• Saturday, July 20, 2024
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African art museums: Survival and growth in a world of restitution and reduced funding

African art museums

I was delighted to be asked to participate in conversations at the Global Consortium on Cultural Preservation in Washington in late October, hosted by Yale University and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, where I am privileged to be on the Advisory Board. This is my personal take and these are my personal views.

Step back from the art and museum world and culture. What does Africa need? With a fast growing, very young population, an extreme power and infrastructure deficit and serious issues with rule of law, it needs to be able to support a growing population urgently. Failure to do so could result in civil strife, increased inequity and further mass migration (whether to urban centres or to other countries often outside Africa). Politicians and business are looking at how to address this, in multifarious ways. It is however a truth universally acknowledged that a critical factor in delivering a solution lies in education.

Improved education has a direct and positive impact on GDP and without better education Africa cannot effectively access the benefits of the 4th Industrial revolution. A strong and developing Africa is also critical not only to the continent but also to the world, given the demographic shifts on the continent, its natural resources etc. Education plays a key role in delivering this. In addition, good relations between countries in Africa and those outside are becoming increasingly important in the 21st century scramble for Africa. Which of course gives Africa opportunities.

Make 3 assumptions; first that properly presented and funded local art enhances education, and ideally creates a sense of pride, heritage and belonging to place – what are museums if not drivers of education; second that returning at least some objects is considered an act of good diplomatic sense in the context of ongoing economic and geopolitical needs; and third that there is a moral imperative to return many artefacts to the land they came from. These 3 assumptions should mean that restitution implemented properly could satisfy a moral need, enhance relations between countries, improve education and stability of population, and hence make a material contribution economically to a global issue.

But this will only work with mutual respect, cooperation and material levels of funding, which will be challenging absent a clear political will outside the art and museum world. This is especially so where many institutions are in any event public rather than private, and are bound by layers of bureaucratic, fiscal and legislative constraints as to what practically they are allowed to do.

If, following the lead of President Macron and others museums take a view that they need to pursue material restitution the issues are legion: Who pays (given funding issues)?; Who decides (e.g. trusts set up by original donors/public policy/ the law)?; How far back do you go?; How do you preserve the long standing excellence of institutions in the West whilst satisfying the legitimate demands of the country of origin?; How do you preserve the integrity of the artefacts (indeed do you have any right to require this)?

These are issues for others sager than myself and the new methodologies of the museum business discussed at the Consortium give great signposts for the future. But let’s look specifically at funding, without which none of the above is achievable in a sensible way and without which many institutions especially I fear on the African Continent will wither on the vine (regardless of restitution!).

First, source of funds for museums and similar institutions is challenged in a world where we have increased challenges to the status quo in a social media “single issue” world which deals with complex problems in a simplistic, aggressive and effective manner. Thus, sources of funding (and investment of funding) are regularly challenged; from issues and products which only recently caused no concern but which in a more activist world are considered unacceptable and challenges both to those involved in them as primary contributors to the relevant issue/product and secondary enablers (advisers/financiers/shareholders).

Increasingly institutions are responding to campaigns by rejecting funds. Without making any judgment on the merits, if these sources are no longer acceptable (and those who provide them give up giving as a result), alternative sources will be needed. And then what other sources genuinely can be considered ‘safe’? – in the global world of business, processes are highly complex and to put at its most neutral individual donations can be as risky as corporate. And this is before asking questions about the sources of funding and original acquisitions which form the basis of many older institutions.

So, we have a tension between the genuine philanthropic approach of many big companies and a genuine concern about what they do – similar to museums who have fine ambitions but got their ‘cash’ and many of their objects in ways some now find unacceptable. The result could in the long term simply dry up the well of funding.

Can these sources be replaced or enhanced (which is basically what is needed)? This is difficult. In terms of Africa first there is the public purse. This tends to have art and culture low on its priorities list especially in countries with high poverty levels or other economic focus. However with the increasingly commitment of many of the global powers and the relevant DFI’s and Multilaterals to commit to supporting development, these funds should not be overlooked and could be approached and discussions started not least on the basis of the economic and cultural arguments ( for example the “education” impact or simply the tourist dollar). In recent years these funds have materially increased, as countries focus more and more on Africa (and many find projects hard to find and fund).

A further and complementary potential route forward is to engage and partner with African institutions and the wider African communities on a much more consistent and respectful basis seeking mutual benefit. This means involving Africa in the decision-making processes (at political and local board level), developing joint business planning and funding for specific projects and especially those deliberately designed to enhance education (see above) where expertise and knowledge can be effectively transferred to support capacity building. This will open up greater opportunities for local funding by business and HNWI’s as well as government.

This (coupled with restitution) could also enhance the reputation of the relevant institution at “home” and in Africa and allow greater access to the viewing public if handled correctly (e.g. by joint exhibitions). This can then again be further coupled with increased democratisation of funding through physical entrance and digital access fees of a limited but widespread nature, and broader engagement programmes on line etc with concomitant income impact.

These are difficult questions in a challenging geo-political and economic environment. But there is potentially a way forward through a combination of the ideas in the paper as well as those admirably and passionately expressed at the Consortium. It does however require hard thinking and a mind-set change in many.



Andrew Skipper is partner & head of Africa practice, Hogan Lovells, London. He is also a member, National Advisory Board of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.