Challenges of funding the arts


The main theatre at Hilton College, home of the annual Hilton Arts Festival, the must-do event of the year on the KwaZulu-Natal cultural calendar.


KWAZULU-NATAL’S popular Hilton Arts Festival, which runs this year at Hilton College from September 15 to 17, would not be functional were it not for the generous support of a myriad cash and in-kind sponsors.

“Throughout ages, art has only survived through patronage and support. If it wasn’t for sponsorship the festival simply would not exist,” explains festival director Sue Clarence.

Clarence points out that with a hypothetical injection of R1.5 million a year – over and above what the festival has already – the event would look very different.

“We could enjoy a massive reduction in ticket prices – and 2017 sees a slight decrease in prices …we are trying! A drastically reduced ticket price would make the festival more accessible to more audiences and also allow existing audiences to see more.

“Also, further support would allow for the underwriting of the Jongosi youth programme, in order for schools in depressed socio-economic areas to benefit from free participation.

Potential sponsors – in cash or kind – will have a package tailor-made to their needs. The festival is very flexible and open in their relationship with their sponsors and partners, and is acutely aware that sponsorship is a two-way process, so the festival takes pride in providing  great leverage opportunities in which ever field the sponsor requests.

For example, the festival currently has one sponsor that  enjoys the opportunity to host potential clients in congenial surroundings. Another sponsor enjoys the opportunity to access the top pupils at Hilton College, to introduce them to possible career opportunities in the world of finance and accounting.

And, of course, sponsors are exposed to 20 000 festival visitors every year, an association with Hilton College, and a national publicity reach across a spectrum of media.

“The festival also offers its sponsors un-buyable experiences: such as meeting the performers, backstage tours, watching the intensity of a final dress-rehearsal and the opportunity to create bespoke events with performers, artists, festival participants and sponsors clients.”

Clarence says the festival is hugely indebted to “our wonderful and loyal sponsors”, among them Hilton College. whose support is in the form of a sponsor in kind, offering rent-free use of its property and buildings; and Grindrod Bank’s pledge of a cash donation which enables the main theatre to function.

Hilton Arts Festival director Sue Clarence.

She also applauds Black Coffee who, in association with DWR,  provide all lighting, sound and staging for the nine different venues and for art tents. This includes the main theatre which owns very little of its own equipment.

“Theirs is an amazing feat of generosity and an ongoing, invaluable contribution. Their staff go the extra mile all the time, working phenomenally long hours.:

Clarence also acknowledges Tiso Black Star Group (formerly Times Media) – the festival’s media partner, “responsible for so much of the  advertising and the printing of the hard-copy programme” – and Assitej, for funding children’s theatre.

“Of course, the list is more extensive than our headline supporters: other sponsors who also help to complete the picture are PWC; SAB (Castle Lite), providing the marquee and bar infrastructure; Maritzburg Sun and all KZN Caxton papers, for local media support; Zultrans, for free transport of sets ; Bidvest Car hire,for free vehicles to and from airports;  BASA, who contributes to the PR costs; Indwe Risk Management and KZN Dept of Arts and Culture.

Adds Clarence: “The glue which binds the festival together are the fabulous hands-on sponsors: Redlands Hotel for accommodating out-of-towners;  Sappi for craft market shopping bags and dustbins; KZN Weddings and Functions and Loud Crowd.

“With the generosity of all the above, the festival manages to break even… just!”

To give some background, the Hilton Arts Festival was born late one cold, wet and windy night in Grahamstown in a venue called The Old Gaol… in the yard where the hangman’s scaffold used to stand!

“The first event took place a short two months thereafter. There were six productions, performing twice each in the main theatre. There was a beer tent and I ran a tea station ….on the verandah, with a kettle (not even an urn) and polystyrene cups! That was 25 years ago and we are all older and wiser,” reminisces Clarence.

“Now the festival’s primary aim is to bring the pick of SA theatre to KZN for the weekend and to support this with quality music, visual arts, crafts and a convivial atmosphere. It also strives to support all performances with the best possible technical support and personnel.

“It’s not all fun!  The hard work that goes on behind the scenes serves as a breeding ground for developing new young technicians, artists, playwrights and actors,  and also provides a unique opportunity to introduce the next generation to the magic of theatre – after all, they are the audiences of the future.

“The festival is not just about entertainment however: every year a growing number of school children take part in the activities on offer at the festival – be it as a group attending the festival for the weekend  r to take  part in the Jongosi programme – a tailor-made day of age appropriate theatre and arts-related workshops.”

Also, the festival provides employment – from the many thousands of stays at bed and breakfasts, hotels, private homes and holiday home, to the bustling restaurants and shopping centres which all benefit from the influx to Hilton of people from throughout the country.

“Dr John Kani, an icon in South African theatre, said at the opening of the 2008  Hilton Arts Festival: ‘The partnership of artists and business is as old as the Bible, if not older.

‘Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and all the other artists of their time did not paint those great paintings in the hope of selling them to some buyer or art gallery so that they could live. Oh no, they were commissioned to produce that work …

“This then proves, without doubt, that the partnerships between business and the arts are essential for the development of art and artists in our country,” says Clarence.

“This unique festival is the leading arts event in KZN. Art is the soul of the nation. Support it!”

For more info, visit or contact the Festival Office on or 033 383 0127.

Jaco The Clown balances in strong winds at the 2016 Hilton Arts Festival at Hilton College. Picture by Jonathan Burton

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