Sunday, 6 July 2014

The arts, culture… Nigeria’s dwindling tribe of corporate supporters worrisome

By Anote Ajeluorou

The history of corporate support for Nigeria’s art and culture sector has been a chequered one. Like the abiku child, it comes and goes, as it deems fit. Just like abiku, too, when it comes, there’s joy and vitality in the sector. And when it goes, there’s sadness as it means loss of income and joblessness for a season because such support helps to create employment, engage those involved in culture production and give them a ray of hope. But when it dries up, as the art and culture scene current suggests, there’s despair and hopelessness among producers and workers in the sector.
  Perhaps, the first major corporate sector support for the arts was Liberty Bank Limited, which instituted a prize for Literature. This was in the 1990s. The prize helped to galvanise the creative process among writers and there was a real buzz. But like all good things that have a slender lifespan, Liberty Bank soon fell into bad business times. It was forced to close shop; it became a huge loss for the bank’s depositors as well as Nigerian writers, who had come to see the lifeline the bank provides for them.
  It was also at the same period that Musical Society of Nigeria (MUSON) Centre, Onikan, situated at the old Lovers Garden, opposite National Museum, held a poetry competition during its yearly Music Festival. For young poets, MUSON Centre Music Festival Poetry contest was an eagerly awaited yearly ritual that helped them to sharpen their craft. But soon, MUSON Centre also fell into bad financial times, as sponsorship of their programmes dried up. They let the prize go and sealed yet another avenue for writers to better express themselves, be exposed and rewarded.
  For writer Ton Kan, “Critics and naysayers may belly ache all they want but prizes are important to writers no matter how subjective the criteria for selecting winners might be and the reasons are obvious. One, it provides instant recognition, adulation and fame. Secondly, it provides entrée into the literary canon. Thirdly it helps situate writers within a tradition and I will explain.
  “Chiedu Ezeanah, EC Osondu, Maik Nwosu, Helon Habila, Tade Ipadeola, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chike Unigwe, Kaine Agary – these writers wouldn’t be as well-known as they are today if they didn’t win one prize or the other.
  “For many of us writers who emerged in the 90s and early noughties, prizes like the Liberty Short Story prize and the MUSON Poetry Prize as well as the ANA prizes helped put our names out there long before the Caine, NLNG and Etisalat prizes.
  “Winning an ANA prize left you feeling like the year’s Mr. or Miss Nigeria. It said to the literary community that some important new talent has arrived.
  “Helon didn't become popular because he won the Caine. He did when he took second place in the Liberty Short Story and First place in the MUSON. 
  “When I took third place in the Liberty and MUSON prizes I felt like I had won the Booker. Sadly those prizes are gone and now writers have to wait for validation from the NLNG and other foreign prizes. It is sad. Steve Osuji must get deserved commendation for setting up the Liberty Short Story prize which died with Liberty Bank. I don’t know what killed the MUSON prize but I know it fizzled out when Rasheed Gbadamosi took over from Arthur Mbanefo. One would have thought a writer would be more invested in a prize that honours poets. Sad”.
  Also for Ibadan-based culture producer and writer, Ayo Olofintuade, “As to your first question, we are presently a nation under siege; nothing works and this is a result of a hundred years of mismanagement, and in an atmosphere like this the fact that the arts are even managing to survive is remarkable! When you talk about culture the first reaction of an average Nigerian is usually 'blood of Jesus!' Because Christianity/colonialism has managed to demonize everything 'cultural' in Nigeria. So you make an art piece and take it to a 'big man philanthropist' who tells you he/she can't hang such an abomination in her/his house.
  “We are suffering from an identity loss; its not like we no longer know who we are but we've never known who we are. Are we really Nigerians or Igbos or Idomas?
  “What can be done? At this point we need guilds, a support system that is 'corruption' free. Because aside from foreign funding which a few get access to and guard jealously, there's little else that can be done”.
