Several articles have appeared recently discussing the challenges faced by Egypt’s independent contemporary art scene — challenges claimed by some writers to be threatening the scene’s sustainability. Inspired by these articles, we attempt here a rereading of the current situation.
We agree that this scene appeared in the early 1990s and solidified into an entity with definable features because the people involved shared the same set of goals. These included an interest in moving away from the government-sponsored art scene and those working in it, or in some cases, to find ways to address its shortcomings. This description is not enough to prove the existence of an independent scene, but if we do assume that there is in fact a scene, then the root causes for the current challenges may go back to its rocky beginnings amid a frustrating cultural climate marked by social and political limitations.
To dig deeper, we had a number of friendly conversations with people working in art institutions that are yet to shut down their doors. In these conversations, we strongly felt the moment of crisis these institutions are going through, especially as they struggle to find sustainable sources of funding that will allow them to continue working, supporting independent artists and serving the public.
For a long time, art institutions followed a methodology of practice that emphasized short-term accomplishments, mainly seeking to widen the reach of art and draw larger publics. They were unable to grow the infrastructure (education, theory and criticism, databases, archives, etc.) needed to sustainably develop an independent art scene, despite the fact that the spirit that created the interest in an independent scene was one that sought comprehensive alternatives to the widespread yet tired governmental education, exhibition, funding and support structures.
In this text, we want to hone in on one element of the necessary infrastructure that everyone is talking about: the drying up of financial resources for independent art institutions. The results include a widespread frustration marked by a recent decrease in the volume of projects and events, artists working with not-for-profit art institutions facing the threat of not being paid fees that could help make ends meet, and cultural workers in and around these institutions facing an uncertain future. One reason for this situation is that independent art institutions have not been able to find diverse funding sources or create comprehensive, long-term, sustainable financial plans.
But we want to ground our discussion about infrastructures for an art scene in the realities lived by artists and cultural workers, especially those from working-class backgrounds who want to work in the arts on a professional level, not as a hobby.
Let’s imagine an artist who wants to evolve from amateur to professional, for whom art becomes a vocation and a source of income. This artist seeks out opportunities wherever they might be. Turning to production or exhibition support from the Ministry of Culture, the artist is confronted by a group of decaying zombies sent back from death, still unable to recognize any artist whose practices diverge from the dogma taught at public art schools.
Turned away empty-handed, the artist sees the glowing lights of an independent scene shimmer from a distance with the promise of greater freedoms and an interest in pushing the limits. The artist concedes, and finds her or himself knee deep in this nascent scene looking for intellectual and material gains. In doing so, the artist is again asked to adapt to various institutional strategies and interests —in addition to the language and financial barriers that can shape both the distribution of opportunities in independent contemporary art circles and ideas of what desirable artistic practices are. Ambitious cultural workers who migrate to the independent scene learn to bend with the wind, rejecting culturally dominant ideas of professional practice as embracing physical and intellectual hardships in order to create objects of value from raw materials. Smart, ambitious and cunning, they know well that their job is not a game and that they do not have the luxury of risking a precarious financial situation for an intellectual battle with uncertain outcomes. There lies the conundrum: Quit art as a profession altogether? Fail to adapt and find alternative means for production and support outside art circles? Or wrangle toward financial stability by accepting a certain degree of conformity?
Since the emergence of the independent art scene in Egypt, many artists who were not lucky enough to fulfil their material and/or intellectual ambitions in the governmental or independent cultural sectors have turned to other jobs, either abandoning art to ensure survival or to maintain their means of production as artists. This reality poses a question that makes many of us uneasy: “Is art a hobby to be practiced at whim in one’s free time, or a job that ensures survival?” This question upsets the self-assured image of an art scene that continues to claim its existence, albeit with possible weaknesses, when in fact it is a viable scene only in the imagination of those who still regard themselves as part of it.
We have not attempted here to present solutions to the challenges that the art scene is facing. Instead, we are interested in opening up a discussion around developing infrastructures of support and the possibilities of a sustainable ecosystem in the arts.
This is the first in a series of texts summarizing an ongoing conversation with a changing group of people on the impact and practicalities of sustainability in the arts. Translated by Nour El Safoury.