Monday, February 6, 2017

Who Will Save Kuona Trust?

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).


  1. "Most of us want to be passengers". I said somewhere that the Kuona reloaded cleaning day showed that artists can be polyvalent. That was an ironic remark to say it was finally time to see artists at Kuona a bit more involved and not seat and watch.

    I went to see the Soi exhibition with my kids and gonna be honest, the exhibition room is tiny and bad (I understand the difficult moment and last moment exhibition to raise money) and the all Kuona ground is messy and really dirty (Wangari statue, the symbol of Kuona failure, disposed like trash amongst rusty metal trash).

    Your commitment is real and it is great. "Reloaded" was great, nonetheless, I think like you said communication is important here... if there are been changes in Kuona, then let say it on FB, their blogs, etc. For example, currently, people have no idea if new board was elected and new constitution was drafted, etc. and who is in charge. Also, it is hard to help if we don't know the basic running cost, Kuona need to be frank and publicly show running cost so that people get an idea of the objective and range of money we are speaking about (is it 100k; 500k or 1M per month). You said it, people need to speak out, be transparent, engage...

    So, a bit of dusting, planning and communication campaign may attract interest into Kuona...

    As for the Kuona making money, I think Kuona ground has lot of opportunities to generate moneys. The ground is big, well located, etc. Yep, not another "open day" with gift goats, indeed !! And there are so much event and stuff that Kuona or even third party could organise. No secret, in hard time like this one, Kuona need to find parties who would be happy to hire the ground for events.

    By the way, the Kilimani Foundation is closing its Sunday market because of law forbidding school to generate money. May be Kuona could speak to Kilimani Foundation and see about the possibility of having the Kilimani market every Sunday at the ground (lot of people used to go to the market). It will also bound people together. The ground could be used by many interested parties (private events, school visit, art workshop), with a bit of flexibility and fair prices, I am sure the . I understand it is important to ask people who profited of Kuona to give back but it would be also nice to consider moving out from the usual arty inner-circle. Kuona could diversify their audience and not stick to the same almost sectarian artist circle :)

    Kuona, be clever, be polyvalent, diversify your audience and events and let the ground be used for private events. Do a booking calendar, fair prices and publish it online.

    As for artists only being concerned about Kuona and stakeholders and consultants being not here anymore, well I think they moved to higher and safer investment-wise ground :) As you said, sad to see conflict of interest and greedy behavior from people within (past and/or present). I heard only main reason behind Kuona situation is missmanagement but I think the recent shift in art market in Kenya played a big part too. As I said privately to someone, why would players (artists/investors/financiers/funders/trust/list cqn be very long...) go for a nyama choma on dirty grass if they can now have champagne at prestigious hotel, press articles, Instagram-like photos, etc. Make sense !! Because in the world of art, the bold and beautiful always win ! Blow your bubble

    1. You are spon on. Thank you very much

    2. Not doing the "know it all" guy, just coming up with ideas and honest personal opinion. By "blow your bubble", I meant Kuona need to think as a business and not as a grantee/assisted institution and do like others but in a more friendly-less posh way. As for investors leaving the boat and conflict of interest, nothing you can do, this is the nasty of the business. The "inner arty circle" remark was sincere (not to take badly), time to broaden audience, Kuona is not a private club :)

      Speaking about club, Kuona needs copy what Kilimani Foundation did, clean your yaass, present yourself as "reloaded" and start a membership system. Come up with something catchy for members (have categories (individual, family, business, sponsor - and provice incentives like individuals can come enjoy the ground free of charge, get latest updates, opening invitation, 10% discount on shop, etc.; sponsor get free ads in Kuona and any flyers/papers; business get opportunities and ) for 1000/ a year and more. Have some PR campaign to increase membership at Yaya, etc. Be proactive in communication with members, publish account and be transparent.

