(Unhealthy competition between art institutions within the Kenyan visual arts sector)
Kenya is a country of “high” population density records (in almost every known field). It has the highest number of “curators” per square inch, the highest number of institutions set up to “help” artists and probably the highest number of “artists.”
This has been made so by the ease of which anyone on a sabbatical from any field becomes an artist and the NGO culture where even the Kenyan government ‘survives’ on donor funding.
Every aid agency in Africa favours Nairobi as a wise choice of their head office because of the relative stability and as a hub to the rest of the world which makes institutions like The Ford Foundation, The Rockerfeller, HIVOS & Doen all present in “The Green City In The Sun”
With ‘easy’ access to funding, everyone with a ‘juicy’ story to sell can get funding for an “art project”. This has led to institutions duplicating each others profiles, mandates and programmes thereby setting a volatile atmosphere where almost every ‘art-based’ organization is requesting funding from the same donors and trying to carry out the same programmes.
Nairobi has… hmmmm! Let’s see… 2 visual art spaces set up as trusts; Kuona Trust Centre for Visual Arts & The GoDown Art Centre, An online art portal; African Colours, The project based Centre for Contemporary Art of East Africa, Communal art spaces like Ngecha & Banana Hill and other spaces such as The Rahimtulla Museum of Modern Art (RaMoMa), The Nairobi Museum, The Nairobi Gallery, Gallery Watatu, Paa Ya Paa Arts Centre and the privately owned ‘The Loft’ formerly known as One Off.
With the exception of The Loft, Gallery Watatu and Paa Ya Paa, (this can probably be disputed) the rest, whether individually or government owned, rely on funding/grants for general running.
Naturally, with quite a handful of ‘big named’ institutions and ‘alot of money’ in the arts, one would expect Nairobi to have a vibrant art scene with numerous high profile events; A Biennale of an annual Art Fair, maybe an Arts Festival or even an Art Award worth writing home about, but that is not the case.
It’s a very fragmented art scene with people running art organizations but are never seen in any art events and in some cases don’t speak to each other, even if just to compare notes. This does not create a conducive enough atmosphere to do any collaborative project by institutions.
One attempt was made last year to do a joint activity but… it was a sorry affair, done passively, probably just because it “had to be done.”
Recently a few artists have started questioning the “value” of these art organizations. What do they stand for? What do they want to achieve? How do they go about trying to achieve this?
As one artist put it; I paint everyday from my house & find my way to a commercial gallery to sell my work. What role do these organizations play in my practice?”
He could be right I think. Maybe artists’ expectations are too much or maybe the arts organizations have just failed to show why they remain relevant in this rapidly developing art scene in Nairobi.