Guyana Festival booths not available for display of locally published books despite what website says

Dear Editor,

I would like to commend Sherlina Nageer for her recent passionate and incisive intervention with regard to the Guyana Festival.   My own attempted engagement with the Festival has been uninspiring at best. In the interest of both selling my books as a local author and publisher, and disseminating information on the Janus Cultural Policy Initiative, I initially made several enquiries about a booth space there only to be told by several persons that they were still in the planning phase.

I subsequently tasked my project manager, Sara Bharrat, to seek information on booth space, while I checked the festival website only to discover that the Visual and Literary Arts booths were listed at a mind-boggling $40,000 rental. Ms Bharrat, after considerable effort, made contact with a Festival official who informed her that the booths were in fact $30,000 but that if the intention was to only display books this was not allowed and that we should consider GuyExpo.

In short, despite their website showing a category for literary arts booths, a locally-registered publishing entity selling books written by a resident multiple Guyana Prize winning author and produced completely in Guyana was not eligible for an exorbitantly priced display space at the Guyana Festival designed to introduce our arts and culture to the world.

In contrast, just two weeks ago, a privately run group of three young women, RED Entertainment, held a successful one-day event at the Promenade Gardens, ‘Kiss My Art,’ at which I was able to do precisely what I intended to do at the Guyana Festival at a fraction of the cost, and which served as a platform for introducing exciting new artistic talent to the local community.

I see that Lisa Punch, in the wake of her commendable performance on ABC’s Rising Star in the United States, is now one of the featured acts at the Festival. The thing is, as Nageer points out, this country remains a virtual desert for creative people with the government not only refusing to respect and adequately remunerate local talents in development like Ms Punch when she was here, but also insisting on perpetuating an environment in which cultural and creative industries cannot flourish. Twenty years in government and with Guyana being a signatory to numerous conventions on Intellectual Property rights, the People’s Progressive Party refuses to update our colonial era copyright laws.

Ms Nageer also rightfully raised the issue of value for money on expenditure on the Guyana Festival. While a great deal of attention has been paid by the independent press to discrepancies in big-ticket projects, particularly those that deal with public infrastructure and public procurement, spending on cultural activities has largely – and erroneously – escaped close examination by the media or even Parliament. Just a slightly more than cursory examination of cultural expenditure by government over the six years from 2008-2013 would reveal some appalling findings.

Consider the Auditor General’s report for 2012, which notes, under the Ministry of Finance section, subsection ‘Other Matters’, “During the period under review amounts totalling $324.765M were received from the Guyana Lotteries Company and deposited into account № 3119. Payments totalling $160.460M were made during the 2012 to meet expenditure as shown below:

Ministry of Culture – Mashramani, etc $138, 245, 000.” That incredible sum was however dismissed with the following notation:

“The above expenditure was within the National Sectors and was in accordance with the guidelines for access to the Lottery funding, which included funding for activities that promoted cultural and youth and sports development…”

Therefore, not taking into account the Ministry of Culture’s core budget, nor the $100M Sports and Arts Development Fund that continues to receive opposition parliamentary support despite both not being properly constituted or disbursed, in 2012 the government claims to have funnelled over $138M in state funds from the Lottery into the vaguely described line item of “Mashramani, etc” and nobody bats an eyelid.

To date, the Minister of Culture cannot provide audited accounts for expenditure incurred during Carifesta X of 2008. As I have analysed in previous letters, the expenditure on overseas festivals raises serious red flags but scant notice is paid. Last year, Dr David Dabydeen publicly claimed that 40,000 copies of Caribbean Press books have been printed and distributed, yet the ministry cannot produce an iota of evidence verifying this number although it has received and spent monies to print said books.

I’ve independently discovered – in affirmation of my previous observations – that the books are indeed being printed in quantities less than the 400 copies per title that has been repeatedly claimed.

Individually, these discrepancies should be cause for concern but taken as a whole what we have is a pattern of quite possibly billions of dollars of expenditure on culture being managed with virtually zero accountability.

Now, in the name of culture, the Ministry of Tourism is expending God knows how much money for a poorly planned event, receiving additional millions in corporate sponsorship, and charging exorbitant fees for – as Stabroek News has reported – shoddy display infrastructure. This, even as there is no proper policy mechanism in place for the greenhousing of the creative industries or the preservation and promotion of our cultural heritage. As simple a thing as, for example, commissioning the work of local photographers to capture Guyanese engaged in various cultural activities and using that on the Cultural Village banner at the Guyana Festival would have served that dual purpose, even without a policy in place.

That said, what we urgently need is a functional national cultural policy, and a more responsible environment for the management of funds that are ostensibly budgeted for art and culture development but which rarely serve that purpose.

Yours faithfully,

Ruel Johnson

Janus Cultural Policy Initiative

Around the Web