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Being business savvy doesn’t mean ‘selling out’

Being business savvy doesn’t mean ‘selling out’

In navigating an arts and culture landscape characterised by exclusion and privilege, emerging South African artists need to acknowledge that developing entrepreneurial skills and positioning themselves as economic players is as integral to their practice as making art, writes Julie Diphofa

Over the years, artists have developed a reputation of not being ‘business-minded’ or not being concerned with matters relating to finance or commerce. But, as the global economy has developed, and careers and vocations have evolved, so has the need for artists to become attuned to all factors that contribute to a successful art practice, which includes the need to be entrepreneurial and business savvy. It is, therefore, important for artists not to view being business savvy as ‘selling out’, or compromising their artistic integrity.

South African artists have the added burden of coping with the legacies of racial oppression, marginalisation and socioeconomic deprivation. Not only do they need to equip themselves with the skills necessary to compete globally, they must learn how to navigate a local arts and culture environment characterised by exclusion and privilege. As such, emerging artists in South Africa face many barriers when it comes to professionalising their trade, as they have, unfortunately, inherited the harsh legacies of apartheid where opportunities are scarce and avenues for development are limited by tough economic conditions.

The National Arts Council (NAC) is mandated to, among other things, seek redress for previously disadvantaged individuals in the arts, culture and heritage (ACH) sector, and provide financial and non-financial assistance to develop previously disadvantaged artists. Part of the NAC’s mandate is, therefore, to contribute to transformation, nation building and social cohesion towards creating an inclusive ACH sector that adequately reflects South Africa’s diversity. Over and above the council’s grant making function, it is involved in projects and programmes aimed at developing artists and providing them with the necessary skills and opportunities to compete more effectively and showcase their talent to broader audiences and markets.

In this regard, the NAC has formed partnerships with various organisations to assist artists in gaining the associated skills they need to market themselves appropriately and position themselves in a manner that renders their practice financially and economically viable. These skills include arts management through management training courses; proposal writing; and the planning and conceptualisation of projects, events or exhibitions. For artists, acquiring these associated skills will serve to professionalise their trade and assist in exposing their work to a diverse range of audiences and markets.

The Arts Incubator, a partnership between the NAC and Tshwane University of Technology, aims to stimulate the establishment of arts-based start-up enterprises to assist emerging arts students in gaining access to mentors, training, shared space, professional assistance, capital, and other services to ensure the successful development of their business ideas.

The incubator provides useful skills development opportunities such as entrepreneurship development seminars; business assistance through a network of business volunteers, mentors and other members of the business community; and assistance in developing business plans, reviewing marketing presentations, understanding financing options, and developing products to obtain funding or attract investment.

The Arts Incubator is but one example of the resources available to artists who wish to enhance their practice by gaining business and management skills. It is up to emerging artists to identify the most relevant institutions or programmes and approach them. Ultimately, what an arts practice that is enhanced by business and management skills means is a diminished need for grant funding, thereby arresting a culture of dependency, and the mainstreaming of the arts and culture sector in the broader economy towards contributing to socioeconomic growth and development.

Diphofa is the NAC’s arts development manager


  • Identify institutions that provide arts business and management courses
  • Make enquiries with these institutions to determine whether their courses are appropriate to your practice
  • Apply for enrolment for the most relevant courses
  • Approach funding organisations such as the NAC for bursaries
  • Incorporate the skills acquired in courses into your practice to make your work presentable and marketable