  One corporate citizen that took art sponsorship and patronage seriously is Guaranty Trust Bank Plc. Indeed, GTB, as its fond acronym, more than any other corporate institution took art and culture promotion to heart as part of its Corporate Social responsibility (CSR). Every branch of the bank has various paintings of Nigerian contemporary artists adorning their walls to the delight of customers. The paintings, mostly incorporating the orange theme colour of the bank, depict various activities that characterise life in the country. A visit to any branch of GTB usually produces a visually pleasing colours in artistic allure, as the walls throw back at the customers or visitors vivid images of orange as given expression through artistic imagination.
  Over the years, GTB has made art patronage part of its corporate mandate, with the multiplier effect that many artists create knowing that a corporate buyer is around the corner. In the art circle, GTB is believed to have the biggest collection of art in the country. However, the bank’s consciousness and patronage in art and the need to invest in it arose from the interest the bank’s pioneering Managing Director and Mr. Tayo Aderinoku, now late. For Aderinoku, Nigeria’s art is such a rich treasure that deserves maximum support, and he threw himself heart and soul into making it a reality.
  Aderinokun’s passion for supporting Nigerian art was so intense that he was also at the forefront of the partnership with Ford Foundation, British Museum and other donor institutions in rehabilitating Nigeria’s ancient artefacts warehoused in the vaults of the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos. Aderinokun, along with his Nigerian group, were to raise some $2 million as counterpart funding for the initiative while their foreign partners were also to raise the same amount. He left this noble, nationalistic unfulfilled, with his sudden passing.
  Under his watch also, culture producer and playwright, Mr. Ben Tomoloju got support to produce Poetry, Laughter, Art and You (P.L.A.Y.). It was a significant poetry performance festival that brought many young people together to perform and showcase their poetic essence. For over a week these young poets and performers were engaged in digging deep into their poetic reservoir to satisfy the audience. For two years running, P.L.A.Y. ran its course at Terra Kulture, Victoria Island, Lagos.
  Since his passing, GTB seems to have slowed in its art patronage. It’s not known to have been involved in any art or culture related activity, even the multi-million dollar art auctions going on. In fact, it’s not clear if the art pieces that continue to adorn new branches of the bank are not the ones bought while Aderinokun was alive and in charge. But after the passing on of Aderinokun and the coming on board of another Managing Director, Mr. Olusegun Agbaje, how far so far?
  Efforts to reach GTB for response failed, as telephone lines to its corporate affairs failed to connect.
  One of the country’s cultural pride, Mr. Ben Tomoloju, who benefited from GTB’s sponsorship, rather took a philosophical position regarding art sponsorship in the country. Tomoloju summed up the poor funding the arts and culture are getting thus, “In general response to the CSR to the arts, I think that the popular arts – music, movie and comedy - are having a reasonable part of the bargain; they are having corporate sponsorship. We are happy about it, but the intellectually inclined arts – literary art, dramatic art, celluloid films (movies of international standard) are not being given attention that is required; they are not being patronized.
  “It depends on us as a people whether we are in love with the enlightenment of the mind, which is the mark of our civilization. Do we wish to laugh it off, joke it off and strut the red carpet all the time? What about the things that we need to make culture dynamic?
  “I’d like mobile companies to build corporate theatres and brand them, say XYZ Communication Theatre and give professionals guidelines on how to operate them. I’d like them to sponsor literary festivals. Osofisan converged a theatre conference in Ile-Ife; it should have been sponsored. We should have festivals of plays, dramatic criticism, fairs, symposiums along with a playwright’s fair. Any company that sponsors such cerebral conference will be given great credit!”

ANOTHER corporate citizen supporting the arts is Fidelity Bank Plc. It was during its former MD, Reginald Ihejiahi’s reign that Fidelity Bank Creative Writing Workshop (FBCWW) was initiated to hone the skills of aspiring writers. For three years running, established writers from within and outside the country were brought in to train young writers in a 10-day workshop. The workshop produced a book from one its workshop sessions with the creative efforts of workshop participants incorporated in it.
