Deal Maker Advocates Corporates Invest in Contemporary Kenyan Art

http://www.businessdailyafrica.com/Deal-maker-sees-money-and-more-in-Kenyan-art/-/1248928/1867304/-/ib21tmz/-/index.html/// CORPORATE SUPPORT OF KENYA ART COMES EASILY TO INVESTMENT BANKER// By Margaretta wa Gacheru Published May 31 2013 in Business Daily, Nairobi/// From college intern in Washington, DC to corporate partner in Nairobi, Vishal Agarwal’s ascent up the corporate ladder began several years before Price Waterhouse merged with Cooper to become the giant transnational corporation that it is today. “There are 20 partners in PWC Kenya alone, 10,000 around the world based in 150 countries,” said the Bombay-born, American-trained partner who took time out from PWC for almost a decade in the 1990’s to become a successful investment banker whose line of work took him all around the world. “And everywhere I went, I saw African art hanging in international hotels and on corporate walls, yet when I came to Africa, I saw none of it in businesses that I visited. Clearly something was wrong; something needed to change. There was apparently no appreciation for the social commentary of contemporary African art,” said Agarwal, a man who’s spearheading the current drive for corporations to support contemporary East African art. Speaking to Business Daily in his private capacity as a patron of the arts, not as a spokesman for PWC, Agarwal feels passionate about the need for corporations to get behind the Arts in Kenya, just as he has seen corporates do in other parts of the world. Having only come to Kenya in 2004, Agarwal says he is awe of the incredible dynamism and economic development that he has seen all across the region in the past nine years. “This is clearly Africa’s time,” he said, noting that what’s happening all across sub-Saharan Africa is extraordinary. But as he has gotten better acquainted with the region, he has been troubled by the terrible gap that he has seen between the rapid economic development and the abject neglect of African culture and the arts. What he has also disturbed him is the fact that so much invaluable African art has been flown out of the region to cultural capitals in Europe and the States. He attributes what he calls this ‘flight of [African] art’ to the fact that there are so few local patrons who fully appreciate what’s going on culturally, aesthetically and even socially in the realm of contemporary African art. “The artists are not being promoted, yet all over the world it’s the artists who are the social commentators, who see what’s going on in society when others don’t,” said Agarwal, whose firm just recently sponsored a major group exhibition of abstract art that featured eight Kenyan artists together with three ex-patriot artists who’ve been Kenyan residents for many years. Curated by the Circle Art Agency, the showcase of the exhibition was the ground floor of PWC’s brand new building in Westlands, in the expansive and high-ceiling’ed wing known as Delta Corner. [The high-rise twin towers were actually built a few years back, but PWC acquired them late last year and officially moved in early this year.] “The exhibition opened to the public on a Friday night, but the evening before, we had invited most of the corporate CEOs in Kenya to a private showing of the artwork,” he said. Hoping to lead by example, his firm just recently commissioned one East African artist, El Tayeb Dawalbeit, to create a two-storied installation work of art that will stand solidly in the main lobby of the PWC building. The lobby in itself is a work of modern art. Made out of glass and steel with solid marble floors, everything about this impressive high-vaulted space bespeaks PWC’s corporate power, cosmopolitan spirit and cultural sophistication. Yet Agarwal has mixed feeling about the lobby’s slightly impersonal architectural design as it could easily be transplanted to any global city in the world and it could easily fit right in. “But what’s the point of working in a space that could just as well be found in London or New York?” asked Agarwal rhetorically. Noting that nowadays, corporate employees often spend more of their lives at work than in their homes, he felt compelled to commission an East African artist to create a piece of public art that could communicate a more localized mood and texture to both PWC employees as well as to the public at large. “Our idea is for the international to meet the local right here where the people may see how art can provide a social commentary on the times. [The commission] is meant to enable the public to appreciate the way art can reflect social realities and also be socially relevant. The selection of El Tayeb’s art was by no means a haphazard affair. On the contrary, Agarwal worked closely with the three cofounders of Circle Art, Danda Jaroljmek, Fiona Fox and Arvind Vohara, to organize an art competition involving local artists who were asked to provide a written proposal stating the conceptual background of artwork they each wanted to design and install at PWC. “We received a hundred proposals and we short listed nine out of which we selected El Tayeb’s,” said Agarwal who particularly likes the fact that El Tayeb’s proposal includes a multitude of colorful