Bart Luirink

Studio ZAM | People can create without making the boss happy

The new South African director of the Prince Claus Fund wants to create a self-sustaining ecosystem of the arts.

Coming from a musical family of 21 and growing up with his mother at his granny’s place in Mamelodi, Pretoria, Marcus Tebogo Desando was not encouraged to be a quiet child. “The quieter you are, the more they forget you’re there.” So, you have to fight for your own space, which is what he did.

Enter the school choir, then the church choir. Desando would eventually become a professional opera singer, one of only five in the country at that time. This was in 1987, still squarely in the heyday of Apartheid. Desando is hesitant to put too much emphasis on these statistics, though. “It sounds a bit exotic to me; Wow! A Black opera singer, can you imagine?!” But less than five years after liberation South Africa had transformed its opera world from being almost-exclusively white into an arena where close to ninety percent of singers were Black. Desando smiles shyly: “I should not be the only one taking credit for it. There was a movement of really making the art form of opera into a democratised one.”

But he also doesn’t want to be defined by one aspect of life. Now in his forties, Desando has been an arts administrator for quite some time now, most recently as the director of the Arts and Culture Trust. It is an environment where, he says, “you can really effect change in a way you never imagined”, he says. “Becoming a catalyst of change feels like a drug; you get a sense of a high when something goes right. It’s serotonin."

In 1998 Desando had been busy making a career in music in Germany when he decided to move back home and repay a debt he felt he owed to his country. South Africa was still in the early days of its transition from a dark period of racial segregation and oppression into a free and democratic society, and South Africans were very much fighting their demons. He describes the era, saying, “Black people were really quite angry. We were put in a situation where we had to accept a world that we did not create. You can suddenly start claiming that space, it’s cathartic.” But he made the decision to start to accepting credit for his own role in his success. “Somehow you always thought that along the way someone actually helped you to get there.”

Well, maybe Nelson Mandela did, Desando notes. “He was navigating our country to a place where we ended up being quite comfortable with ourselves. He made us identify possibilities, changes.” Importantly, adds Desando, “he also taught us patience and tenacity.”

To Desando, art is not something abstract, meant for the happy few. “In South Africa it is everywhere in daily life. You walk to a taxi rank and you see people selling art. People use art on a day-to-day basis. You go into their home and art is not just hung on the walls or put in a museum. It is part of your everyday existence. It represents life. It creates access for emotions. I am deeply convinced that ‘culture is a basic need’, as the motto of the Prince Claus Fund reads.”

It represents a certain abundance people in other parts of the world should acknowledge, and in such acknowledgement it becomes possible to reconsider labels like “third world” and “developing world”. And this is exactly where the new strategies of his new employer, the Prince Claus Fund, comes in. “We are moving away from the cumbersomeness of working with organisations. We really want to look at individuals. There’s less red tape. One can create a sense of independence with individuals that you don’t get with organisations.” Can that help create the self-sustaining cultural ecosystem Desando dreams of? A space where one can cultivate that abundance?

Desando is not blind to the fact that his new employer is based in the Netherlands and thus a Dutch organisation. “It has a lot of historical context. There's a power dynamic I am aware of. People treat us differently. We might not be able to change people’s perceptions because we’re coming from the North but we certainly try and not influence how people function.” Crucial for the fund’s operations is a strong philosophy of unrestricted funding. “We don’t want to tell people on how to spend their money. They only have to show us that they actually achieved that they wanted to achieve. People can create without wanting to make the boss happy.”

“Grant making is a foreign concept”, Desando says. “It’s about control, it’s about reporting, about numbers, measuring impact in a quantifiable way. But, really, you can’t show me how you did it and what you did.” Under his leadership the fund wants to break away from this approach, creating three different support tools; the Seed Awards for building the ‘next generation’ of artists, as well as the Mentorship Awards and the Impact Awards.

He also sees his job of showcasing works and perspectives from artists from Africa, Asia and Latin America, to Dutch and international audiences as contributing to ongoing efforts to decolonise culture. “We present people that are not coming to keep their hands held out. They actually enter our space, a place of equality, and show capabilities that are stronger than you would ever imagine.”

Will his South African background and experiences help to bring that message across? Desando has no doubt. “I probably understand a lot more of the world’s dividing cultures, because I come from a country where eleven official languages are spoken by at least eleven different ethnic groups. They have different needs, they all express themselves in very different ways. It’s” – he sighs – “a ‘developing’ country and a ‘first world.’ In the one you interact with someone with no shoes, in the other you meet someone living in a mansion with five or six cars. South Africa really makes a lot of people understand the world.”

Marcus Tebogo Desando was interviewed on July 2022 as part of our Studio ZAM programme by Augustina Austin. Watch the full interview here.