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‘We’re aiming to deliver the best possible Festival’

Published on 2 March 2020

Monica Newton, the new CEO of the National Arts Festival, has hit the ground running since moving to Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) in December. We asked her some questions about how she’s finding things – and what’s she planning for the year ahead…

After having lived in Johannesburg for a long time, how are you finding life in the small city of Makhanda?

Since moving here in December, three things have struck me: Firstly, how welcoming the people of Makhanda have been. Also, having lived in Johannesburg since the early 1990s, I had forgotten how involved people are in local issues in a small city. In Johannesburg, one has an interest narrowly in one’s immediate street or suburb, but here the discussion, energy and concern is really for the entire city, and it is very refreshing.

Secondly, the weather – it is really crazy. I feel as though I need to pack a suitcase to be appropriately dressed for work.

And, lastly, just how complicated, exhausting and emotional a journey it is to change jobs and cities. At the start of a new decade, I am pleased to have two of life’s major stressful events behind me, at least in part… and no imminent threat of divorce, unless my cats decide that Makhanda is not for them!

Now that you’ve had some time in the saddle as head of the country’s biggest arts festival, what are you excited about (and what keeps you up at night)?

I am excited by the opportunity to present a meaningful and entertaining experience to both artists and Festival goers, to be part of one of the best festival production teams in the world and to play a part in the next chapter of one of the most important pieces of the arts ecosystem. Running an organism as large and important as the Festival is will definitely cause its fair share of sleepless nights and post-midnight cogitation. How can we make the Festival more resilient? Who are our audiences and how can we start a conversation with new segments? Will our audiences have a fabulous time and bring all of their friends and relatives? Will the investment in Makhanda benefit all who live in the city and how we do this better? Tony Lankester, the former CEO, assures me this is normal!

It’s a particularly complex and challenging time for the arts and culture sector in South Africa. In that context, what do you think are NAF’s biggest challenges – and how do you plan to conquer them? What are your plans for the year ahead?

In times of economic, social and political hardship three of the most important things that arts festivals do is bring everyone together to talk about the issues, take people away from the things grinding them down for a little while, and give hope of a better future. Any arts organisation, anywhere in the world, is asking itself the questions of how to sustain itself in hard times and how to be relevant and helpful to their communities of creators and audiences.

The solutions are big and small – in order to survive hardship, you have to be resilient and to be resilient you need be innovative, creative, future-oriented, determined and driven.

The hard facts are that we are likely to have a smaller Festival this year in terms of the number of productions, and what we do offer must be of the best possible value to artists and audiences alike.

The solution to being relevant and helpful is to open yourself to criticism, advice, help and collaboration, and to really listen to what you are being told, whether you want to hear it or not.

We will continue to involve ourselves deeply in partnerships that may be less about the Festival specifically and more about where it lives – such as doing our part as a citizen of Makhanda to help out where we can, provide additional water resources during the Festival so that the residents are uplifted and not disadvantaged by the influx of people who come to enjoy the Festival.

This year we aim to deliver the best possible festivals, starting with Masicule (8 and 9 March), then Scifest Africa (15-21 April), then the National Schools’ Festival (24-28 June) and, of course, the National Arts Festival, which runs from 25 June to 5 July this year.

As we do that, we will be thinking ahead to the next five years:

  • Reimagining some of the core elements of the Festival such as the Fringe to make sure that artists and audiences get the best out of it;
  • Building our base of donors and corporate sponsors that complement our presenting sponsors the Eastern Cape Provincial Government and Standard Bank as well as trying out some new ideas that may shape our activities in future;
  • Experimenting a bit more with genres such as popular music and the digital arts to touch the hearts and minds of new audiences; and
  • Testing new ideas to improve the visitor experience, such as expanding what we have to offer in the food and drinks line in response to the findings of our regular research surveys.

You’ve attended many Festivals in the past – what do you think makes NAF a ‘must-do’ item on any South African’s bucket list? What does your perfect day at the Festival look like?

We have been talking about this a lot over the last few weeks – what makes the Festival something that everyone should do, and more than once? For me, it is that there is something for everyone – my family comprises people who have such different tastes we sometimes wonder if we are genetically related, yet the Festival has always offered something for all of us. Ballet and classical music for my mother; theatre and dance for my sister; and, for me, film, music, comedy and fantastic coffee. It is one of the only places in the world that people can gather together and share an experience, while still enjoying their own specific tastes.

