South African Cultural Observatory

Why a South African Cultural Observatory?

BY 12.12.16

*First published in "Leadership", South Africa's leading business magazine, November 2016 

THE creative economy, the so-called creative and cultural industries (CCI) and cultural diplomacy are magical concepts in the world of research, policy-making and within the broader arts, culture and heritage domains. Their rise in prominence is hinged on what they could potentially unlock – growth and better person-to-person and country-to-country relations.

The creative world is no longer about art for art’s sake, but rather an undervalued and supported industry with untapped potential for generating economic growth and social unity. Closely tied to this is the role the creative industries play in knitting the urban landscape together and building favourable cities.  Australian – and other – case studies show some interesting parallels between the nature and size of the bohemian groupings within a particular geographical centre and a positive economic trajectory.

Related research indicates that those centres, which, historically, have had more investment high-end cultural infrastructure, demonstrate better levels of sustainable development and a more positive economic development trajectory than those centres that do not. Richard Florida has built his entire career on demonstrating how creative cities are the epicentre of technology, talent and tolerance – and thus, growth.

Counting Culture?

But how do you measure the economic contribution that arts and culture makes to a region or country and how do you evaluate the impact that cultural events and experiences have?

An attempt to answer these questions contributed to the formation of the South African Cultural Observatory (SACO), a newly established Department of Arts & Culture think tank that operates nationally from Port Elizabeth.

According to Professor Richard Haines, SACO Chief Executive, this research centre traces its origins to 2011 Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) Mzansi Golden Economy policy document.  “The Mzansi Golden Economy took the stance that while the cultural creative economy is undervalued, it actually has significant potential in terms of generating development possibilities, and strengthening job creation options for the country,” he explains.

“Through a range of consultations with stakeholders, with their consultants, in 2012/13 the DAC started looking at the possibility of setting up a national cultural observatory, aligned with an international trend towards establishing cultural observatories.”

The impetus behind cultural observatories (the first of which was established in Grenoble, France) goes back to the 1980s where governments, researchers and academics realised there was a very real need for a more coherent and systematic understanding of how the cultural economy grows and ‘lives’, at a time when arts and culture were becoming more prominent the broader economy.

The SACO is the informative ‘nerve centre’ that provides not only the strategic vision, but also the organising principle to develop cultural indicators and information systems appropriate to the South African context and collection of statistics based on the sector needs.

The SACO started operating in earnest in 2015 and has already accomplished a great deal in a short time.

“The South African government wants greater systematisation of the collection of cultural information, particularly about our cultural economy. We fulfil this role and are tasked also with driving greater cultural diplomacy at both a macro- and micro-level as DAC’s premier research agency,” says Prof Haines.

A holistic view

In delivering on its mandate to research the cultural economy, the SACO undertakes monitoring and evaluation exercises or impact assessments of cultural spending. It is providing government with a key insights into the direction of government spending flows across arts, culture and heritage and their impact and multipliers.

 “We are asking deep and necessary questions, while taking a holistic view of the industry to identify trends, pockets of excellence and to analyse why certain activities and funding don’t work,” he said.    

To do this, SACO is focusing on developing systemised methodologies for the monitoring and evaluation of cultural ventures and cultural activities, particularly those funded by government.

Prof Haines expands: “A related aspect is the both dissemination of the research we generate and generated by the industry. We have both a physical and digital library and resource centre live onour website and we’re going to look to digitise our relevant holdings.”

SACO is building country-wide research capacity and  runs a bursary programme for post-graduate students nationally.

 “We are operating in a broker assembly type approach for the Observatory, so we have a core full-time staff, a team of part-time researchers, and we also contract or second based on need and location. We are increasingly working closely with all South African universities, a network of sector specialists, the 27 entities owned by DAC – such as the NAC, NFVF, SAMRO, and BASA – and we also leverage our joint venture partnership with Rhodes and Fort Hare.”

The SACO project is hosted by the Nelson Mandela University (NMMU), in partnership with Rhodes and Fort Hare universities. Haines was formerly the Head of Department and Professor of Development Studies at NMMU. 

Core to the work being done, includes developing intra- and inter- cultural relations in South Africa and abroad, under the banner of cultural diplomacy. “We’ve been producing policy briefs, particularly in the area of cultural diplomacy, a big growth area. National governments use cultural diplomacy as a tool for building cultural bridges.

“Essentially cultural diplomacy is a course of action that uses the exchange of values, ideas, traditions and other cultural aspects to strengthen relationships and amplify socio-cultural cooperation – a useful form of soft power demonstrating the heart of a country’s identity as a starting point for enhancing interaction and finding common ground.

“Country briefs help us better know who we are dealing with when we engage in diplomatic activity – at a high political level, but also person-to-person. For example, the Minister is travelling Brazil, we produce documentation discussing the profile, the cultural economy, the opportunities for interaction. We open the door to discussion.”

Prof Haines is also keen to emphasise the training being undertaken by SACO. It trains festival organisers in appropriate monitoring and evaluation (M&E) techniques for example and also endeavours to build research capacity by running workshops on an introduction to statistical procedures and other topics relevant to the cultural and creative sector.

SACO’s key achievements to date

“Our website is the epicentre of our work as one of our biggest tasks is dissemination of information in a sector hungry for it. One of our main focus areas has been the development of a National Research Agenda which is a cohesive outline for all research work that we undertake, but also for an industry which is largely fragmented in its approach to capturing critical information.

“In line with this we are also sharing an important monitoring and evaluation framework to help everyone from practitioners to grassroots organisations; researchers to policy-makers quantify and represent their work in a systematic and logical way.

“This will help us regularise and synthesise data across a disparate sector and critically, identify the trends that will help government make decisions on how to support, finance and grow the cultural economy.

“Developing a sound working relationship with Rhodes and Fort Hare has been good but also establishing the broader industry relationships through our nation-wide workshop series and finding a sense of potential partnerships has been exciting. We had a very successful first national conference, drawing together industry-wide participation and neighbouring perspectives from Africa. There were 180 people there and we had very good feedback. We’re planning an even larger one in Cape Town during May 2017.

“Another success is working with our young emerging researchers, mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds, but with a passion for developing the industry. Also, establishing our premises in Donkin Street, this gives us a non-partisan space in the cultural/creative quarter of Port Elizabeth.

“We are also on the verge of signing an MOU and have managed to build substantive partnerships with local government in a short space of time,” says Haines.

A leading approach

A lot has been accomplished in a short space of time and leadership style plays a big role.

“I think leadership in research and academic areas and universities is actually very rewarding and there’s scope for entrepreneurship within it.

“Universities need to think more creatively about revenue sources and funding; opportunities in the research sphere and dynamism using connectivity, technology and the knowledge economy means more opportunity than ever before.

“The broker assembly model works, and with the right resources and a focus on alternative funding mechanisms new and exciting ways of conducting and disseminating research are possible,” says Prof Haines.

Haines believes in empowering people and giving them responsibility: “It’s important to identify talent, to give the space and occasionally to learn by mistakes and to work with that. Effective networks are an important part of running a contemporary business in the creative sector.

“The broker assembly approach uses networks as an advantage. Its’s very important for us because it allows flexibility and nimbleness. The research process for us isn’t just something academic it’s something interactive. At the same time you need to establish funding flows and consider sustainability,” he says.

In the next couple of years, SACO intends to continue with a range of research studies, expand the mapping of the creative sector, ramp up its training activities, host more successful conferences and workshops and ideally, improve both its intra- and international visibility.


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