Art Centres: Putting Art at the Center

Art Education in South Africa

SA High school hallway

Cheeks moistened by the realization that I was incapable of saving them. That their drowning, was pulling me under. I had fought to stay on top but it was time to let go. I was exhausted. Defeated.

It was 2009 and I was on my 45 minute drive from home to the high school I taught at. I was young, excited about teaching, but overcome by a sense of hopelessness. The school was a previously disadvantaged school that was still {{feeding off}starving on the after-effects of Apartheid. No budget was allocated to the subjects Arts and Culture or Visual Arts and I was forced to be creative about obtaining basic resources such as paper, paints and drawing materials on my own. The textbooks the school had, were dusty, extremely outdated (by about 20 years) and in a terrible condition – not useful at all.  After some time at the school, I realized that many of my students (40+ per class) had no interest in art at all and had ended up taking the subject by default, when they had failed Biology class. Some of the other students were purposefully failing in order to stay in school for the free meal they received per day.


I was 22 years old

(with five years of tertiary education behind me)

and many of my Grade 10 students

were 22 years old too.


During lunch breaks, students would offload about their home environments and I would listen to them share about the poverty, abuse, neglect and gangsterism. Occasionally I called social workers when I felt intervention was needed but no one ever came. I would drive home crying. I would lay awake at night thinking about my students, and then cry myself to sleep. I would drive to school crying. But crying could not wash away their problems. And I was drowning too.

passage of time - environment

[Fast forward seven years]

It’s 2016 and I am no longer a teacher. Not much has changed with regard to prioritizing or even acknowledging Visual Arts to the same extent as other subjects in South African schools. School budgets are skewed in favor of Mathematics and Science and particularly in poorer schools, Visual Arts is either not offered or educators are overwhelmed by challenges. But what if there were beautiful spaces, with an abundance of art materials and passionate educators? What if these were open to everyone – rich and poor? An Art Centre?

Well, Art Centres do exist. Many have been operating in the Western Cape of South Africa for over 60 years and have recently aimed at reaching the poor and those who have limited access to Art education too. Art Centres attract incredible educators committed to both teaching and the arts while; offering the best in terms of practical and theoretical aspects of the Visual Arts curriculum.

Art Centres are financed through both government and student fees and some receive additional support from outside funders for special projects. However, because many of these art centres were not set-up with the aim of reaching disadvantaged communities, Maghriet Beukes an educator at the PJ Olivier Art Centre explained that accessibility to the Centre remains a problem as; it’s too far for some learners to access by foot. Liesl Hartman, the Principal at the Frank Joubert Art Centre echoed this in saying,

Frank Joubert ARt Centre

Frank Joubert ARt Centre


“Access to the FJAC for many learners from further afield is reliant on regular transport. The lack of a reliable transport system makes this difficult. The cost of transport for parents exceeds our fees.”

Currently funding and access are still creating barriers to quality art education for all but, there is hope. Bursaries, efficient transport and better located art centres would provide the solution but there is an awareness regarding this and art centres are trying to accommodate more students and bridge the gap between the wealthy and the poor.

Liesl Hartman shared that at Frank Joubert Art Centre, they not only offer bursaries to “committed learners who need support” but also offer teacher training workshops to Grade 1-9 art teachers. These workshops not only train teachers but additionally act as a support base for those working in previously disadvantaged schools.

SA Art Kids 1
SA Art Kids 2
SA Art Kids 3

Reflecting back on my short-lived teaching career, I wonder whether I would have remained in teaching, had I found outside support from an art centre or other teachers experiencing similar challenges. Too many students are being robbed of quality art education because the structures are failing them. Teachers leave under unreasonably tough conditions but what about the students? Liesl Hartman summed it up so accurately:


“Access to art education is still not equal for all in the Western Cape. […] There is often a lack of understanding on the part of school management about the needs of an art department in terms of timetabling and the provision of resources in schools. […] Very few schools in townships in Cape Town offer Visual Arts or Design as a subject - those that do, often struggle to attract and hold on to qualified teachers that will stay long enough to establish a strong Visual Arts or Design department.”

SA kids painting

Art Centres are doing amazing work but art education in South Africa has a long way to go before it is on par with, and prioritized to the same extent as other subjects.


Contributing from Western Cape, South Africa

Thanks to Maghriet Beukes from PJ Olivier Art Centre and Liesl Hartman from Frank Joubert Art Centre for your valuable contributions.

*Cover Photo credit:  Small Coloured Girl by Moses Kottler (South African Artist)/WikiCommons