Monday, October 20, 2014

What Is This Creative Economy Isht?!

The Kenyan Art scene is amazing. Yes, I’ve finally gotten to use the word ‘amazing’ in my text. It’s probably the single largest industry where rhetoric gets you places. Also the only existing one where you really don’t have to believe in what you say.

Minus the art making, it is prolly 10% business and 90% Non-Government/not-for-profit organizations. Aid. Development aid. The business part dealings are easy – product/item (artwork), cost, sale, commissions, chilled drinks, handshakes, been-good-doing-business-with-you. Voilla.

The not for profit? Hmmmm! This is where titles, buzz words and superficial intelligence reign. I’ve encountered numerous words/phrases that absolutely make no sense at all but are supposed to make a lot of it the more they are repeated. I’ve personally discarded them from my lexicon and is even thinking of putting up a disclaimer in my tiny space to the effect that you risk a broken nose should you use any of those words within the sanctity of my Cupboard Studio.

I was pretty successful until I encountered one of the many social media escapades where the ‘art stakeholders’ have a getaway to some remote/exotic place to discuss ‘really important things’ about the arts. The deliberations rarely get to Nairobi but the pictures reach us real time. I must admit that I have no trouble with it as it offers me my in-between-studio- practice entertainment via the World Wide Web. A not-so-recent one had participants deliberating our ‘Creative Economy.’ Nice. Today I’m using all the awesome words (pun intended). It reminded me of a ‘breakfast meeting’ with a former government functionary whose translation of the term Creative Economy sent (fellow) artists seething. I’m not sure if the art stakeholders got the definition right but all I recall is seeing a dubious art person (not sure if dealer, seller, connoisseur, groupie) person giving a power point presentation. Quite dubious!

But that’s not my beef. It happened, was labeled pretty successful and guys came back home. Irony is, the first joint project (a majority) of the summiteers undertook is the Kenyan Art Diary. This is a deadly concept that was long overdue alongside other merchandizing ventures that are now commonplace. I respect the brains behind the diary. I personally have never submitted my work for it since no one wants to answer my (not-so-hard) questions.

The first diary was a hit (whatever that means). Artists submitted work and even paid to be in it. Agreement was they’d be given (I think) two copies but when demand outweighed supply, some never got theirs. There are conflicting reports on how many were printed versus how much sold. Questions were asked on whether the proprietor could afford to offer some token of appreciation as artist compensation (long story). The second happened. Repeat. Most artists don’t ask questions and are okay with the arrangement since majority have never been published and this loosely translates to having a glossy image of yourself in a ‘best seller’. It’s only later when playing with numbers that they realize what might have been!

When I started receiving emails asking me to submit and pay for next years edition, I asked what they were offering me as artist’s copyright and/or royalties. Then the emails went cold. Good manners dictate you respond to questions asked whether you have the ‘right’ answers or not. It’s okay to say it ‘never crossed’ your mind. Or that you can’t afford it. Or that you don’t want to pay any copyrights. But if you go cold, it translates to you being a cold schemer in a well calculated move. Irony, the emails came back this week inviting me to the diary launch.

You see (I’ll try starting the next sentence without using ‘you see’), in this whole arrangement, the ART in the diary is what is the selling point yet the artist is at the bottom of the food chain. The photographer gets paid. The designer too. So does the runner. And the wine supplier. Yet the artist puts his money and his art into it so as to be promoted. To be supported. Assisted.

Most artists, driven by financial instability (not poverty) and (some by) intellectual incompetence get excited by ‘just prospects’ that they don’t set their own requirements or even re-adjust/edit whatever contracts are offered to them. Whose fault? We may never know. Every not-for-profit outfit is offering courses/classes with cliché titles like Business of Art, Art Entrepreneurship, Art Mentorship, Creative Management… etcetera. So where did the rain start on us? With art stakeholders who are ‘conversant’ with creative economy/economics and artists who’re shuttling between studios and five star establishments learning creative economy, you’d expect that the ‘goodwill’ from all these institutions and the numerous courses undertaken by artists, the odds would be better stacked for the artist in such ventures. Wishful thinking!

But it’s quite a shame that we still have institutions/individuals that thrive on preying on uninformed or desperate creatives and rather than have a conversation on important aspects of an artist’s practice (read remuneration/fee/pay), they run off. To me, this equates to not giving a hoot about the artists. Or his/her practice. It translates to you being clueless to the whole creative economy you’re making noise about.

So what it this Creative Economy isht?

You can’t keep talking of creative economy without understanding the creative industry as a whole methinks! For my bias to the visual arts, I shall conveniently disregard/ignore the other segments of this industry and ‘specialize’ (for lack of a better word) on the visual arts.
Everyone keeps quoting numbers (in millions of USDs) of what the Kenyan creative economy is worth. But no one can back how these figures come about. As in any industry, there must be some level of investment in the two (major) segments;

  • Pre-Production
- Art Schools, Artist Studios, (Public)Art Awareness, Art Supply shops, Comprehensive Cultural Policy & government goodwill.

  • Post Production
-Exhibition Spaces(Museums, Galleries, shops), Support Institutions (An Arts Council, A (functioning) Copyright board, National gallery, Competent Personnel (Art teachers, Historians, Curators) and clear & comprehensive intellectual property laws.

Ideally, most of these institutions should be government owned/run or partnered. And should be held in high regard by all segments of the industry with artist goodwill, and institution efficiency high up on their priority list.

With these in place, it should be fairly easy to join dots and figure out the actual scale in term of numbers of people (directly) employed and the actual figures of secondary effects like; turnover from museum visits, sales from publications & copyright remittances, commission from artwork sales, Exports revenues, value addition from permanent collections, cultural tourism & education fees.

From here, we may be able to attach the aesthetic value of our art to the monetary aspect of it. This in the long run will make us comprehend a more realistic value of our creative economy and will help in defining visual arts  and fitting it within the (most) relevant government agency - as opposed to forcing art in the same bracket as Youth & Sports.

Once we have this figured out, we can combine all the creative fields and talk with authority about this thing we keep referring to as Creative Economy. 

I love the arts. Probably more than it loves me back (pun intended). I however have made a conscious decision that if anyone has a noble idea that is good and beneficial to the team, I shall fully support it. But for some I consider half baked and somewhat detrimental to artist development, there are no two ways about it. The days when words like ‘promote’, ‘support’, ‘favour’ would clinch a deal are long gone. It’s time folks understood that it’s now business. Strictly Business. And that for some of us, Creative Economy translates to shillings and cents.


  1. Thanks Thom for this,much needed eye opener. The being promoted thingie is especially annoying to me

  2. i laughed with pain. i have seen these cases. the so called stakeholders make us (artists) believe we can not exist without them. they (stakeholders) are because we are and not the other way round. but again, who can bring together artists to organise themselves and stand against such exploitation?
    the brackets and italics made the article so alive, that i was reading silently and laughing out loud.