Monthly Archives: April 2010

A HISTORY OF T&T ARTS ACTIVISM: 48 YEARS OF BATTLING PARALYSIS

We need to know where we have come from to have a sense and vision of where we are going. This following history provides a serious context from which to understand artist, their work, and their world as it pertains to Trinidad & Tobago:

1962 – 1986

  • Artists during this period formed dozens of representative groups. A lot of the times this was through the super-human work of individuals like the late great Carlisle Chang, George Goddard and such. These organizations lobbied for many things as well as many individual artists, stakeholders and visionaries. Most of the mobilizations were individual and ‘polite’.
  • One of the first issues that rallied artists collectively was the re-building of an institution on the Princes Building Ground which has alternatively been proposed to be A Centre or Home for the Arts or in the vision of George Bailey and Terry Evelyn a Carnival and Steelband Festival and Training Centre. Literally dozens of progressive proposals were pitched to government in this era- all to no avail. Many promises were made but no action.
  • For this entire period Culture was treated as one of the poorest cousins in the National Budget and Agenda and was dismissed in a couple of sentences with a meager budget. For 2 decades the only plan itemized in the National Budget for the arts was, “And a National Home for the Arts will be built on Princes Building Grounds’. 45 years later this building still has not materialized.

1986- 1991

  • The NAR government whatever its flaws was probably the most progressive of the administrations to the Arts. Unfortunately it was also the one that did not have the money or resources (and it would turn out neither the time) to enact many of its proposals. During this administration a competition to build the long outstanding National Performing Arts Centre on land adjacent to Mt. Hope was held. Dozens of architectural plans were received by some of the country’s leading architects. Unfortunately many plans like this- plans for an expanded National Gallery and the plan to grant the Old Fire Station to the Trinidad Theatre Workshop and their conferment as National Theatrical troupe of T&T- never were allowed to materialize due to the recession, the coup and the NARs subsequent removal from office.

1991- 1997

  • The successive PNM and UNC administrations all talked big and promised plenty. Manning in 91 pronounced major plans to rework the city (even then) into the “cultural capital of the Caribbean”. The centerpiece was to be moving the National Museum and Gallery into the burnt out Police Headquarters, the conferment of the Old Fire Station to the TTW and massive plans for a National Performing Arts Centre and more. None of these things materialized nor any of the artist demands.
  • Artists continued creating representative bodies and becoming more sophisticated in their representation and organization but were still isolated and did not co-ordinate collective work and major agitation.
  • The arrest of Heathcliff West and others from one of Godfrey Sealy’s plays for uttering profanity on stage was one of the first times that artists mobilized across lines again in calling for a repeal of the Theatre and Dancehall Act. This did not happen but artists knew now that they could mobilize vigils, marches and more.
  • The UNC also promised much in terms of the recurrent decimal of the ‘National Performing Arts Centre’ (now re-located to Caroni) and other goodies. Again nothing happened.

