25 years of positive change: How ACT has created a lasting impact in the South African arts sector

When it comes to the arts, South Africa has a long and rich history. Over the years, there has been no shortage of talented and passionate arts practitioners, facilitators, and supporters, but talent and passion alone cannot sustain an arts economy. Through the support and motivation of a number of organisations and individuals, the country’s arts and culture landscape has continued to reach new heights. Over the years, few have been as influential as the Arts & Culture Trust.

South African arts sector ACT Arts culture sector
Performing Arts Scholarships 2011

Known to arts practitioners and enthusiasts alike as ‘ACT’, the Arts & Culture Trust is the oldest funding agency in democratic South Africa. Founded in 1994, ACT was born out of an invitation from Nedcor Bank and Sun International to the Department of Arts and Culture (then still operating as the Ministry of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology) to set up a new body for arts and culture. The short-term aim was to secure financial and other resources for arts and culture, and to project the needs and role of the sector into the public domain.
     Now, nearly 25 years later, ACT has continued to foster a self-sustaining perpetual fund for the development of arts, culture and heritage in the country, actualised through mutually beneficial partnerships between the corporate, public and cultural sectors.
     To take a brief look at the past two-and-a-half decades of ACT is to trace the trajectory of an ever-expanding arts industry, aided by ACT’s plethora of awards, development programmes, scholarships, and internships across the fields of music, theatre, literature and more. ACT has awarded over 150 groups and individuals, allocated more than 800 national project grants, 32 scholarships, 50 bursaries, and trained more than 500 practitioners in the arts. Moving into Dance, Vuyani Dance Theatre, Artist Proof Studio, and Ubom! Eastern Cape Drama Company are just a few of the initiatives and projects that have, through the support of ACT, gone on to create a lasting impact.

South African arts sector ACT Arts culture sector
ACT Awards 2015 Lifetime Achievement Winners

     Chairperson of the ACT board of Trustees, David Dennis, explains that while every member of the ACT team has a success story that is close to their hearts, the organisation’s overall success has been its continued existence in an era of dynamic change.
     ‘I believe that the growth and success of the South African arts sector is a process of team-work coupled to collaborative community engagement,’ he says. ‘The Arts & Culture Trust is making an important contribution to that effort. In the end, it is the audiences and the market for artistic works that will gain from the work done by supporting entities like ACT.’
     ACT itself has grown over the years, having been nurtured by CEOs and boards who understand the importance of funding the arts. 2017 saw the appointment of a new CEO: Marcus Desando, an artist, arts manager and former CEO of Gauteng Opera. Desando explains that joining ACT meant forming part of a legacy that’s been firmly cemented in the country’s arts and culture sector, and that a more personalised approach to sustainability is the key to furthering such a legacy.
     Desando explains that transparent governance, a strong fostering of relationships, and a willingness to change and adapt to the needs of its beneficiaries have been key factors to sustaining the trust for all these years.

South African arts sector ACT Arts culture sector
ACT | DALRO | Nedbank Scholarships 2017 PHOTO Suzy Bernstein.

     ‘We’ve instituted a more hands-on approach to understanding our beneficiaries and are putting in place a system that allows them to not just look at us as a grant-making body but an organisation that cares for their growth and sustainability.’
     ACT has changed its development grant to being discipline-focused and has included visual arts in its scholarships programme to broaden their reach. In the coming years, Desando will also be working towards a research and development division in the trust that will inform ACT’s decisions on how programmes will function in the future, as well as creating a ‘new look’ for the organisation.
     Looking back at the progress of arts and culture in South Africa, it’s difficult to ignore the contribution that ACT has made to the sector through its ongoing support and impact in the realms of employment, community development, and the facilitation and support of new works, projects, organisations and individuals.
     As ACT approaches its 25th year of championing the local arts sector, what lies ahead for the organisation?
     ‘We’re looking to launch a very exciting campaign during our awards event to encourage more ownership of the trust by our communities, corporate companies and government,’ explains Desando. ‘We’re also looking to have a big celebration involving as many of our previous and current beneficiaries to showcase what legacy the trust has been part of.’
     The rest, he says, we’ll have to wait and see.