Art Crawl/Pub Crawl, Your Call

A sociological assessment of creative scenes and accessibility in First Thursdays Cape Town

Creativity, culture, and their subsequent commodification are rife in Cape Town. This is not to say the monetization of creativity and culture is bad; but in understanding the urban architecture of this ‘post-colony’, along with its market-orientated social structures, it can be argued that Cape Town’s art scene is built by and for an elite demographic. In assessing the ‘art crawl’ phenomenon of First Thursdays along with previous international assessments of art crawls, I will attempt to answer the following questions: how does the First Thursday model apply to Cape Town? How accessible is the event? How genuine are the attendees’ engagement with the art, if any? What social and cultural structures influence the First Thursdays experience?

International ideals of multiculturalism have set up certain models where cities strive to be seen as ‘world cities’. “Culture is the sum of a city’s amenities that enable it to compete for investment and jobs, its ‘comparative advantage’” writes Sharon Zukin. There is no argument that Cape Town sits well in our global village’s branding competition with titles such as Business Insider’s #1 Most ‘Innovative’ City, Telegraph Travel Award’s ‘Best’ City, Buzzfeed’s #1 Most ‘Beautiful’ City, and How I Travel’s #1 Most ‘Creative’ City. Greg Richards and Julie Wilson note in their chapter on urban regeneration how creative and social interventions such as First Thursdays function within Pine and Gilmore’s (1999) Experience Economy:

Every city seems to want to position itself at the leading edge of creative development, attracting creative producers, wooing creative consumers and consolidating a higher position in the rankings of ‘creative cities’ ... culture has come to be viewed as a crucial resource in the post-industrial economies of cities in creating animation and developing their ‘socio-economic vibrancy’.

‘Melting pots’ and ‘creative hubs’ have gradually become a ‘socio-economic vibrancy’ in Cape Town culture with multiple studios and markets opening up in areas such as the Woodstock Exchange and The Old Biscuit Mill. In the city’s centre however, with its myriad of creative exhibition spaces, Gareth Pearson and Michael Tymbios felt not enough people were attending galleries in Cape Town, especially since galleries were only open during work hours. In 2012 these two adopted the First Thursdays model to a small group of six galleries in the Bree Street area. This meant on the first Thursday of each month, these galleries would stay open into the night, usually 6-9PM, inviting people of the city to attend exhibitions after their day jobs. Occasionally private tours, late openings and other special functions would be organised specifically for First Thursdays. This would eventually grow into the much bigger phenomenon we know now as First Thursdays where this last month 22 galleries, 14 restaurants/bars and 7 retail outlets were listed participants, mostly situated around central CBD areas of Bree Street, Loop Street and Long Street. First Thursdays was however originally implemented in May 2006 by Whitechapel gallery and now features over 100 art spaces in a highly concentrated gallery area in East London. But does this model fit? Is Cape Town the same experience as London?

Danny McNally participated in the First Thursday of June 2011 in East London. In his studies of the socialisation of such an affair, his ethnographic research of his experience describes very much what I experienced in my First Thursday for this month of September: “During the event these areas becomes saturated with attendees, their presence spilling out into the streets and roads, creating a festival-like atmosphere.” McNally might just as well be describing a scene outside Clarke’s Bar & Dining Room on Bree Street. Evidently First Thursdays functions well as a social gathering within the experience economy – crowds gathering for the sake of experiencing art and having a fun time! In its growing numbers it is a success for attracting people to galleries, and increasing exposure and awareness of art. This attention to a certain area of galleries essentially creates what is referred to as ‘clustering’, which has lead to the growing number of creatively-orientated spaces and markets within the CBD area, as well as potential governmental funding: “Creative enterprises need a network of colleagues and suppliers, and clustering is therefore seen as providing an impulse to both individual creativity and collective creativity. The spatial clustering of activities also makes it easier for the public sector to intervene in the development of the creative industries” (Richards & Wilson, 2007).

The marketing and funding thus also demonstrates an economic success of sorts since on the Spring 2016 Print Map, First Thursdays advertises their involvement with the National Department of Arts & Culture’s ‘Emerging Creatives’ programme, as well as their online video sponsorship of other First Thursdays experiences ‘made possible with the patronage of Boschendal [Wine]’. Continuing the legacy of baiting attendees with free wine at art openings, naturally one of South Africa’s largest wine farms sponsors one of South Africa’s largest art events. In conversation with artist Laura Windvogel (a.k.a. Lady Skollie) I asked her of her first experience of First Thursdays and she descriptively noted the attendees’ fixation with wine:

When First Thursdays started in Cape Town I was working in a gallery as an exhibition assistant; that means I did all the dirty work, like manning the gallery during these sordid nights. First Thursdays was me sitting at a desk listening to faux art critics trying to impress girls on first dates while filling them with free wine from multiple galleries; trying to figure out who took a 360 degree ch*nder in the gallery bathroom and removing wine glasses from plinths with art on it. Good times.

