How South Africa’s museums are funded


As the repositories of memory and the keepers of heritage and curators of history, museums continue to remind us of how quickly things change and how important collective memory is for our continued survival – which is particularly pertinent given the current COVID-19 pandemic. South Africa’s arts and heritage spaces have been particularly hard hit (read more about this here ≤link≥).

Currently, “[m]useums in South Africa are financed at national, provincial and local levels. Many have a mixed source of financing, including government and private subsidies, as well as earned income from ticket sales to special exhibitions and earnings from restaurants and gift shops,” notes the South African Cultural Observatory.

While most museums in South Africa don’t rely on ticket sales as their main source of funding, it is still an important income stream that has been heavily impacted by COVID-19 and the loss of tourists across the country.

For those museums that receive funding from the national government, this is distributed through the national Department of Sport, Arts and Culture (DSAC). 

A 2019 South African Cultural Observatory study titled “Quantifying the State of South African Museums from a Supply-Side Perspective” found that out of the 13 heritage institutions funded by the DSAC, “The museums that received the largest shares of capital expenditure in the 2014/15 – 2018/19 period were the Iziko museums (36% of total capital expenditure, amounting to R235 million); The National English Literary Museum, now renamed the Amazwi South African Museum of Literature (23% of capital expenditure, R151 million), and The Robben Island Museum (20.7% of capital expenditure, R134.5 million).”

Other government-funded museums fall within the budget of the province, city or municipality within which they are based. This means that they are reliant on the budget that is allocated to that specific locality, and with other infrastructure and social priorities needing to be looked after, museums can find themselves low down on the list in terms of budget allocation. 

Not all museums are government-owned and run, however, and some are independently run or funded by personal family trusts or larger corporations. Examples of this are the Apartheid Museum, the Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria, the Norval Foundation, the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation (JCAF) and Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary Art Africa).

Zeitz MOCAA is a not-for-profit partnership between the V&A Waterfront and philanthropist Jochen Zeitz. According to the museum, “Jochen Zeitz’s collection forms the founding and permanent collection of the museum, and is on long-term loan. Jochen Zeitz has also committed to underwriting a portion of the museum’s running costs and will continue acquiring artwork to add to the permanent collection of Zeitz MOCAA”.

There is also a sprinkling of museums founded and funded by special interest groups. These are generally privately owned and fund their operations through ticket sales and donations from civil society groups and corporations.

Some museums are owned and financed by large corporate institutions. Examples of this are Absa’s Money Museum and Gallery, which is owned and run by Absa Bank, The La Motte Museum, which is tied to the La Motte Wine Estate, and the Standard Bank Gallery, located in the Johannesburg Central Business District (CBD) and financed by Standard Bank. 

Universities and schools also play a role in the funding and maintenance of some of South Africa’s most important museums. 

Wits University is home to The Wits Origins Centre, which “boasts an extensive collection of rock art from the Rock Art Research Institute (RARI) at Wits, affording visitors the opportunity to view some of the richest visual heritage found in South Africa and to learn about its history and meaning.” As well as the Wits Art Museum, which has an extensive collection of 11 000 African artworks that date from the 19th century to the present day. These include traditional, modern and contemporary works. Some of these form part of the Standard Bank African Art Collection, which is housed at the Wits Art Museum for broader access by researchers and through public exhibitions.

The University of Pretoria’s Mapungubwe Museum was opened 21 years ago and houses ancient relics such as gold ornaments, ivory, bone, ceramic ware, clay figurines, trade beads, iron and copper artefacts from an ancient society known as the Kingdom of Mapungubwe.

Even before the pandemic, museums in the country struggled with raising funding and accessing it from the institutions responsible for ensuring that money is distributed equitably and in a timely manner across all the sectors that require it. 

According to a report titled “The South African Funding Landscape: Problems, Prospects and Propositions” by Joseph Gaylard of Pro Helvetia Johannesburg, some of the challenges include “excessively long turnaround times in responding to applications, processing payments, addressing queries, and responding to reports, widespread allegations of corruption, political interference and conflicts of interest in decision-making processes related to the awarding of grants and the administration of applications and a general lack of transparency in the process of adjudication, application of criteria and accountability both to beneficiaries and the wider public.”

Securing funding for the museum space has been tenuous for many years now, and the current pandemic has caused a dire crisis. COVID-19 has forced many governments to redirect spare funds to fighting the disease and ensuring the population has social security measures to fall back on. South Africa is no different. 

These days, museums are using innovative ways to keep their doors open. During the pandemic, The District Six Museum in Cape Town began a Love Letter campaign in order to receive donations from the public to keep things running. Ultimately, the museum was able to raise R1 million. It remains to be seen how museums forge ahead for the future, but what is certain is that they desperately need South Africans to come together to keep them alive.

Most popular

Similar articles