Sunday 27 April 2014

Artists thumb down NGA, NCMM merger

By Tajudeen Sowole        
As the National Gallery of Art (NGA) and National Commission for museums and Monuments (NCMM) have been recommended to merge, the merger may just be a misadventure if the elusive national gallery edifice and other challenges confronting the two parastatatals are not on the front burner.

Artists, promoters and art administrators who commented on the proposed-merger have faulted government for what they described as lack of understanding of the art and culture sector.

A Federal government document released recently, known as the White Paper Report of the Committee on Restructuring and Rationalization of Federal Government Parastatals, Commissions and Agencies disclosed that NCMM and NGA have been merged under a new agency to be known as National Commission for Museums, Monuments and Art.

New members of the Guild of Professional Fine Artists of Nigeria (GFA) and the foundation members during the induction ceremony in Lagos…recently.

Among all the recommendations by the Steven Oronsanye committee concerning the number of parastatals under the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, only the merger of NCMM and NGA was accepted by the Federal Government.

Rejected merger recommendations included National Theatre, National Troupe and the National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC) as well as National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO) and Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC) with National Institute for Hospitality and Tourism (NIHOTOUR).

While the process of legislation to repeal the laws that set up the two parastatals and re-enact another law to legalise the merger is being awaited, it is important to note that the challenges of the NGA in meeting its statutory obligation appeared more pronounced compared to whatever grey areas the NCMM has been facing. Set up as a separate agency from the National Council for Arts and Culture {NCAC} via Decree No 86 of 1993, the NGA has the responsibility to “serve as a repository of Nigeria’s creative spirits and to promote the appreciation” of the country’s art by “acquiring and collecting Nigerian works of art.” The function, expectedly, should be carried out through acquisition of works and displaying of the collection. Ironically, the NGA has never met its basic function as a national gallery since it was set up over 20 years ago: it has no gallery facility.

There is no doubt that the NGA, through acquisition and donation, has quite a vast collection of art spread in its outstations across the country. However, the collections, particularly in major cities like Lagos and Abuja, are rarely viewed by the public and visitors, as most of them exist only in stores of the government agency. More worrisome, the preservation safety of the works are being threatened by poor facilities. For example, shortly before the repair of the old gallery space inside the National Theatre Ignamu. Lagos, last year, alarm was raised over a possible damage to some of the collections as the roofs of the gallery were said to be leaking.

Also, some sections of the art's community have repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction over what they described as the NGA's "inadequate" promotion of art through art shows at home and in the Diaspora. While some argued in sympathy for the management of NGA over "underfunding.” others chided the parastatal for its over reliance on government's funding.

It is however apparent that the NGA has not been as active in meeting the demands of artists. For example, its major yearly event, International Art Expo Lagos did not hold last year. Also, another yearly international event, African Regional Summit on Visual Art and Exhibition (ARESUVA), has not held since 2010. The NGA, in 2011 declared that the event will henceforth hold as a biennale. Last year the management disclosed that another event, Abuja Biennale, has been planned to replace ARESUVA, and "should start next year."

 If the promotion of modern and contemporary Nigerian art had not been properly articulated and achieved under a separate government agency solely set up to carry out the function, perhaps the merger could do the job. Prof Peju Layiwola at the Department of Creative Art, University of Lagos (Unilag) disagreed with the merger. "I am not bothered so much with the change of name or structure as I am of government doing what it ought to for the arts in Nigeria." She noted government’s latest move of merging the NGA and NCMM as a "way of further shrinking the culture sector and this does not in my view, help the culture profession at all." She argued that the NGA "is the only one I know of in the world without a proper gallery space."

But it would take a "miracle" for modern and contemporary Nigerian art to function under the merger. "If this merger would help it function properly, that would be great, but sincerely, I am not expecting any miracles." 

Former chairman, Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA), Lagos State chapter, Dr Kunle Adeyemi also disagreed with the merger. "With the merger, art would be relegated just as a unit under the new parastatal," Adeyemi warned. He traced the merger to the lack of financial independence of the NGA and blamed "civil servants for mismanaging" the parastatal.

Director, Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos, Bisi Silva summarised the merger as a "disaster" and described the government as "clueless." 

Silva stated  "It is obvious that the committee has no understanding of how the museum sector works. But more than that, it shows a lack of commitment to developing the art and culture sector.” She argued that art as part of the creative economy in the 21st century is among “the potential income generators of countries” that plans ahead for the future." She therefore added that "Basically” the advisers of government on the merger “are clueless and this is a disaster."

Apart from the complex issue of return of cultural objects of Nigerian origin housed in foreign museums confronting NCMM, the immediate challenge of improving the standard of museums across the country may or not get adequate attention under the merger. But in a central approach to the challenges of the NCMM, a review of the over 33-year-old law was already being put in place by the management. The NCMM got its legitimacy from from a 1953 document known as Antiquities Ordinance, to the creation of Federal Department of Antiquity, which gave birth to the commission via Decree 77 of 1979. Currently, NCMM has 36 museums, 63 national monuments and two UNESCO World Heritage Sites under its management.

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