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January 27 2017

Interview January 2017 | Mike van Graan - First Ever Arterial Network Secretary General

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With the 10 Year Anniversary of Arterial Network fast approaching, we look back on the complicated climate in which the network was formed in order to take stock of the various challenges and achievements since 2007. Mike van Graan (South Africa) served as Arterial Network’s first Secretary General, governing the secretariat office in Cape Town from 2010 to 2013, while simultaneously directing the work of the African Arts Institute (AFAI). ARTERIAL NETWORK spoke to Mike about his tenure as Secretary General, his passion for the arts and cultural sector and his hopes for the future of the network.

ARTERIAL NETWORK: From your perspective, how did Arterial Network officially come to life?

MIKE VAN GRAAN: The conference on Gorée Island in 2007, where Arterial Network was conceived, took place against the backdrop of the adoption of UNESCO’s Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, that presented the challenge of how to position the African arts and cultural sector on the global stage.

Initially, we did not envisage that Arterial Network would become a formal network, but at a leadership training programme with representatives from about fourteen African countries, there was an overwhelming expression of a need for Arterial Network to have national chapters and a legal framework. So it was that in 2009, Arterial Network was formally launched with the adoption of a constitution and attendees from twenty-nine countries at a conference in Johannesburg, hosted just before the World Summit on Arts and Culture, a project of the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies (IFACCA).

What were some of your achievements during your time as the first Arterial Network Secretary General? What challenges did you face and would you do anything differently?

I think that the publications released on project management, arts marketing, fundraising, advocacy and policy development were great achievements. They affirmed and spoke to varied African conditions, and are still used for building capacity within the sector. Then simply having a pan-African network such as Arterial Network, with an elected leadership and a cultural policy task group that could interrogate and provide perspectives on international and regional themes, meant that we finally had a voice at multilateral forums, such as UNESCO, and could influence policy-making at the source, rather than be recipients of policy made elsewhere.

Historically, we have always been divided along language and old colonial lines; a challenge that we were able to overcome by initiating a monthly newsletter in French and English, allowing us to build a network that had a truly continental dimension, operating in all African regions. We were often told that this had never been done before, and that no cultural or arts organisation operated for more than a year or two across the continent. The fact that Arterial Network is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year is a remarkable achievement - even though it is recognised that there have been some lean years during that time.

I would say that the biggest challenge was to build and sustain the network at the same time as the network was required to deliver on its mandate. It is an organisation whose time had come in terms of the needs of the continent, and there was a demand for national expressions of Arterial Network to play advocacy and representative roles. We were required to identify and train leadership, educate members about democratic practice, raise funds to sustain the organisation and then deliver on the key functions – research and distribute information, engage in advocacy, represent the sector in regional and international forums, create publications, build capacity in a range of skills, etc – all more or less at the same time.

To do these effectively, there is a need for committed leadership who are visionary and selfless and for skilled staff too, which we certainly had. However, we were also faced with challenges regarding some leadership positions within the network being used as access points to funding, travel perks, enhancements for CVs etc and some members relying on the culture of dependence. This reliance on international funding and the secretariat to do the work raising funds for national chapters, eschewing self-reliance, was a critical challenge that we faced. Our continent at large faces real leadership challenges at a political level, including a lack of accountability, a lack of delivery and leaders wanting power for the sake of having power etc. An organisation like Arterial Network needs to provide alternative experiences and affirm good practice in this regard for sustainable development, but admittedly, this takes time and good leadership.

After all, one of the key challenges for the creative sector in Africa is its lack of funding from sources on the continent itself and its dependence on international – mostly European – funding. Similarly, this funding often comes aligned with particular policy positions or priorities determined by European conditions, rather than African needs and priorities. A primary challenge then was – and probably still is – to set an agenda from within African conditions, by Africans, and to build sufficient capacity within the sector to have the knowledge, skills, confidence and experience to advocate for the priorities we determined, such as those defined at the founding conference of Arterial Network.

If I had to do things differently, it would probably be to build an organisation/ network that does not have national chapters, but instead has individual and organisational members from affiliate countries. That, of course, would have required a quite different way of organising and ensuring that more resourced countries do not dominate the network by virtue of being able to send more members to elective conferences than others.

You recently published a lengthy critique of the DAC White Paper draft (South Africa). What else have you been working on recently?

When I stepped down from Arterial Network’s secretariat, it was to concentrate on the activities of the African Arts Institute (AFAI) that we had initially established to coordinate Arterial Network when the latter was not yet a legal structure. Through my secretariat years, I came to see that one of the key deficiencies in the sector was leadership and skills (policy making, entrepreneurial, advocacy, marketing, organisational, information technology, etc) and so we defined the African Arts Institute essentially as a training institute to cultivate leadership for Africa’s creative sector in general and for Arterial Network in particular.

We ran out of funding last year, and our Board decided to close AFAI - an all too common experience. The need that we filled still remains, but our constituency could not afford to cover our costs and the needs of funders changed.

I continue to serve as a technical expert for UNESCO on the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions and am currently a Richard von Weizsäcker fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy, based in Berlin until the end of May 2017. I am in South Africa at the moment for the opening of my latest play, When Swallows Cry, that looks at the theme of migration and refugees from an African perspective. I would love this piece to travel extensively across the continent and internationally as it addresses important issues, but as we all know, this will be dependent on funding.

Ten years down the line, what is your message to the Arterial Network members for the upcoming Anniversary?

Having spent some time in Berlin, I am more convinced than ever of the need for an organisation like Arterial Network given the incredible nationalism, anti-immigration and xenophobic attitudes towards Africans in Europe, in the USA and indeed, in my own country, South Africa. Moreover, our continent continues to face internal political challenges and many of our developmental, political and economic challenges have cultural dimensions which we need to understand and advocate for mitigating strategies. We need a pan-African network to exchange ideas, to share learnings, to build capacity and to play an effective advocacy role at national, regional and international levels. This is not something for a few people to do or for an elected leadership to be entrusted with. This must inform the vision and practice of all of us, and we all need to take responsibility for our individual and collective futures – no one else is going to do that.

If I have any message for Arterial Network members, it is that they must commit themselves to building, strengthening and acting through Arterial Network. It is very difficult to build continental organisations given our limited funding and human resources, but the vehicle already exists. Even though it may need us to act as mechanics to do a service now and then, it is really up to us to both drive and steer it.

Interviewer: Marie-Louise Rouget, Arterial Network

Photo Credits
1 - Mike van Graan
2 & 3 - Arterial Network
4 - Market Theatre

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