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Michael Kaiser

Michael Kaiser

Posted: August 31, 2009 08:39 AM

The Remarkable Barney Simon


People across the nation have been asking me why I have embarked on my 50-state Arts in Crisis speaking tour. I always answer, truthfully, that I am concerned that so many arts organizations are making poor decisions as they attempt to cope with the current economic crisis. They are cutting programming first, rather than last, and sacrificing long-term revenue for short-term expense savings.

But there is a second, equally truthful, motivation for this tour, and for all of my national and international efforts to educate arts managers: Barney Simon.

Barney Simon was the founder and artistic director of the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa. He made the Market a place where white artists and black artists could work together. In a South Africa brutalized by apartheid, this was not simply a noble mission, it was an act of courage. Barney trained a generation of South African artists; virtually anyone working in South African theater today was influenced by Barney or one of his disciples.

For several decades, Barney produced and directed many of the most important works of indigenous South African theater. He was the first to direct the works of his good friend, Athol Fugard. He exported these plays across Europe and the United States. These works educated us about the horrors of apartheid and moved us to act.

It is not an overstatement to say that Barney Simon played a major role in the ending of apartheid.

I met Barney, ironically, just after the end of apartheid when Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa.

I worked with Barney to save his Market Theatre, which, of course, had never received a government subsidy during the era of apartheid and was entirely reliant on private donations, an oddity in South Africa. With the end of apartheid, most gifts that were required of foreign corporations doing business in South Africa were canceled, putting the Market at risk.

While I was Barney's consultant, he taught me far more than I taught him. He taught me that I had a responsibility to use the arts for the good of people, not for self-aggrandizement. He taught me that the arts are a powerful weapon of change, and that we have an obligation to use this weapon wisely. He taught me that I had to widen my perspective on arts and take more artistic risk.

This is why I have devoted much of my life over the past ten years to teaching, to international exchange, and now to working with arts group struggling in this current economic environment. I do not have Barney's artistic talents, but he exhorted me to find a way to use what I know to help others.

Barney died, far too young, in 1995. But his spirit lives on and challenges me every day.