Stages go dark as corporate arts funding dries up
Gauteng Opera hit a tragic note this month, announcing that it will shut down after its final public performance today after nearly two decades on South Africa's arts landscape.
The news was followed by the announcement that the Dance Umbrella - another legend of South Africa's arts scene - was also set to close its doors.
The demise of these companies is the consequence of a shift in corporate and philanthropic generosity towards the arts, a challenge that, like South Africa's economy, the sector has struggled to recover from in the decade since the global economic crash.
Arnold Cloete, chief operating officer of Gauteng Opera, said this week: "I can pinpoint for you when it really started going bad, back in 2008, with the huge world economic crash."
Cloete said corporate work dropped almost immediately.
"We used to do sit-down dinners in the Sandton Convention Centre for 500 people and suddenly they would book you for a cocktail for 50 people standing. It changed so quickly."
A snapshot of corporate social investment compiled by Trialogue in its 2016 handbook showed that corporate spending on the performing arts has plummeted. Spending dropped from 40% in 2015 to 34% in 2016. Education, social and community development and health have overtaken the arts as the most supported causes. Food security, agriculture, housing and living conditions and disaster relief are also receiving corporate generosity.
But business confidence is rising and may lead to improved spending. The Rand Merchant Bank/Bureau for Economic Research business confidence index released on Wednesday leapt 11 points from the last quarter of 2017 to 45 in the first quarter of 2018, the highest jump since 1975.
"Over the years we've had our ups and downs. We always got money from the lottery, we always got money from corporate companies," Cloete said from the downtown Johannesburg offices of the opera.
He listed Royal Bafokeng Holdings, Sappi and Sasol as previous patrons of Gauteng Opera.
The National Arts Council and the National Lottery have sponsored the company in the past but their conditions mean the funding is limited to short periods and for specific projects, not operational requirements.
In 2014, Gauteng Opera had to shut its doors, but soon reopened with donations. Last year it again faced a perilous situation and nearly scrapped an opera it planned to stage. On a shoestring budget this requires at least R2-million - and when struggling to raise R250000 for monthly operational costs, an opera seems a luxury.
The company still attracts some corporate work but operas are crucial for the vocalists who train at Gauteng Opera's academy over a three-year period. "We always try to do one opera a year with an orchestra and chorus because it is important for the singers." But this year the writing was on the wall for Gauteng Opera's employee base of 15 staff and singers.
"By the middle of February we saw there is no way. The board decided to close down. We had at that stage no means of income."
Joburg Ballet found itself in a tight financial predicament several years ago but is stable for now, as is Cape Town Opera.
Elise Brunelle, financial manager at Cape Town Opera, this week said international tours supplemented its income. The section 21 company also attracts donations based on its section 18 (A) tax status for its educational work, and it maintains a level 1 BBBEE status.
However, Brunelle said: "We still need an annual average of R16-million to R18-million in grants and donations to commission, create and produce opera in South Africa and to train our singers and youth locally. This amount of grants and donations equals 45% of our required income each year."
Cape Town Opera is preparing to perform its latest work, Mandela Trilogy, in July at Artscape in commemoration of the 2018 celebrations of the 100th year since the birth of Nelson Mandela. It has not received a subsidy for the past five years from arts funding agencies appointed by the national government, despite numerous applications that fit the agencies' mandate, Brunelle said.
Shelagh Gastrow, co-founder of GastrowBloch Philanthropies, said over the past two decades private philanthropic funding had broadened strategically to include a wide range of projects that focused on how the arts could effect change in society...