Michelle Constant. File photo: FINANCIAL MAIL/GARTH JACOBS
Michelle Constant. File photo: FINANCIAL MAIL/GARTH JACOBS

 After 10 years at the helm of Business and Arts SA (Basa), its CEO, Michelle Constant has resigned and will be vacating her office in February.

Basa is a nonprofit organisation founded in 1997 with Nicola Danby as CEO and Mary Slack (granddaughter of Harry Oppenheimer) as chairwoman. Slack was in the position for 14 years and was awarded the Basa Champions Award in 2012.

“I have had an extraordinary 10 years at Basa and have truly grown to love the organisation,” says Constant. “During my decade at Basa, I have witnessed the difference it makes in the arts sector — not just in SA but on the continent, something that was gratifyingly apparent at my recent presentations in Namibia and in Ethiopia at the AU.

“I believe that, together with the department of arts and culture, the board, a diverse team and various sectors including business and tourism, we have built up a healthy and vibrant organisation. I look forward to welcoming my successor to what is a truly meaningful and deeply rewarding position within the arts-business landscape.”

Unlike other publicly funded agencies which have boards and chairsmen appointed by the arts minister, the Basa board is elected by members votes at an annual general meeting, as per International Organisation Development SA regulations.

Basa is a joint initiative of the department of arts and culture and the business sector as a public/private partnership. “For every R1 Basa grants, businesses match it with up to R14 in kind. This is based on the incoming sponsorships or corporate funds to arts organisations — both in cash and in kind — of R33.9m,” Constant explains.

The organisation’s programmes — aimed at both businesses and arts practitioners and organisations — include research, tool kits and a growing Knowledge Hub.

Shortly after Constant’s resignation, the chair of the board, Andre Le Roux, resigned with immediate effect. He has been replaced by Charmaine Soobramoney, but remains on the board.

Unlike other publicly funded agencies which have boards and chairs appointed by the arts minister, the Basa board is elected by members votes at an annual general meeting, as per International Organisation Development SA regulations.

While there has been debilitating corruption on the boards of state-owned enterprises and other publicly funded bodies, Basa has always been clean as a whistle.

“Many appointed to such boards regard their appointments as licence to feed at the trough of public funding, rather than to govern in the interests of the institution and the broader citizenry,” says playwright and cultural activist Mike van Graan.

Basa board member Carel Nolte says the organisation is led by a mix of people well known in the arts world. “The board is not dominated by any one member. There needs to be vigorous debate and challenge. Board members recuse themselves if the business that they work for has made an application with an arts organisation,” Nolte explains.

Nolte is involved in the Jozi Film Festival, which has received a Basa supporting grant. In 2016 Kwanele Gumbi resigned as chairman of the Basa board. He remains chairman of the board of the Market Theatre, where there have been a host of allegations about his conduct.

In 2017/2018 Basa received R8.45m from the department of arts and culture. In the past financial year, 28% of the budget was disbursed as supporting grants in tranches of generally less than R50,000. These supporting grants are used to “market the event and give it more exposure”, says Nolte.

The Basa/British Council Market Development programme has taken the organisation into the rest of Africa by offering skills development for business and arts organisations in Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia. Basa has received recognition for its work from the AU African Union and Unesco.  

For Van Graan this is an example of “public funds being used to give corporates who funded the arts additional publicity and mileage.  This is a bit of a suck-up to corporates but I’m not sure that it actually results in more corporate funding for the arts.”

Just more than 20% of Basa’s budget is spent on “operations” as Basa expands its projects. Constant cites several projects such as the RMB Scale Up project, First Rand Foundation Innovation Funding, the British Council EU COSY project and the Basa/department of arts and culture debut programme as examples of its focus.

“The majority of our activities, time, resources and output, are in the growth and skills development programmes both nationally and on the continent,” she says. “We believe that this is important as it supports work creation; builds access and agency to markets; and business partnerships for arts organisations.”

The Basa/British Council Market Development programme has taken the organisation into the rest of Africa by offering skills development for business and arts organisations in Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia. Basa has received recognition for its work from the AU and Unesco. 

The organisation spends 16% of its budget on special projects. This includes media channels for arts and business on Business Day TV, SAfm and KayaFM, and a new daily newspaper project called Spotlight, run by Tiso Blackstar’s team in Port Elizabeth.

Constant cites “challenges for arts journalists in the mainstream media space” as the reason why Basa’s annual arts journalism award (2013-2016) has been put on hold.

The lack of funding for arts and culture is a long-term concern of the organisation, which has led to the creation of the Basa Sustainability Fund. It has an accumulated surplus of R4.2m  drawn from membership fees — amounting to about one year’s operating expenses.

“As with most mature not-for-profits locally and internationally, there is ideally a reserve for times of economic leanness. It is not a given that Basa receives department of arts and culture funds, or even membership fees. We constantly need to prove our value,” explains Constant.

Basa has 107 member businesses, including philanthropic and trust supporters. Its board has as member Gail Walters, who heads up corporate affairs at Hollard, the sponsor of its annual award ceremony. The board votes and makes the final decision on all grants — as well as special awards and other special proposals.

The Basa board recently used its powers of persuasion to bring Adrienne Sichel’s book Body Politics: Fingerprinting South African Contemporary Dance to the attention of RMB’s board, facilitating its funding and release.

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