In commemoration of International Women’s Day with the theme, “Embrace Equity,” Yinka Olatunbosun sought out a female leader in arts management in Nigeria, Brenda Fasugba who currently serves as Head of Arts, British Council Nigeria and as lead, Creative Economy for Sub-Saharan Africa.
I have always known you as an Arts Manager. Would you say that your previous line of work has prepared you for this new role?
When I started arts management, I started with the Lagos Theatre Festival. That’s like some ten years ago. In 2013. That opportunity reframed my career because it went from being a relatively unknown festival to a festival that is now recognized internationally. And that cemented the desire to continue in that path. When the contract for Lagos Theatre Festival (LTF) ended, my partner and I thought that from what we have learnt, we could use our skills to support others which was one of the mandates of the festival- to support younger artists. That was how we founded the Lagos Fringe. It was just a transfer of skills from the five years of LTF.
LTF prepared me in a way for this role in terms of deepening my knowledge on delivering on art projects and finding that balance. People don’t know how much investment is made in the arts by international organisations. Transitioning from personal art management into this bigger administration of an art programme really helps.
It is a lot of work. The portfolio here is for the whole Nigeria and nine countries in sub-Saharan Africa where we deliver creative economy. I think even all the work I did on festivals are managed. I had physical labour of it. British Council has structured the way we work and I have a team that helps to support what I do.
Artists are known for not following the rules. And that is perhaps part of being creative. How do you deal with the different temperaments of the different types of artists that you have to work with?
It is a multi-layered approach. Thankfully, I have had the experience of working with artists directly especially around the performance side of things and to be honest, it was a lot of introduction of discipline and having an agreement on how we are going to work together. You have to understand the temperament of the artist as well. But you will find a delicate balance between the ‘the who pays the piper dictates the tune’ and the ‘artistic temperament and expression’.
It requires patience and a lot of listening. You just have to wait and listen because they are not trying to be unreasonable most of the time. They are just probably misunderstood because they may not be the best at communicating what they want at a time in the most articulate way. This is where arts management comes in. There is a part of arts management where you would have someone to sort out the business side of it. Unfortunately, it is not a skill that you can learn formally. It takes a while for managers to actually perfect the business management side of managing an artist. An artist usually sees from the lens of their work- more importantly on how the work is going to be received and distributed. More often than not, there are systems in place in the world for these kinds of things, sometimes their ideas may not fit into the systems. This is where the misunderstanding starts. For me, it is about indulging some of these temperaments and setting the rules clearly.
For me, I make it a rule that if I work with an artist who has a bad attitude and we work with the project through, chances are that I might not be able to work with him or her again. I think attitude is primary and talent is great. It doesn’t have to be great attitude but a manageable attitude.
We do not have arts management courses at the higher institutions. We have a lot of artists in Nigeria and the arts scene is demanding for these skills in a formalized institution. Why can’t we have that?
First of all, there is a big challenge in our curriculum. A lot of people are doing work to support that. You also have government that needs to do its own part. The creative economy needs a counterpart in the curriculum. We need to find a way to bring industry into the classrooms and we don’t have a lot of schools with that option. If they were thinking about the industry, a lot of curricula would have beenupdated.as an organization, the British Council developed an e-learning programme and it is very robust and put together by industry experts. It takes you through all the levels of professional years. We have one for the beginners which is a basic two module course. You move on from there to intermediary course. The idea is to get them to understand the basic framework of arts management and it is a free programme delivered in a hybrid format.
For me, I have been mentoring and this is a desire expressed about five or six years ago. I let people understand that there is a whole career path around managing artist and artistic management outside the performance side of things. There is a value chain that needs to be understood properly/ That is something that I mentor young people on. Sometimes, that feels like a drop in the ocean. More people need to take on this responsibility.
What project are you working on?
At the moment we are rounding off on our year-long project. What happened was that we needed to focus on post-COVID recovery. For 2022 and 2023, we are opening opportunities for artists to display their creative products. The idea is to have partners in the sector that would help us do this. We have four partners secured through a very rigorous process. They are located in Lagos Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kano. People who have worked with the British council creatively on a programme and independently of course. We opened up our space- the garden behind one weekend in a month to artists to showcase or hold business clinics for people in the creative sector.
Are there plans to reactivate the British library and the learning hub?
The library is still there. It is just not in a physical space anymore. If you have observed what’s going on in the world, then you have to go with the times. You can see more and more shift away from the traditional ways of learning. Right now, you can access the British library and without charge.
As an artist and someone who has invested a lot of time into arts, do you think that skit making have the potential to kill that actual process of developing talents?