  At the close of one such workshop in June 2011, MD, Fidelity Bank, Ihejiahi said, “We started with Helon Habila, and I’m happy the way it has worked. We felt we have many stories to tell the world. If you’re the owner of the story and you tell your own story, so much the better for it. It’s a reflection of the times; the art of writing is an occupation. Participants are young people and they need to be groomed to take writing seriously. But we also know it for a fact that if you don’t read, you can’t write as effectively as you’d want to.
  “There was a lot of interest among young Nigerians in the workshop series, which is a positive thing for us. However, where it will take us next we don’t know. We know that we can’t do it alone. It will be better if other people can come up with their own ideas on how to help young people find their rhythm in their areas of interest through mentoring. I can only assure you that we’ll try to continue to improve on the workshop so it can serve young Nigerians better”.
  Unfortunately, continuity issues cropped up, with an online platform being initiated also for writers. But the impact has not been as significant as the workshop series.
  In his reaction, a corporate affairs official of the bank, Mr. Henry Ndiolo said having pioneered the Fidelity Bank Creative Writing Workshop, with others coming into the terrain, it felt it had to move on to other frontiers. It settled for an online blogging and testimonial platform where writers submitted short pieces that were judged with prizes given out periodically. But Ndiolo admitted that responses on this platform was as yet to yield desired result as the workshop did with its cast of international writers as facilitators
  According to Ndiolo, “We were the first people to start creative writing workshop, and built it up with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. After that we shifted, we moved on to the blog and testimonials. Toni Kan was the leading judge; we publicized it. Right now, we’re looking for approval from management for the second season. But it didn’t quite catch on as the writing workshop; not many people came on. Our people seem to like the traditional style of doing things. But now that you have mentioned it, we are encouraged that it was worth it, and since there are not many others like it out there, we will have to dust it up and re-present it to management”.
  Ndiolo said Ihejiahi’s leaving the bank has not affected its core policy towards arts and culture productions, noting that he was instrumental in Mr. Nnamdi Okonkwo joining the bank before stepping in his shoes. He reaffirmed continuity in the bank’s policy, promising that Fidelity Bank Plc would continue to encourage creativity in the arts.
  Chams also did its bit when it commissioned eminent playwright, Prof. Femi Osofisan some years back to adapt, produce and direct D O Fagunwa’s novel, Forest of a Thousand Daemons. The buzz the performance created while it lasted was phenomenal, as it toured several cities. The very spectacle of the performance was a dream, but like others, it soon stopped to the collective amazement of theatre and art lovers alike. It was perhaps the first and only such commissioned major production the country witnessed till date.
  According to Osofisan, the project died due to certain erroneous perceptions, the kind that seems to bedevil every good thing about Nigerian. Chams management, Osofisan noted, were told he wasn’t big enough for their dreams after a successful first outing. And so Nobel laureate Prof. Wole Soyinka was commissioned without his knowledge to produce his 1960, A Dance of the Forest. But the company soon fell into bad financial times and so could not continue to fund the project.
  He said, “A number of things went into it, but we can only speculate. Chams was going to celebrate its 10th year of operations and also celebrate Nigeria. Somebody told Chams they needed somebody bigger than us. So it was Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forest they chose. Unfortunately, they couldn’t do Soyinka’s play even when he was already rehearsing. They didn’t know how to tell him to suspend it. Finally, they couldn’t do it.
  “Again, people began to agitate; that why should it be Yoruba play or Osofisan that is commissioned. They wanted it for themselves. The plan was that we were to go to other cultures because Chams wasn’t a Yoruba company. Of course, I wasn’t happy that I wasn’t told about the change. By this time, I had begun to build up a crop of actors, giving good welfare to them. We had also hoped that it would rob off on other companies who would cash in on the bandwagon effect and come to sponsor other groups and theatre would get a new life. We gave the project massive publicity to attract others. Eventually, I tried to reach the MD but it didn’t work”.
