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‘National Endowment for the Arts will help develop our art, culture ’

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Segun Ojewuyi is professor and head of directing, Department of Theatre, Affiliate Faculty – Africana Studies, Carnegie African Diaspora Fellow, Southern Illinois University Carbondale. In this interview, speaks on what the handover of National Theatre to private investors portends.

What’s the implication of handing over of National Theatre, a national icon, to private investors?
The National Theatre is a national cultural icon. However, there are many other cultural icons that have suffered neglect by our governments. But let us focus on your question. The concept of government partnering with the private sector is not alien, neither is it wrong. Of course, like any financial instrument and structure, it is flawed and there are loopholes and landmines in its execution. These loopholes are inherently in sync with the character of the Nigerian politician, government official and so-called business entrepreneurs. They are insidious opportunists, who speak appropriately but loot and rape the people insanely, without regard for national growth and development. Government regulatory oversight through the courts, is the only way this and other financial instruments or structures are ensured to protect the interest on the people in such arrangements. That is why many object to the partnership, not because of the concept. People are concerned and rightly so. The wolves of the private sector – the partners in this enterprise, are already salivating, while the artistic community is once again dismissed, cheated and assaulted. Private practice means private profit. In Nigeria, it means the overhaul theft and abuse of public property for private pockets. Public service means serving and flaunting my greed and theft of public property, publicly. For the theatre and the arts in Nigeria, the alarms should be at full blast.

Is the PPP arrangement the best? Could another alternative not have been sought?
When our officials talk about tourism, they are merely speaking through their rear-ends. They are hollow. They don’t know that tourism is grown through the grassroots, a dedicated development of our cultural and artistic assets from the roots up to the top.

Yes, there are more efficient financial tools specifically designed for the arts. For many years, the ‘National Endowment for the Arts’ as a tool for the funding of the arts, has languished on the tables of many ministers. This is in part because they have little understanding of what it is because they have not cared to find out, and, in part because it is simply more airtight, with less loopholes for exploitation. It is the most appropriate tool or structure for our particular situation. Simply put, it is an endowment administered by a national board of Nigerians from the artistic community, public officials and the private sector. The government leads the enterprise by providing incentives for the private sector and donors. These incentives not only encourage but also compensate the private sector through tax concessions and rewards for their philanthropic donations. The burden of funding is greatly reduced. The challenge of artistic output is properly focused and the opportunities for development are greatly enhanced. The National Endowment also works as a lobby organisation to improve the status of the artist in legal, social, and political terms as well as providing artists opportunities for residencies, scholarships, and grants. With the Central Bank of Nigeria serving as the midwife, the signal is of a completely commercial focus that merely pays lip service to the arts but is totally focused on turning the theatre into a casino of ‘leisure services’. In March this year, Germany went into its coffers and pumped in 50 billion Euros to support the arts. This is seed money from taxation, pumped into the economy and to encourage the private sector’s contributions too. The Arts Council of England functions in similar fashion. This move is an indication of government’s total failure in the use of the national revenue. The insistent rejection of the National Endowment for the Arts in Nigeria is a combination of malice by officials whose jobs will no longer be needed and the added loss of the avenue for them to steal. That funding agenda that the National Endowment presents will nullify many of the agencies that habitate the culture and arts ecosystem right now. Bring in the Endowment for the Arts.

What would you say is the implication of having a creative industry hub at the National Theatre facility?
What has been outlined there is nothing that describes what the Creative Industry means. What has been described as the outline for the National Theatre and its environ is to turn the place into a hub for the ‘leisure industry’, the same agenda as the one by High Chief Edem Duke in 2013. The Creative Industry on the other hand, institutionalizes the pure arts through galleries, museums, theatres, concert halls, independent films etc. It recognises artists and their artistic productions as valuable to the well-being of the nation — economically and ethically. The proposed industry is a leisure industry and should not be conflated with the ‘creative industry’. We should not be fooled.

Do you think that there will be eventual turnaround in patronage and audience with the refurbish facility?
Theatre is not even mentioned in what I have read so far! Yes, there will be patronage for the leisure industry that they will turn the theatre into. Theatre and the other arts on the other hand will further suffer. The pivot to a Committee of Bankers is a clear signal that the arts are not even on the table. Government has failed again. It proves that the arts are of little consequence to our leaders. They are of such benign vision, they do not understand that the value of the arts to a people, a nation and the world, transcends commercial gains. Investments in the arts must also take a long-term view in its valuation. I worry that this is not where we are headed. I also suspect that there are individuals in the arts, with whom the government has possibly gone into dialogue. We need to file a freedom of information request, for government to reveal all the names and institutions involved in this for our public scrutiny. We need to vet their credentials, investments and commitment to the development of the Theater and the Arts in Nigeria. We need a robust discussion on the vision – is it strictly commercial or what?

I should point out that in 2011, I put out the idea of turning the building itself into a university of the Arts, an institution that can be run as partnership between government and private citizens. The same was repeated in The Guardian interview in 2016. The following are excerpts from that interview titled, ‘Convert the National Theatre into the National University of the Arts’:

“Government has argued over the years that it is too expensive to maintain that building because it does not generate anything…privatization is not completely wrong for the arts. My point is, the theatre is not generating money because the kind of theatre that was being produced was kind of lazy. It was elitist. It was not responding or catering to the taste of the people. It was as if it was theatre for the poor, meaning ‘poor taste.’ I have always been of the opinion that if you do them well, people would come. So, reviewing all of these, we need a centralised agenda for the arts.

“ … So, I am saying we have a problem and I think this building is the problem but solving it does not mean turning it into a casino. I came up with this idea that we need a National University for the Arts as we have National Universities for the Science, Technology and Agriculture. So, we need a university set up solely for the training of our artistes in visual arts, music, dance, theatre and film production. Whatever it is where that university is bustling with Art, with creativity because that is what they are trained for. So when you apply, you must be driven; really impassioned about the Arts and so we harness all of these into this institution, not just the department of Theatre Arts in the universities where jobbers become professors without really being artistes.

I am talking about where artistes, veteran artistes, the Bruce- Onobrakpeyas and the dele jegedes are the professors at that level where Soyinka is there; that level where Don Jazzy is a professor. Imagine what will come out of that. Now translate that into market forces in terms of economic revenue generated. These people when they graduate have the orientation to create jobs, to make art and create jobs and in the process begin to change the orientation of this country…

“The university will also be generating money through students’ tuition that they pay for their training but also their output – their productions, exhibitions, concerts, conferences etc also generate money. They will go out and create opportunities for themselves; they build institutions and create jobs.

“I am not talking about students in Nigeria alone; international students will be coming. There is nothing more that will attract the international community of students and professionals from America, Europe and Asia to come because our Arts have always been at the head of all others. They will come and they will be paying. That is what I am advocating.”


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