FROM 1997

  • When 2 generations started to die in 1997 with not one demand granted and their own contributions obliterated from public memory a group of us realized that this would be the fate of all of us ad infinitum. We decided that a new generation of activist would take stock of everything that happened before and learn from the mistakes of the past. We also decided to approach the problems and paralysis of the cultural industry with a little more science and strategy.
  • We decided to compile all the artist demands from all over the nation together. We canvassed the population of artists all over the country- from craft, to folk to fine to pop for their demands. We thought all the sector demands together would lead to an exhaustive list. It turned out to be a list of simply 6 institutional complexes and 11 pieces of legislation. The site activismtt.itrini.com had the findings. These things by themselves would relieve all the bottlenecks in the cultural industry and transform what now is an inglorious mess into a workable industry.
  • We hired lawyers and accountants and started making international contacts and compiling international precedents for what we wanted.
  • We have assembled a library of most of the documents submitted to government and created over the last 45 years. We have most if not all of the major studies conducted over the last 45 years locally. We have assembled a timeline of government broken promises, artist submissions and initiatives over the last 45 years. We speak now from a position of comprehensive knowing.
  • From that moment forward most lobbying and agitations to government has been informed by this understanding of the larger ecology of the Arts industry. Also many institutions and areas of policy have been informed by these thinkings, agitations and research- from TIDCO, TDC, the Ministry’s Cultural Policy documents and others.
  • Alongside the work of Dr Ralph Henry and Dr Keith Nurse these documents and theories have made the dialogue about the cultural industry more scientific, more informed and more relevant to the real needs of artists, stakeholders and the industry. These documents and presentations include newly researched industry statistics, feasibility studies, architectural plans and informed specs for a host of institutions and interventions in the industry.
  • These demands and the study of the T&T industry that has emerged from it have been presented at international conferences and forums locally, regionally and internationally. From private sector presentations, to government Breakfast meetings to leading international seminars on Caribbean cultural matters. There are doctorates being done in foreign universities coming out of the thinking and research generated by this enterprise.
  • We lobbied government every year for the host of initiatives through 4 administrations. For every budget presentations were made. After every Budget responses were made.
  • We have attempted to sensitise industry heads as to the importance of these types of punctual responses and the responsibility (although frustrating) of dealing with cultural industry matters in this way.
  • The fruits of this more scientific and businesslike approach to our craft bore fruit with many other agencies supporting and recognizing our work internationally and even using our findings as part of their regional and international work- groups like WIPO, EQUITY and UNESCO.
  • Many activist as well continued to press various constituencies that did not have representative bodies to form one, this resulted in the formation of the 2 national Chutney bodies, the Traditional Carnival Artists Association, with movements being made for the formalizing of associations representing Drummers, Animators, technical support services, archivists, local reggae musicians, local rock musicians and the re-animation of the Film and Video association.
  • Despite the mobilizations by artists government by 1999/2000 did not grant one artist demand. We shifted strategy again, we found that artists in the past had been polite when dealing with government who had divided and ruled and promised much in private. Because these negotiations have happened behind closed doors when you inevitably got the blade from government in the back, no one knew you were lying bleeding in a corner by yourself far less the wider community…
  • We decided that we would not only make all approaches and negotiations public and transparent but also communal. We would not approach government individually and discouraged groups from doing so. We also decided the gloves were off with the ‘politeness’ thing. We decided to march.
  • Whenever the artists got together from thereon we called ourselves The Entertainment Industry Coalition. The group was formed principally of leaders of artist stakeholder groups and concerned artists who were committed to the battles. We needed to canvass and corral stakeholder leaders. If we simply mobilized ‘concerned artist’ and made demands that would be simply called a ‘mob’ and government could always say that they had gotten agreement from artist stakeholder heads. It left the movement open to being called dis-organized and not unified. It thus made sense to go after stakeholder leaders to get consensus and buy-in. This also had the result of making representative bodies more honest, accountable and relevant to their constituencies.
  • Artists then staged 3 historic marches in 2000, 2001 and 2003 wherein we brought out hundreds of artists and well-wishers to let our displeasure with government be felt. These actions were significant to the artistic community as it broke a habit of quiet acquiescence and dynamised the base more than ever. It also marked the most significant shift of the country on to artist industrial issues than ever before. From that moment on the national community knew that artists had issues, that they were serious and that they impacted the national community.
  • From that moment on artists and stakeholders could gain access to the media easier to mobilize on their issues and government and private sector began to take the potential and backlash of the sector a little more seriously.
  • The 3 marches were mobilized mostly around musicians and film and video workers demands for a minimum 50% Local Content Quota across all broadcast channels. All the international legislative precedents were collected and a battery of lawyers worked on this compiling.  International solidarity was gotten from artist and artist groups from America, Europe and the region. A member of the French government also expressed support.
  • The result was that when the Telecommunications Bill was being drafted by then AG Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj we sat with him and drafted the Quota law as part of its framework. Imagine our surprise the next day when the Act was laid in Parliament when the clauses we had painstakingly crafted the day before was nowhere present in the reading. It slowly came out that a phone-call placed in the dead of the night by opposing stakeholder groups who also happen to be party financiers and industry movers in the country demanded that the clause be removed. The official reason given for the removal by the AG was a quarrel that was looming between the Canadian and American governments. Subsequent events proved otherwise.
  • What followed was that a consortium of Broadcasters and businessmen approached the EIC through RIATT and tried to broker a closed door private deal for Broadcasters to move towards quota percentages ‘morally. This would entail stations and channels moving towards a maximum of 35% over 5 years on a sliding scale with some stations not really bound by quotas at all. Of course it was the government stations that were moving to local and certain other popular stations which would have to barely move an inch. The organization could not in good faith ‘sell-out’ the struggle in this way.
  • The Coalition collectively- and through its most vocal advocates who were leading their own sector struggles- kept a visible media presence throughout this entire period. There was also a lot of political maneuvering behind the scenes. Sat Maharaj’s case against the government vis-à-vis his radio license would prove to be the last straw and government distributed the licenses that had laid fallow for a decade. This significantly changed the media landscape of T&T for the better in terms of local content and springboards for success for dozens of local acts.