THE BLOG
03/07/2011 08:22 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

My Trip to Nairobi

Nairobi presented a study in contrasts. It is a large city. Not as large as Lagos, but it still has a big city feel with millions of people and an astonishing level of traffic. (Traffic jams seem to be a common feature of African cities; the development of roads has not kept pace with the acquisition of automobiles, and public transportation is not highly developed.) But my hotel bordered on the very famous Nairobi Game Park, which was parched in the summer sun. The contrast between crowded streets and natural, beautiful open spaces was astonishing.

My session was held at the Godown, a small self-contained community of mostly not-for-profit ventures, which included dance studios, visual artists, social service organizations and even an amazing puppet workshop. I had previously met the leader of the Godown, Joy Mboya. She and a colleague had come to one of my arts management classes in Cape Town a few years before. She is an astonishing arts manager: she has created a thriving arts community that provides true nurturing and support for artists. She has done this in an environment not entirely supportive of arts ventures. With substantial support from the Ford Foundation, the Godown has become a model for arts spaces. Make plans to visit this remarkable venue on your next trip to Nairobi.

My seminar took place in the Godown's theater. There were more than 80 arts managers there as well as 12 high school students whose teacher believed the students would gain from attendance. I was skeptical. And when the students did not return after our break, my hypothesis was confirmed.

Speaking in a crowded theater was not what I had anticipated when I planned my trip to Africa. I had assumed I would speak with small groups - of ten or 15 people in each city. I had not realized how many artists and arts organizations existed in African cities. I know the need to create is not determined by geography but I did not believe the field of arts management would be interesting to so many people.

As typical in classes not held in European or American cities, a mix of for profit and not for profit executives attended. One participant believed that the arts could make it on earned income alone. I explained the Baumol and Bowen concepts regarding productivity and bounded earned income. But he was angry that he was consigned to a field that required him to ask for funds. He cited one example of a theater piece that earned a profit without any grants or subsidy. He, like many board members around the world, believed it was a matter of selecting the right repertory.

I explained the concept of mission - that the joy of working in the arts is that one gets to determine one's own mission and that earning a profit is not the ultimate goal in the not for profit world. I also explained that fundraising can be a natural, strategic, even fun, part of running an arts organization and was different from begging. In the end, he just could not agree with me and we agreed to disagree. I enjoyed this exchange. It was the only time in my entire African adventure that someone really challenged me. I don't think I convinced him but the dialogue was very instructive for the class.

On to Zanzibar!