National Arts Festival battles to get much-needed Lottery funding

The decision not to fund the country’s longest running arts festival was communicated a month before its start date

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Festival patrons gather for free performances at the 1820 Settlers Monument foyer during the 2023 National Arts Festival. Archive photo: Mark Wessels

  • The National Arts Festival in Makhanda is South Africa’s longest-running, and historically largest, annual arts festival.
  • Although the National Lotteries Commission (NLC) has provided funding since 2003, the Festival received no funds last year or this year.
  • The NLC took nine months before telling the Festival, which has to organise stages, exhibitions, and international artists, that its funding application had been declined.
  • The Festival has appealed, and the NLC has told GroundUp the appeal has merit.

One of the major funders of arts and culture organisations in the country, the National Lotteries Commission (NLC), has declined to provide funding for the National Arts Festival (NAF), which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month. The Festival also did not receive NLC funding for its 11-day event last year.

This is despite the NLC having for 20 years been a big funder of South Africa’s largest and longest-running arts festival.

Since 2003, the NLC has provided more than R86-million to the National Arts Festival, which takes place every year during mid-winter in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) in the Eastern Cape.

The Festival is a significant contributor to the economy of the Eastern Cape town. The South African Cultural Observatory in 2019 calculated that along with the 2,000 performers who travelled to Makhanda, the festival attracted 200,000 visitors and gave a R350-million boost to the impoverished local economy.

National Arts Festival CEO Monica Newton said they applied in August last year for a multi-year grant “at the maximum threshold” of what can be awarded, expecting they might receive a reduced grant subject to availability of funds.

But on 21 May, nine months later and a month before the Festival starts, Newton said the NLC informed them that funding had been declined.

The period between August and May covers about 270 days, well above the 150 days the Lotteries Act allows the NLC to finalise its decision on a grant after receiving an application.

Newton said their application was declined “due to an apparent compliance matter”, which the Festival disputes. On 22 May, the day after getting the bad news, the Festival lodged an appeal in accordance with the NLC’s review guidelines.

“Given the timing of the outcome relative to the opening of the National Arts Festival, an expedited review was requested,” said Newton. The review is yet to be finalised.

NLC commissioner Jodi Scholtz said the request for funding was declined due to one of the Festival’s board members being listed on the NLC’s non-compliance register in relation to a separate project.

Scholtz said when a grantee was listed in the non-compliance register, “correspondence is entered into with the funded organisation to caution them of the implications of continued non-compliance, followed by periodic reminders”.

She said if conditions for compliance were not met despite reminder letters, the matter was referred to the NLC’s Non-Compliance Grantee Committee to rule on whether the organisation should be listed or not.

She said the organisation was then informed of their listing on the non-compliance register and had the opportunity to query the listing and appeal it.

However, Newton said the board member who is alleged to be on the NLC’s non-compliance register has no record of being informed of a placement on any such register. The Festival had also never been informed. As a result, no query or appeal against being put on the listing could be made, she said.

Regarding the time it took between the Festival applying for the grant, and being told it was declined, Scholtz said extra compliance checks had been introduced in the grant funding process in the last financial year. These new fraud prevention measures, along with “internal constraints”, had affected turnaround times. A public notice to this effect had been published in March.

Scholtz said following the Festival’s request for an expedited review, the NLC’s Board Review Committee had met and “was satisfied with the merits of the appeal”.

She said the application has since been referred to the NLC’s Distributing Agency for adjudication, and the outcome would be communicated to the Festival “as soon as the matter has been finalised”.

Despite the lack of NLC funding, Newton said the Festival was “working with all partners to ensure a successful festival, despite various operational constraints”.

The National Arts Festival runs from 20 to 30 June, with more than 200 shows on offer.

TOPICS:  Arts and culture National Lotteries Commission

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