I have also seen some of the most amazing work here – pieces that have resonated with me for years. I saw Standard Bank Young Artist alumni Boyzie Cekwana of Fantastic Flying Fish fame dance for the first time here. Afternoon of a Faun, the incredible production by the Compagnie Non Nova from France, enchanted everyone who saw it in 2012 and finally, finally in the hands of another Standard Young Artist alumni, Dada Masilo, Giselle grew a spine, grabbed a sjambok and fought back! I have also seen some pretty ghastly stuff here too, but it is all part of the experience.

Why do you think it is important for artists to be part of NAF? And what changes can they – and audiences – look forward to?

The National Arts Festival has always been a major part of South African artists’ career trajectory, and we will strive to be the best possible platform for them to express their hopes, dreams and concerns in whatever medium, form and language they are comfortable with.

We want the Festival to continue to be an opportunity for artists to generate an income, so our audiences and our donors and sponsors who make this festival possible are an essential part of what we do to offer an accessible and professionally presented opportunity to artists across all disciplines and genres.

For artists, and we have been chatting to them to get their views on how best to do this, improving the Fringe will be a major focus. We need to sell more tickets so artists generate more income.

Consideration is also being given to finding new and better ways to navigate that monster – the programme, and of course how we programme and structure productions to have the best possible staging and venues, and also the best possible audience experience.

In the longer term, we would like to do more in terms of professional development for artists with residency and access programmes that focus not only on the work, but support artists in the process. Watch this space, and if you have any spare cash… call me!

What are your long-term dreams for NAF and the city of Makhanda itself?

Makhanda has adopted and lives its Creative City strategy, and my hope is that building on all the assets of the City we will be able to offer a year-long programme of festivals in all sectors and disciplines that contribute to livelihoods of the businesses and citizens, and make the city a destination for people all over the world. My dream for the Festival, and all the others too, is that we are able to develop a resilient business model, based on generating our own income, so that we can be less dependent of donor funding that in this economic climate is more and more insecure. This will give us the scope to innovate and create without having to always raise funds first to implement our ideas.

What’s been your favourite meal since moving to Makhanda? Any surprises on the restaurant front?

I am fuelled by coffee, so I have really enjoyed the various offerings at the fantastic coffee shops and bakeries. I had a really great roosterkoek at Handmade Coffee a few days ago. Roosterkoek was a feature of my childhood growing up in the Free State, so good memories. Being single, cooking is a major schlep so Esme’s ready made meals have been a godsend; her chicken Malay curry is particularly delicious! Fusion stocks lovely bread, cheese and cold meat; always a feature of my “least-effort” menu.  Having grocery stores open early and closing late, or not closing at all, is really convenient.

What are you reading at the moment? 

I read voraciously, for upliftment, for education, for inspiration and to occupy myself queuing at airports or waiting for meetings to start. I am splitting my focus at the moment – reading for pleasure and learning in my new role. What I currently have “open” on my tablet are:

  • The Cycle: A practical approach to Managing Arts Organisations, by Michael Kaiser, the incredibly successful arts manager who has made an enormous contribution to the turnaround of major US arts institutions such as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.
  • Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree by Niq Mhlongo, an anthology of short stories which is just perfect for me at the moment. Like a delicious homemade biscuit, the stories can be munched one at a time, or two if I am feeling greedy!

What’s your favourite stress snack? 

Alman’s make a coconut brittle which I am devastated to find is not to be found in either Port Elizabeth or East London. Thank goodness for courier services… and family in Joburg.

What song is on repeat for you at the moment?

My music selections are definitely about my mood. When I am needing a pick me up, the crescendo of Chicane’s Poppiholla is a winner. When I am feeling melancholy I like to wallow, so the incredible soundtrack to the feature film Schindler’s List is always at the ready. Tigi by Sands is a fun, short track that I can crank up on my very insignificant commute; it always a good way to start the day!

Have you had a chance to explore the surroundings? Any discoveries you’d like to share with other visitors?

The Monument gardens are a daily voyage of discovery; not being from the Eastern Cape, nothing is familiar at all. I am a keen gardener so I learn everyday what thrives in the area, and what could grow in my own garden in Makhanda. The camera obscura at the Albany Museum is a gem I discovered some years ago, and I will definitely keep going back.