A lot has been said about Kuona Trust, started in 1995 and modeled along the Triangle network studios to give opportunities to local artists while raising the profile of the arts, first regionally and recently, globally.
It was registered and has operated as a trust since its inception. The early years were easy. Its major challenges were funding and trained personnel deficiency. Being a fully dependent on donor funding institution, it’s come a long way from being housed at the museum where its core activity was providing studios for barely-out-of-school artists and occasionally offering technical workshops facilitated by then masters. Most of us walked through the doors in the nineties equipped with a single raw skill and moved on with multiple abilities thanks to training by the likes of Robino Ntila, Theresa Musoke, Elijah Ogira, Ugo Giacometti, Francis Kahuri, The Late Joseph Opiyo… list is endless.
Most artists branded as ‘second generation’ got their first international travel opportunity through Kuona Trust and its Triangle partners – Gasworks (London), Bag Factory & Greatmore (South Africa), Partage (Mauritius), Thapong (Botsana), Pachipamwe & Batapata (Zimbabwe) & Khoj (India) among others. These platforms also introduced us to prolific artists from other countries which has led to friendships and cross-continent collaborations that go back over 20 years.
Kuona’s fast growth coupled with the Nairobi Museum’s renovation and expansion meant that it had to get a new home. It had a brief stop at Jacaranda Designs en route to the more spacious Godown Art Center in 2004. Here Kuona flourished - 8 private studios, a larger resource center and a more comprehensive programme. Life was good and naturally, Kuona had to move to its own space and in 2008 settled at their current location. It was all rosy – very reputable institution, guaranteed donors, almost enough studios & vibrant space. There were murmurs but nothing serious. Then out of the blue, crisis! And people bolted.
The irony of all this is that when the institution was in a good place, there were so many stakeholders’ and ‘consultants’. There were a lot of folk interested in the welfare of Kuona (or so we thought) til the cookie crumbled. There have been a lot of disappointing moments but the lowest was when electricity was disconnected for a week for non-payment.
The structure of the trust is that it’s governed by a board of trustees and run by employed staff answerable to the board. All the employees but one was made redundant. Word has it that the others are not being very helpful and have not even returned office laptops and documents. The official story is that they are suspended and under investigation but they laugh it off and tell everyone willing to listen that it’s all over and ‘they’ve moved on.’
Most of us are past the ‘How did we get here?’ question and are more concerned with ‘How do we get us out of this s**t?’
Clearly, it seems like artists are the only ones keen on retaining the space and sometimes they feel like they are on their own. (Unless others are supportive chini ya maji!) Stakeholders & consultants are out of sight. It is very frustrating when legalities and ‘conflict of interest rhetoric’ are thrown around when artists want to take control but when it comes to the true story – securing the space, paying rent & salaries and dealing with creditors, it’s okay because artists ‘own’ Kuona.
Kuona is a pale shadow of its former self thanks to financial impropriety and impunity. Structural failures are also not doing the institution any favours. Add to these, employee arrogance and trustees who seem to have ‘given up’. I am yet to understand what hold the former employees have on the board. Why do we still have five laptops (documents & probably other equipment) with former employees? Why is the former director’s office still secured with ‘her stuff’ just as she left it if she’s resigned?
The space is operating at about 30% considering what it’s capable of with only artist studios and PK’s frame shop active. Periodical exhibitions, outreach and education were Kuona’s forte back in the day but I’m yet to understand why resident artists are not keen on doing proper shows there. It may stem from the culture that became embedded that the space can only be used for donor funded projects loosely referred to as ‘conceptual exhibitions’. Outreach projects that catapulted collectives like Maasai Mbili to superstardom became avenues for politically correct artists to obtain funding for non-existent projects. Education in the arts, which is probably what everyone is looking at now, has been non-existent yet about five years ago, Kuona was the only African country participating in the Unilever sponsored and Tate Modern produced Turbine Generation. Right now, we sit and wait for that random private school bus to drive in with 10 students paying a hundred bob per head for a tour of studios with absent artists. The library that was once touted as the most comprehensive art library in the region remains closed since most people only check in to use the internet (which is disconnected). The shop is closed. It’s the classic case of ‘How not to run an art space.’
Between the board and resident artists are people equipped with over 500 years of professional practice and human resource management. It’s very difficult to understand how guys don’t see this as a problem. The space is currently in the trustees hands with an artist committee ‘guiding’ the gang. It’s supposed to be a democracy and at times meetings feel like parliamentary sessions. It’s good to see artists attempt to be in charge but come on! You can’t run an institution that way. Hard decisions need to be made. Somebody needs to step up. There’s need to start programming even on a shoestring budget, or even no budget. A little momentum has started – Kuona Reloaded was a good start. Wrong Number exhibition got good reviews at a difficult time followed by Michael Soi’s current show (which got us some money). We can’t afford stand still. The next show should be in advanced stages of planning. Some of the most prolific local artists operate in the space. Do something to raise the space’s profile, and not another open day.
Someone should be calling schools and artists need to invest more in the space. Investment is not just money. It is whatever resource someone can offer. What skill do you have that can add value to the outfit? Unfortunately, most of us just want to be passengers.
Kuona Trust is too important to operate as it currently does and I’m embarrassed when I have flashbacks. Once upon a time we were told to wait for an audit which would give a way forward. We’ve just started the 6th month. People need to have honest conversations. Everyone who should be involved is mum like they’re waiting for it to go away. Why is it that only artists come back to help? Where are the former employees/staff? Where are the previous directors and trustees? Is it that they also moved on? Or that they don’t know? Or they just don’t care? Or was it 'strictly business' for them?
It’s not rocket science that Kuona Trust has been donor dependent all along. Is someone looking for funding? If not, are we looking for alternative ways of generating resources? Not hiking rent to pay for studios but trying to get back to 70% operations. The one person manning the desk cannot be tasked with doing work that was previously done by seven people and a couple of interns. There are a lot of things that need to be looked into and we can’t be creating bottlenecks because of money (or lack of it). The buck however stops with the ship’s captain. There’s an iceberg in the horizon - we can navigate around it or ram it. I’d like us to go around it but am just the midshipman and the captain thinks otherwise so I’ll just grab my life jacket and stand near the life boat. Just in case.
We all profess our love for Kuona. Some louder than others. Even those who got us where we are now. It’s time to walk the talk. Time to show the love. Otherwise we shall soon bury another institution just like that.
I don’t want to be telling my grandkids that there once was a Gallery Watatu. Or a RaMoMA. Or Kuona. Instead I want to take them wherever Kuona shall be and tell them I was part of the team that built and benefitted from that institution. That’s if I live that long.
Lastly, let’s get serious and give back to the institution that molded us into who we are. And goats don’t count (terms & conditions apply).