Are the Arts the missing link in South Africa’s economy?

There is much debate about how to grow and empower the South African economy. Unemployment, insufficient jobs and lack of skills are often cited as the stumbling blocks to making progress. It would seem that education is the obvious solution. However, currently education is not reaching enough people in an effective way to really create the growth impact that the South African economy needs. Education takes time and requires vast resources.

Is there something else? Is there another way to engage with the South Africa’s unskilled population right now, where they are, using the resources that they currently have. Is there a way for big business to really empower and engage with this human resource to help grow South Africa’s economy?

Consider the arts, the creative potential that resides in South Africa. Almost anyone, anywhere, has some form of creative talent. Whether they are working with their hands, their voices or their minds, there is some kind of contribution that each and every person can make. Perhaps they can sing, certainly most South Africans can dance and entertain. There are storytellers and artists, designers, chefs, sculptors and painters. These are people with a wealth of creative ideas that could be making a much larger contribution to building South Africa’s economy.

If this wealth of creativity exists in South Africa, why is it not being more actively developed? Why is commerce and industry not engaging more with these creative minds to grow the economy?

It would appear that business is largely unaware of this creative resource. There are many executives that appreciate the arts. They attend theatre performances and exhibits at art galleries. When they travel for business, they may even take the time to visit local museums or cultural attractions. However, on a business level they do not engage with the arts. In short they do not see the link regarding how artists and the arts can help make a business more competitive in its industry.

Sadly, by not engaging with creative minds and artists, South African business is missing out. In turn, artist’s abilities to make a valid economic contribution are handicapped as there are insufficient platforms that support their development in South Africa. Those creative minds determined enough will seek out greener pastures overseas where incubators and better opportunities exist for innovation.

Take for example Elon Musk, a South African born engineer and innovative entrepreneur. In 2013 Forbes Magazine cited Musk as being one of the most powerful people in business. Currently his net worth is estimated in excess of $6,8 Billion. He is the founder and CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors. Yet South Africa is not part of the picture. Musk has created his wealth in North America and as a result it’s the US economy that is benefiting from his innovative ideas and creative business expertise.

Other world renowned artists include choreographers Robin Orlen and Gregory Mquamba. They are part of the small but important success story of Artist Proof Studio - a viable business offering self employment with the support of “big business”. South Africa needs more projects like this and more broad based business support of these projects.

This example illustrates that it is not for a lack of talent or creative ability that South Africa is still lagging behind. Rather, South African businesses seem to overlook the wealth of creative resources that could be applied to innovation. What creative incubators exist, are too small. Talent and innovative thinking needs to be developed on a much greater enterprise level if it is to have an economic benefit for South Africa.

South African business needs to understand the true economic value of the arts. The world’s most visited museum is the Louvre in Paris. In 2012, the Louvre hosted 9,720,000 visitors. On entrance fees alone this generated more than €155,520,000. Yet the benefits generated for the French economy extends much further. Visitors travelling to the Louvre use many forms of transport. Busses, taxis, trains and planes all bring revenue into the country. Hotels and restaurants host visitors. Added to that is the revenue generated by shops, souvenirs and boutiques. Whether visitors are ordering a gourmet meal or buying a baguette from the corner bakery, revenue is being generated. These businesses in turn support other industries such as textiles, porcelain, and food and beverage. The human resources employed in the supporting industries are vast. And the starting point of all of this is an art piece like the Mona Lisa or David that people travel across the world to see.

Increasingly urban revival is taking place in cities through artistic influence. Part of the revitalisation of the American economy after the depression was for New York to employ artists like Pollack and deKooning (then struggling unknowns) to paint murals in public spaces, train stations etc. The Gautrain is noticeably absent of any artistic intervention. Could this be a creative opportunity?

In 2013 the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles California initiated a project to engage with artists to develop a creative hub in Westwood that would generate entrepreneurial opportunities and urban regeneration. i
In South Africa, The suburbs of Woodstock and Observatory in Cape Town have already experienced a similar urban revival. What was once an old run down part of the city, is now a vibrant business hub where artists, artisans, craftsmen, professionals and creative minds ply their trades. Buildings have been renovated keeping historic facades but incorporating modern designs. Industries range from furniture and interior design to food, craft markets, photographic and advertising studios, and speciality boutique stores. Recently Braamfontein and Moboneng in Johannesburg are undergoing a similar transformation. These are examples of how arts can provide a dynamic high-growth industry cluster that revitalizes the community and provides civic enrichment.

In terms of big business Apple is a company that has invested extensively in developing a creative edge. Companies such as Samsung and Sony have brought out similar, sometimes even better functioning technology, but they have not been able to match Apple’s innovative capacity. Sony who used to be a market leader is now in a rapid decline, while Apple continues to grow. What this example illustrates is that it is not enough to have an excellent product. Business, especially those in mature markets need to actively focus creative innovation if they are to gain or maintain a competitive edge. Pure creative arts develop broad based creative thinking. This then translates into innovative business thinking. With only a limited number of schools offering a dedicated art education, youngsters are not being educated to think creatively. There is some hope in projects such as the Sanlam initiative. Their school educator program won a BASA award and is now being rolled out from the Western Cape to other parts of the country. South Africa needs more initiatives like this.

There is a massive and appropriate focus on maths and science in schools. But there should be an equally strong emphasis on fostering creative thinking through the arts. As the world moves increasingly towards visually communicative media, we need more aesthetically trained people, people who are visually literate. The media industry in general battles to find suitable candidates to employ because so few kids do art at school or are educated in their culture.

South African business needs to find ways to add value and create an element of uniqueness. Currently most mineral resources are mined and exported as raw materials. Other countries such as Switzerland and France are the ones adding value – creating premium products such as Rolex watches or Mont Blanc pens. What is stopping South Africa from creating similar products that are unique to South Africa? Kirsten Goss is one such success story. As a South African jeweller she has recently opened a branch of her international London based business in South Africa. We have both the creative resources and business acumen. Yet currently in terms of big business, the two aren’t working together enough and this is where South Africa falls short. Some institutions such at the Technology Innovation Agency exist and are funding projects. However, they are still in their infancy. They are not yet large enough to create a significant impact on the economy. What really needs to happen is a shift for business to actively engage with artistic innovative thinkers. Within businesses there needs to be encouragement for people to think creatively.

Government and private enterprise have the opportunity to create platforms for artists and think tanks for entrepreneurs so that their ideas can contribute to developing South Africa’s economy.

A few companies that are leading the way include: Hollard; Enthoven; Spier; and Nandos. These businesses all have a massive engagement with the arts. Creative leadership is a strong element of their success. Television shows such as X-factor and Idols have become incubators for developing singing talent around the world. They have given ordinary people a platform to showcase and develop their talents on a global stage.

It is this type of platform that South African business needs to create for artists and innovators if the South African economy is to benefit. A much bigger enterprise needs to engage with people on a grass roots level so that innovation becomes a culture and supporting industries are built up. If this can be achieved, a stronger economy will take root. South Africa will be able to engage with its vast creative human resources and the dream of “a better life for all’ has the possibility of becoming a reality.