faces which will be set within two tall three dimensional ‘frames’ which he’s constructing from recycled wooden boxes which ideally will make a powerful commentary on the universal value of human beings, irrespective of their color, creed, gender or social standing. The competition itself was a creative catalyst which propelled Kenyan artists like the nine finalists, (namely Dennis Muraguri, Gor Soudan, Paul Onditi, Justus Kyalo, Xavier Verhoest, Anthony Okello, Sidney Mang’ong’o, Sam Hopkins, and of course El Tayeb) to come up with ingenious new ideas which they had to construct in miniature as well as explain conceptually. “My feeling is that artists are social commentators; their work reflects the times in which we live, and I want people, including our staff, to see the social value of the art.” But if Agarwal feels compelled to claim that corporates in Kenya have “a calling” to support the Arts, he adds that he is not simply being ‘philanthropic’ per se. “Contemporary African art is a bloody good investment,” he says. In fact, PriceWaterhouseCooper has been investing in Kenyan art for several years, according the firm’s resident art consultant Chou Sio. A qualified architect by training in the States, Chou not only helped re-design the public spaces of the PWC Building, a process that got underway soon after she came on board at PWC and shortly after the company’s partners decided to acquire the tallest Twin Towers in Westlands for KSh4 billion. She is also the one responsible back in 2007 for selecting a number of exceptional works of art by Kenyan contemporary artists, including Peterson Kamwathi, Yassir Ali, Anthony Okello, Elkana Ong’esa, Kotal Otieno, Tabitha wa Thuku and Jimnah Kimani, all of whose works are on the top floors of the PWC building. Confirmation of the fact that acquiring Kenyan art is an excellent investment came to Agarwal just moments before we met in his penthouse offices of PWC. He’d received word from Circle Art’s Danda Jaroljmek, who had just returned from London where the art of eight Kenyan artists had all been sold at the prestigious Bonham’s Art Auction, and all sold had sold for substantially higher prices than even she had anticipated. Among the artists whose works sold well at the annual London auction were two whose art PWC already owns, namely Peterson Kamwathi and Anthony Okello. “Of course, we paid a fraction of what those paintings are worth today,” observed Chou who visited all the artists’ studios before she presented her suggestions for the partners to finally approve which works they would like to acquire. Today, you will find Chou’s choice selections conspicuously hung in the lounges and open-air offices at PWC. “What’s the point of hanging paintings from other places when we are in Kenya and the artists have creative commentaries to make about our society today,” Agarwal said. Being an investment banker as well as a PWC partner, Agarwal’s main line of work involves ‘mergers and acquisitions’ (“I’m the resident ‘deal maker’ at PWC,” he confessed, noting he was intimately involved in designing the deal to acquire the PWC twin towers.) But his work also involves consulting with PWC clients and advising them on how best to maximize their profits; so that today, he doesn’t shy away from encouraging clients to consider their own corporate social responsibility (CSR) and to see how supporting local artists can be seen as part of their CSR. “Recently an international client came in to discuss their building a rural hospital as a service to that community,” Agarwal recalls. “I asked them what they intended to put on their hospital walls and I encouraged them to consider acquiring art by local artists as a way of supporting the arts.” Agarwal is aware that many Kenyan-based corporations don’t know much about the Kenya art scene or the fact that it is thriving though probably not in the same public or private spaces that members of the corporate community frequent. Nonetheless, he feels keenly that the dynamic development of contemporary art in Kenya will depend largely upon public and private investors cooperating to advance the arts in Kenya and support an incredibly creative community that he is happy to showcase at his PWC offices. Unfortunately, the ground floor ‘gallery’ space that he lent to the Circle Art Agency to mount their amazing Abstract Art exhibition early this month at Delta Corner will soon be transformed into a restaurant. But we local art lovers can only hope the new tenants will take up the ‘calling’ that Agarwal has sent out to the rest of the Kenya corporate community – to take seriously that their ‘corporate social responsibility’ can easily include supporting Kenyan art; and when they do, they will quickly find they have made not merely a philanthropic gesture, they will have made an excellent investment as well. For just as the African economy is on a roll and expanding rapidly, so is the value and the vital creative juices of the African artists as well. So when a man like Agarwal (who knows a ‘good deal’ when he sees it) says now’s the time to support the African arts, one would do well to sit up and listen and also become a patron of African contemporary art.

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