine) and Prof. Snowball, wielding frameworks, statistics and case studies, with the help of the plenary chair National Arts Council (NAC) CEO, Rosemary Mangope.

This was followed by a professional peek into the ‘Creative Culture and the Economy’. During this plenary the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Prof. Chats Devroop interrogated music as culture versus music as creative industry, Business and Arts South Africa (BASA) CEO Michelle Constant looked at arts based initiatives as the new economic currency, and the University of Fort Hare’s Prof. Leslie Banks presented the problems associated with city regeneration in an Eastern Cape context.

After tea, delegates once again dispersed into parallel discussions. The first session saw three themes; ‘Political Economy of Cultural Policies’, ‘Fine Arts: Markets and Social Values’, and ‘Cultural Mapping & Measurement’. Once again discerning chairs guided debate and discussion on each of the pertinent themes.

The final parallel saw conference attendees engage in three new topics, namely; ‘Online Culture, Games and Sport’, ‘Culture and Heritage’, and ‘Public Art’.

Drawing on Africa Month, the closing plenary session investigated the theme ‘Creative Africa – Current and Future Problems’. Bruce Ernest of the Zambian Creative Expo and Tumiso Mabusela from Ideas Expo, Botswana each shared their experiences within an African context, highlighting the potential the continent has and the creative work currently being done in their countries.

The conference closed on an upbeat note on the back of a successful two days of industry-shaping engagements, with both Newton and Prof. Haines praising delegates and speakers for their contributions.

Newton reminded delegates that SACO doesn’t just service one agenda. “It must serve its purpose that knowledge is widely available,” she said.

“The Observatory must democratise research process and make research outputs available. It is important that we all make a commitment to be a part of this ongoing network.”

If the high profile attendees comply with this request, the SACO will no doubt be equipped to fulfil the agendas that were discussed over the conference while facing problems head on.

Image: Prof. Geoff Antrobus and Prof. Jen Snowball (Rhodes): Michael Sheehan