      By the way, will the African Art Trust Also continue to support Kuona as their core grantess for another five year (previous grant was for 2011-2016) ? What would be needed per month to survive (rent of space, 2/3 staff, running cost) ?

      Since it is almost impossible to do all this with only few people and lack of money, Kuona needs to focus on easy stuff, that is to rent ground to private sector. Diversify audience and see broad (e.g. Nairobi Art Center is having small designers sale with DJs, drinks, etc.). I know from fact also lot of people are looking for ground for birthday parties or private parties at fair price. By the way, it is possible Kilimani Foundation is looking for a ground to have Sunday Market, that would be one thing.

      Take a calendar, have a list of basic events (flea market, art boot sale, some workshops, etc.) then assign a day in calendar and one person responsible of the event (call it "your assignment of the year"). Don't do like all others fair, that is charge crazy amount of money (like 5k-10k) for a table, it is nonsense ! There are lot of ideas online...

      Flea market - Many expats leave end of June. Best time of the year to have flea markets (one end of June, one early July). 500 Ksh per space, 50 Ksh entrance. Few private guys doing food and drinks (get commission)

      Workshops - So artist can organise workshop, it should be easy. Saturday is best day for it. 1000 ksh-2000 ksh, ten participants. See which one works best. PK can teach how to frame stuff :)

      Art Cart Boot Sale - Popular in Europe, aim is for artist to sale cheap art to public and public to purchase cheap art while having fun. For artists, on submission. Also, it enables unknown artists to sale their art and well known artists to sale their "reject" or backdoor stuff. No need to bring car.

      BUT THEN, it sounds easy on paper. Implementing it without financial support and staff is another story. Good luck to Kuona. And kudos to Soi for having the exhibition and 50% to Kuona.

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  3. Great article Thom! But quick one, how was the centre expected to stay afloat if there's no donor money coming in? Quick and drastic measures had to be taken and it's unfortunate that this had to be the increment of studios rent. Reason being, the center resides not on its property but a rented one! Not to echo the operational costs that come with it; electricity, water, security, licences and so on. The center had to take a different turn: from donor dependent and start thinking like a commercial one.

    Think of how the artists have been in a position of reaching different clienteles by the walk- in's day in day out. Will this be the case for the young upcoming artist who decides to work from home? Will s/he get the exposure they're exposed to now if they were to work independently? I don't think so! And it all boils down to the fact that, they are simply not just paying hefty studio rent, but also the brand of the name, KUONA TRUST!

    The Big Boss has pointed out something that has already been presented to Kuona, the Kilimani Organic Farmers Market, fantastic! A great and lucrative way of generating income but how is the center expected to go about it when some of the events presented to it go against the agreement the centre entered with it's licensor? Should the trust risk loosing the space its operating on because of the events? Should it breach the contract?
    True the gallery is small, but then again how are constructions of bold and attractive spaces be built on rented property?
    Some of the 'trash' pointed out as well..., surely, artists make art from TRASH!! The Wangari Mathai statue is a work in progress. The rusty metals, materials for a different project probably by a different artist. I highly recommend a guided tour maybe it will help in distinguishing what's TRASH and what's ART in the centre.

    On the flip side, I totally agree that somethings needs to be done for the centre. Let the board also speak up on why former employees are still holding onto the centre's assets. Was there a proper handover? Why are some of the vacant spaces closed down yet they can help in generating income for the centre? What is it that's not been shared?

    Last but not least, why is it that artists are fleeing upon seeing the ship sink leaving behind uncleared studio rent? How about giving back to a center that made them what they are? Why are responsibilities been absconded? Everyone needs to be held responsible for their negligence. If artists need to helped and held by the hand they also need to play their part. This is a two way thing!


  4. Linda, I can make difference between trash and trash art. The place looks untidy and dirty.

    As for the guided tour to help in distinguishing trash and art, I totally agree with you, please consider having artists and Kuona administrators in the tour for another tentative clean up.

    Good luck.