Hmmm. I don’t think so. Digital is just another platform. Some people perform live and there are some people on the digital platform. I think it enhances the sector in my own opinion because now, performance can travel and it can travel worldwide. People in different time zones can be watching the same thing simultaneously. You still have Broadway. People are still buying tickets to shows like opera and there are seasons of theatre…mostly the holidays. I think it enhances. The digital space democratizes the opportunity to be seen, to generate income. It is a legitimate platform and I think it has been embraced.
I am not trying to argue with you on this. But look at a scenario where someone has gone through the rigour of training in the theatre where the director would be shouting “project” just to develop a well-rounded artist. But on the other hand, you have an influencer culture where someone who may not have any kind of skill in arts but would get brand endorsements while the artists struggle to get sponsorship for their plays. How do you explain this type of situation?
You see the situation is not a silo on its own. It grew from technology being infused into our lives. The truth is that everybody needs to keep up. Do you remember when there were typewriters? There were people who were sent to secretarial schools to learn typing and shorthand so they could become typist. And then computer came and disrupted that model.
My 11-year old had been using a computer since he was six. They were men who were rained to ride horses but now we have race car drivers. Technology has come thus far. People who have been trained traditionally would fare well if they transitioning into the digital platform. The possibilities are now endless. Ai may be introduced into pre-production process to help with script interpretation. That is the future.
Today I am talking to you on WhatsApp. Twenty years ago, could we do this? No.
My husband has been an artist for 27 years. He started with break dancing. Then moved on to choreography and then directs movies and theatre productions. I don’t think anyone would succeed in this world if they are not multi-skilled and more flexible to transition. If you follow the crop of artists who started the revolution of bringing the theatre back, a lot of them have transitioned into digital spaces. They still do their performance art but then in the digital spaces. Nigeria is a place where if you are not multi-skilled, it will be hard for you to gain grounds in this sector. There is digital element to everything that we do now.
Let’s talk about diversity. How can productions or the creative economy be more inclusive of persons living with disability or the women in male dominated areas? How do we break down the barriers?
A couple of years ago, I started the conversation about women in the arts where I wanted to bring attention to the imbalances in the creative sector. And how women were left of the performance side of things. Producers, creators, funders aware mostly men. And it was a perception but recently that has begun to turn around. There are still few women in major creative businesses. On the value team side of it I am not sure that we are up to 50 per cent. Ask yourself, who is the female counterpart of Don Jazzy in music? Or female version of Clarence Peters? In those specific set of skills, in pre-production, post production, behind the scenes, you don’t tend to see a lot of women and I blame our education for that. No doubt, a lot of women are very successful in performance. You don’t have a lot of options for leading men in Nollywood like you do for the female. But we are looking for opportunities to be inclusive in every way.
I remember that we supported a school for children with disabilities and they would come for our festival to perform- three years in a row. It’s different when they come because they have some sensory challenges. We had to wait for some specific hour of the day where they could perform. we had to make sure that we had no mirrors to bounce the sun off their eyes
Being conscious to be inclusive is the larger society’s responsibility. Building with the thought of how to make the facilities in public spaces accessible to persons with disabilities is a factor for inclusivity.
I was trying to avoid this question because some people may think it is sexist. How do you balance work and home?
I think the luck for me is that I married my friend. Well, it is luck and a choice kind of because understanding my personality, I know I needed to marry my own kind of person who is accepting of me and the opportunities I get in my career. My husband has 28 years’ experience in this sector. So, when it comes to understanding the depth of the work he was like a mentor to me. He helped to open the doors for me to get into certain rooms, to be honest, being married to my husband gives me some access that I would have had to struggle on my own or may have been sexist. Coming to the sector when I was already married to him was an advantage.
There is a general misconception that artists are intolerant of marriages especially when they are successful in their businesses or career.
Everybody’s marriage is different and it is your dynamic that determines your reality. It is about laying your bed. It was never a forced issue for me. I didn’t struggle. I may not have what to tell you. But to the young people I will say look before you leap. There was also this level of maturity in terms of what I am looking for. I wasn’t looking for the obvious things. I wasn’t looking for whether he had money or anything. I was just looking for someone who had the character of kindness. We could laugh together. But before then, all those boys had shown me pepper. The obvious things like money were not giving me happiness. I was crying all the time. I was looking for character because I wanted to build something that would last. When I met him, it was the kind of person that he was that attracted me to him. For me it wasn’t love at first sight. I grew to love my husband.
To love someone is a choice. I believe in choosing the person you love. He proposed three months after we met. I think we did it because we were at a point in our lives where we were both tired of heartbreak. Now, we have two children.