If you have seen the movie The First Grader then you will know what an Arts Council can bring to a country as CHEU MITA discovers.
The film sponsored by the UK Film Council tells the true story of an old Kenyan man in his 80s who wants to take advantage of the government’s new policy of free education even if it means sitting in a classroom alongside six-year-olds.
He just wants to learn how to read, so he can read a letter from the government.
Moved, by his passion to learn the head teacher supports his struggle to gain admission and together they face fierce opposition from parents and officials who don’t want to waste a precious school space on such an old man.
The film has been taken to different film festivals and won numerous awards. It was made possible because of the UK Film Council.
The arts have been proven to greatly contribute to economies of countries due to an increase in gross domestic product per capita.
Arts councils are established to promote the arts mainly by funding local artists, awarding prizes, and organising events at home and abroad. For instance, the Nigerian film industry contributes $590 million annually.
At an Artists Forum held in Lilongwe on 29 June 2013 as part of preparations to hold the City of Stars Festival, the festival taking place instead of the Lake of Stars festival this year, artists pushed for the establishment of an arts council to coordinate arts groups and activities.
“There was a general consensus that we need a body. This is important for coordination of cultural groups and activities. There was a suggestion that we set-up a council for registration and a database of arts organisations in the country,” reads a summary of the discussions in part.
In the same vein, the government of Malawi in its ambitious year-long Economic Recovery Plan(ERP) included tourism and culture as one of the sectors it hopes to reap from.
In an interview, Ministry of Tourism and Culture spokesperson Chrissy Chiumia said one of the things the ministry is doing in line with the ERP is working on the Cultural Policy which includes the establishment of an arts council and some infrastructural projects.
“As a Ministry responsible for the arts, we are formulating a cultural policy in which we are proposing the establishment of a council.
“For arts and culture, there are three projects that have been included [in the ERP], these are the development of Chongoni Rock Art world heritage site, rehabilitation of Blantyre Cultural Centre and development of an ampitheatre that is close to Bingu International Conference Centre [BICC]. Right now, we are working on the preliminaries as per government regulations before we start the actual work that has be done within the financial year,” she said.
In an interview recently , AFA chief executive officer Peace Anyiam Osigwe said the film industry has potential to employ over three million people and contribute as much as $500 million (US$155 000)a year to the economy.
She said it was good that President Joyce Banda was willing to support the movie industry especially since she has promised to ensure that Malawi has a cultural policy and Film policy in place soon.
“The President has even promised a culture and film policy within the next few months, which is a positive thing,” said Anyiam Osigwe.
One of Malawi’s celebrated authors Stanley Onjezani Kenani said Malawi was lagging behind by not having an Arts Council.
“We are the ones lagging behind, held back by own misplaced belief that arts are useless, and that they should be ignored. No, they cannot be ignored. It would be a big mistake. We need an arts council, like our neighbours, like the rest of the world,” he said.
As president of the Malawi Writers Union(Mawu) (2004-2007), Kenani doubled the effort of calling for the setting up of the Arts Council.
He said:“I had the support of many both within Mawu and in the arts generally. I confronted Ministers of Arts and Culture, the two who served in my time, namely, Honourable Jafalie Mussa and Honourable Henry Chimunthu Banda. I asked for milestones with timelines as to when the Cabinet Paper on the formation of the Arts Council would be approved.
“Now I gather that almost a decade on, the issue is still gathering dust at Cabinet paper level, where it seems doomed to rust unto perpetuity. It is my understanding that the idea of the Arts Council dates to as far back as 1983. For some unfathomable reason, the government has developed cold feet for three decades, with no effort towards implementation,”.
However, Chiume quashed the idea saying there has been no cabinet paper submitted in the 1980’s.
“The formulation of the current draft started in the 1980s and that was never submitted to Cabinet until 2004 or there about when it was submitted. Unfortunately, the draft was never discussed until we ratified two UNESCO conventions: the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage of 2003 and the Convention on the Protection and the Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions of 2005 both of which we ratified in 2010. The issues in these two conventions were not covered in the initial draft policy because we were not obliged to do so the time we formulated the policy,” she explained.
Kenani noted that the reason government ignores the arts is that in its reasoning, the arts are useless, that it is better to invest in the sciences and other activities that will bring money to the country.
“We have become a nation that views everything through the prism of money,” he says.
Kenani notes that involvement in the arts has the advantages of increasing opportunities for self-expression and enjoyment, reducing delinquency in high-risk youth and improving individuals’ sense of belonging or attachment to a community.
According to the UK Film Council website; “Film makes a key contribution to the UK economy as well as playing a vital role in the cultural richness of the country.”
The council acts as the lead organisation in distributing the lottery funds for film production, funding film development and production, training, distribution and exhibition; film certification, the cultural test and co-production, strategic development, industry research and statistics among others.
A story about the Arts Council England published by the BBC says the arts get less than 0.1% of public spending but deliver four times that in gross domestic product.
“Analysis by the Centre for Economics and Business Research found the sector had a turnover of £12.4bn in 2011 with £856m coming from tourism alone.
In the UK the government has taken a stance to promote the arts despite economic downturns.
In a speech at London’s British Museum last month, Culture Secretary Maria Miller said that, rather than focusing on the artistic value of public funding, “when times are tough and money is tight, our focus must be on culture’s economic impact”.