Samuel Shaw further reiterates this in his assessment of a First Saturdays event in Nashville, Tennessee:

I walked back through the front room to jot some field notes; the room remained empty besides the gradual stream of bodies moving between the Arcade’s hallway and the punchbowl in the back ... I found the owner/dealer, who was greeting people and shaking hands.

‘Great turnout,’ I said.
‘Yeah, you should have been here earlier,’ he said. ‘It was packed!’

‘How’s the business?’ I asked, violating the unspoken rules regarding what is openly discussed on the gallery floor, especially when there are people around.

‘Hey man, it’s a party,’ the owner replied. ‘One thing we’ve learned is that people will come out for a free drink; we just want to make sure they’re having a good time.’

Evidently the gallery owner is not interested in cultural dissemination, but rather just hosting a good party. When asked about her opinion of the First Thursdays experience, Paris-based Capetonian artist Molly Steven explained that First Thursdays utilizes the experience economy very well by my making the ‘art experience’ so accessible: “It's found a way to mass market an essentially elitist, or just niche, product and create an experience around it ... but as an artist, it sucks that it does this so well. Because once you can experience art without the object, the difference between me making something and me just showing up to hang out is negligible.” 

Richard Florida writes in his The Rise of the Creative Class how young professionals determine where they live by the cultural scene in a city, seeking particular lifestyle, experiences, and stimulation, rather than job opportunities: “You may not paint, write or play music, yet if you are at an art-show opening or in a nightspot where you can mingle with artists and aficionados, you might be more creatively stimulated”. He states that these creative scenes ideally function as ‘tolerant’ heterogeneous spaces with a ‘richness of experiences that are the wellsprings of creativity’. One would hope an experience like First Thursdays functions as such since it opens the art world to more of a mass market, however, Shaw uses Florida’s idea of creative fluidity and cultural openness, and contrasts it here with Pierre Bourdieu’s The Field of Cultural Practice wherein artists and creative scenes emphasise Cultural and Social Capital rather than just a large audience: “instead of fostering ‘tolerant’, diverse milieus, artistic scenes are very much concerned with distinguishing between those who might take them seriously as contemporary artists”.

Despite definite attempts at dismantling elitist cultural systems by democratising art, it seems divisions can still be prevalent in certain cultures. Reading over Laura Windvogel’s words in conjunction with Richard Florida’s idea of ‘tolerant spaces’ I’m taken back to the biographical documentary of Jean-Michel Basquiat, which depicts the late artist and his disdain for the racism he experienced in the art world in New York. In his own words he mentions at one point how comfortably it all played into the white cube culture of drunken elitism, "I was tired of white people, white walls, and white wine." (from Basquiat: The Radiant Child). Contextually in South Africa, wine and race have a long history, relating to racist labour exploitation from colonialism and apartheid; leaving behind a legacy of disproportionate land and resource ownership. Seeing as Boschendal – historically linked to Cecil John Rhodes, De Beers and Anglo America – sponsors First Thursdays with its ‘Founded 1685’ written on the First Thursdays Print Map, it is interesting to note the current skewed land ownership where 67% of South Africa’s agricultural land is owned by white people who make up of only 8% of the South African population.

On my personal expedition of this September’s First Thursday, I visited 12 galleries and in all these exhibition spaces I counted roughly one person of colour for every ten white attendees (except for the AVA Gallery which had a much larger representation). While this was a rough estimation, it was very noticeable how white-dominated the galleries were. Skewed land distribution sits as an inheritance of colonialism and apartheid; perhaps the lack of people of colour within the First Thursday gallery spaces represents a social and cultural inheritance of the art world worthy of interrogating. On the other hand, it could also be that people of colour are simply not interested in art galleries (First Thursdays or not). But using Bourdieu’s model of a cultural field along with his Forms of Capital it could still be argued that many elite white artists have maintained their status within predominantly white social structures, and have inherited the Cultural and Social Capital  of gallery-attendance and art awareness that was not afforded (or affordable) to people of colour during apartheid.

While these outcomes might not be resultant of, or the fault of First Thursdays, it still indicates Cape Town’s art market and demographic to which these events serve. First Thursdays does offer a ‘First Thursdays Fund’; where participating restaurants, bars, galleries and even inner-city corporations that benefit off the events are able to give patronage in return to innovative projects that are unable afford their own facilitation. Each month one to three projects are funded, where half of the fee goes towards the projects themselves, and the other half to documentation. Patron fees can however go towards offering to bring schools or just providing transport from outside of the CBD to encourage a culture of gallery attendance, for those who cannot access the city centre easily.

First Thursdays is an honest, and perhaps dire, attempt at broadening the scope of the South African art psyche. Considering the legacy and institutionalisation of race relations in South Africa it would be a daunting task to expect them to alter their attendance population to represent more people of colour. This is a social project up for everyone to consider. Despite changing gallery hours, luring visitors in with alcohol and hosting specifically First Thursdays event, it seems the result is that people experience First Thursdays collectively as a social gathering, rather than an opportunity to engage with the art itself. While First Thursdays continues to grow each month, one would hope the emphasis on access to, and engagement with art and new ideas will shift to something more profound than free wine in a white cube.

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