  Osofisan had hoped that the Chams initiative would rob off on other companies to join the bandwagon in corporate sponsorship. And since everything revolves around government in the country, he wants government to take the initiative, which he hopes would also rob off on corporate citizens to follow suit. Unfortunately, “since government isn’t involved or doesn’t insist that companies’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) must go to culture, it would happen as it does in the U.S. and elsewhere where culture is taken seriously. Endowment for the arts is not in operation; Arts Councils don’t function. If government is indifferent, private sector will be indifferent as well. And you have the irony that foreign embassies are the ones supporting the arts. If we have people in government who have interest in the arts, it will be better. Also, there are not enough theatre venues for theatre practice”.
  Another corporate citizen involved in art promotion has been UBA Foundation. In its education support initiative, Read Africa, the foundation usually gets a renowned writer to give out his books to secondary school students while the author also reads to them. The last of such effort was in 2012 when Kenyan author, Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o was guest writer. But two years down the line, the foundation is yet to carry out another programme again.
  Reaching school children with books in the African continent is a daunting task in terms of sustainability. Although a source at the foundation said it still carries out its Read African campaign, it’s doubtful the success of such huge task.
  Farafina/Nigerian Breweries Plc Trust has been another promoter of writing in the training of budding writers to be better in their craft. With Chimamanda Adichie headlining, the workshop it has been working well. It has already called for participants for this year’s edition. That is to say there’s continuity here, which is something to cheer about.

ONE of the biggest setbacks plaguing the country’s book chain is lack of book distribution channels or bookshops. When show promoters Silverbird Group opened its Silverbird Bookshop at the popular galleria, many book enthusiasts were ecstatic. The huge bookshop on the first floor was a Mecca of sorts for book lovers, those who buy and those who just loved to admire books flocked there. Shockingly and without notice, the bookshop closed shop. Many were dismayed. First sign of its disinterest in books was stoppage of the monthly book reading event brokered by the pair of Igoni Barrett and Anwuli Ojiugo. The bookshop had begun to enjoy real patronage, as it became a monthly converging point for writers and book lovers to share ideas, network, sign books and also buy. Its stoppage was a rude shock.
  Known for its lavish promotion of America’s pop culture all through the years, the bookshop appeared like an atonement of sorts in redirecting youth interest and energy towards books and education. But with the stoppage of the book reading event and final closure of the bookshop it became clear Silverbird Group has joined the race towards a country that has gradually become anti-intellectual, philistinic and a bookless country!
  America’s Pop culture as represented by Hollywood films is the norm. Its radio and TV stations were relocated from their Lekki beach location to occupy the space that held the bookshop. It’s a wonder what happened to the books the shop had in stock. Were they thrown or given away?
  For children’s storyteller and TV presenter, Noma Shodipo, “It is true that philanthropy and corporate support for the arts and culture sector in Nigeria is scarce. Arts and culture encompasses a wide variety of industries. My comments are limited to the stage, sports, film and television. My comments are also limited to my research drawn from my experience and the experience of colleagues in the arts and culture sector. This can be tested by researchers with the following enquiries: What percentage of your CSR have you spent on productions for the stage, sports, film or television in the last five years? What percentage or ratio is this for the total monies spent on CSR? If this is low, what can make you spend more money on stage, sports, film and television?
  “ In entertainment, Nigeria’s Nollywood has reinforced the brand NIGERIA. Nollywood, a major employer of youths, attained its phenomenon without much support from Nigeria’s corporate sector.  The corporate sector must be incentivised through taxes holidays, etc, to support the entertainment sector. In broadcasting, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) regulates broadcasting. Given the policy thrust of Eng Bolarinwa, all Nigerian television stations are obliged to broadcast only Nigerian movies between 8-9. The new DG, Mr. Emeka Mba is an achiever.  He needs to raise the bar.
  “He must order Nigerian stations to comply with the Broadcasting Code: not only in terms of the 40% or 60% local content but in the genre of programmes: The 40% or 60% split must feature that percentage of Nigerian sporting, news, film, children’s programmes. That way, philanthropists, and corporate Nigeria will be encouraged to support the stage, sports, film and television”.

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