When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that South Africa would go into lockdown at the end of March, to mitigate the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, I was sitting on the couch next to my 18-month-old son, Angus. I turned to him and said, “You won’t remember this day, but it will go down in history.” It was interesting to think about how we were going to capture this extraordinary moment so that future generations would be able to comprehend it. At the same time, it was important to consider how to do some good in what was undoubtedly going to be a challenging time for the country.
Although my background is in business, I have always loved the arts. I came up with the idea of asking visual artists to document and reflect on the impact this novel virus would have on South Africa and indeed the world at large. But the project had to generate funds that could sustain the most vulnerable artists during lockdown – those who were most likely to suffer financial setbacks.
The idea was simple: to commission 21 unique artworks (one for each day of the initial three-week lockdown planned), put them up for auction, give the artists a share, and donate the rest of the proceeds to the Solidarity Fund and Vulnerable Artist Fund. I shared the idea with my friend Lauren Woolf, owner of creative consultancy MRS WOOLF, who is a long-time supporter of the arts. Her reply was immediate: “I love this!” She reached out to her friend, the artist Professor Kim Berman, and the three of us founded The Lockdown Collection (TLC). Berman’s friend William Kentridge was the first to agree to participate in the project, donating a drawing and advising us on the best way to approach the sale of the artworks.
From 27 March, the artworks were released daily for 21 days – then, on 19 April, we held a virtual auction via live webinar. This was facilitated by Aspire Art Auctions, Excel Academy, Kim Berman’s Artist Proof Studio, MRS WOOLF, Sirdar Group and the TLC team. Every single artwork sold, and the proceeds of the auction, together with donations, amounted to more than R2 million. These funds were allocated to The Solidarity Fund, the newly formed Vulnerable Artist Fund (VAF), and the artists, some of whom donated their proceeds back into the VAF.
To receive funding from the VAF, artists had to be able to demonstrate that they were earning a living from their art prior to the lockdown. From the first round of grants, we awarded 350 grants to artists. On Mandela Day we reopened applications for a further 100 artists, provided they had not applied before. Since then, there have been several rounds of funding. The unrestricted funding came with a caveat – donating a piece of art back to the VAF, either immediately or in the future.
When the president announced the extension of the lockdown, the TLC team extended the campaign with The Lockdown Extension Collection, as well as The Student Collection, which was launched during Youth Month and featured the work of 11 students from Artist Proof Studio and ten students from the University of Johannesburg’s Department of Visual Art. The student artworks were showcased online from 1 July 2020, thanks to sponsorship by Art Insure iTOO.
We want to continue the initiative with an annual collection that ‘captures the moment’, building up a significant collection of artworks by some of the country’s most promising artists. In this way, we can continue investing in the arts, which have proved their inestimable value during the pandemic, when people have struggled to derive sense and meaning from our difficult circumstances. It was unthinkable that we might lose our artists, who are uniquely placed to bear witness to this moment in history, and we went ahead with TLC despite protestations that ‘charity auctions’ do not work in South Africa and cross-industry collaboration would be too difficult to achieve. TLC has proved that we can support vulnerable artists and strengthen the sector at the same time.
Images from The Lockdown Collection are featured throughout this edition of the Handbook.
– Carl Bates is Chief Executive of Sirdar Group and co-founder of The Lockdown Collection: www.thelockdowncollection.com.