The art competition in South Africa is an inbred animal . At best corporate sponsored art competitions are a chance for artists to find themselves in the slip stream of the corporate giant ,with access to big money marketing that eludes even the prominent commercial galleries. At worst corporate art competitions are predatory systems, that take advantage of the fact that artists receive rubbish support from the state and the local community as a whole, and hence have little choice but to allow themselves to be hooked as bait for reeling in the corporates PR agenda.

The flavour of each agenda differs between competitions. The most striking example is the Brett Kebble awards, ill-gotten gains were lavished on the arts in a PR stunt that placed Brett Kebble’s name in the newspapers for something other than dirty dealings, nothing like sprinkling a bit of glamour on a cup of fraud to make everything look shiny! There is a part of Panga Management that believes the closer dirty money gets to assisting artists the cleaner it gets but that is undercut when the judges and the selection committees base there “ winning decisions “ on anything other than quality.

Photo credit : Artthrob

Unfortunately the arts community “peer review system”, which should be relied upon to keep everything above-board, is at best compromised. The arts community in South Africa is so small that any critical/ ethical voices often  find themselves hired by these competitions in some form and therefore it would be considered a conflict of interests or un-strategic for their careers to speak out against the hand that feeds them. We must never forget that curators, educators, critics and academics also benefit from the art competition phenomena, as they too work the slip stream for prestige and career development.

In a country where art education at school level, crawls at the very bottom of the value chain, so much so that it hardly exists at all except in very privileged schools, the power corporate art competitions have to educate the youth and the community at large ,regards the great contemporary art SA has to offer is unrivalled. You may argue that it’s not the corporates job to educate regards quality, fair enough, but then the corporate should not advertise art education as being a strategic focus of the art competition.

Panga Management is not suggesting that  corporate sponsors, or corporate art collections for that matter, should be free from  political or financial agendas, certainly not, it’s their prerogative to have an agenda!  What Panga Management is suggesting is that the corporate sponsor has a responsibility to articulate it’s agenda with candour , and should refrain from getting defensive when the arts community holds in accountable to its specified intention.

MTN New Contemporaries arts awards come to mind when one thinks of the obvious but unspoken agenda; for Gwards sake MTN just come out and say it! This is a competition for black arts professionals mostly and only for black winners. Everyone already knows it’s the case and the arts community would be far less critical of you and your chosen winners if you just came out and owned it!

Way to often corporate art competitions use their power to platform the comfortable/ conservative/ fence-sitting artworks under the guise of the opposite. Sasol New Signatures is the perfect example, every time PM’s see a poster calling for contemporary/controversial/cutting edge submissions for the Sasol New Signatures Art Competition, PM feels an up- chuck coming on, nothing like blatant hypocrisy to turn the stomach! After the-Oh- my- Gward- there- is- a- penis- in- this- artwork saga, if you require a reminder click here, do they actually think we, the arts community, would believe that any artist’s work they select or support would be controversial or cutting edge? The arts community might be desperate but we are not stupid!

Then the question has to be asked, how are the judges selected? Are they asked to make sure that the winners work will photograph well and add impact to the corporate logo? Are the judges pressured into choosing artwork that the corporates target market will understand? Do the judges choose winners based on their own alliances and biases? Or are the judges choices passively based on what they have in front of them; a whole lot of kuk submissions so the least kuk work wins?

Panga Management feels that the judges should be held accountable to the arts community not to the corporate sponsor. PM is not suggesting that work should win by popular appeal and PM supports the independence of judges from art world influence as much as corporate pressures (I hope by now you release I’m not talking about the legal judiciary) but PM would like to hear the judges speak candidly regards their choices and their experiences within the art competition framework. It’s clear that the corporates confidentiality clause muzzles any post-mortem dialogue.

Panga Management does not, even for one second; wish to undercut the achievements of artists, good or otherwise, who have benefited from the art competition system. In fact Panga Management thinks that any artist who has the courage to take part in a “competition” should be commended for their tenacity in the face of such evident perversion. Panga Management is also not suggesting that an artist should hand prize money back, even if they know in their heart of hearts that their work was not the strongest on the exhibition, for Gwards sake take the money and run, you deserve it for playing the system to your advantage!

PM is not under the illusion that art competitions are managed with accountability and less political interference anywhere else in the world. So it seems that the only way to make the playing fields even is to have more art competitions; one to cater for each agenda. One more thing! It’s about time the arts community starts talking candidly about these situations, there is no place for PC politics in a growing democracy, it time to call a spade a shovel; we need to hold ourselves and each other accountable if we ever hope to improve the “professional” fields artists are forced to negotiate.

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