The National Arts Festival has announced that its long-serving Chief Executive Officer, Tony Lankester, will be stepping down from the position later this year after more than a decade at the helm of the country’s leading, and the continent’s biggest, arts festival. He is set to take up an appointment in the UK from October.
Making the announcement, Festival Chair Ayanda Mjekula thanked Lankester for his contribution to the Festival since his appointment in 2007.
“Tony has certainly been a revelation and has set a high standard that will be extremely difficult to rival, but which we have an obligation to maintain. His leadership has been inspirational and produced the best from all those who worked with him. He occupied the CEO position for just over a quarter of the existence of this Festival. This period heralded a time of invigorating growth for the Festival.
On behalf of the artists who were touched by this Festival, we thank you for the vibrancy, the freedom and the creativity which you allowed them to pour in! South Africa thanks you for making it Africa’s biggest show and being deeply African! The message from the board is that you should be proud of your contribution to the growth and enrichment of South African cultural heritage. We wish you well in all your future endeavours,” Mjekula said.
“This has been the most incredible 12 years of my adult life and I am extraordinarily grateful to the Festival team, the artists and audiences who have made it all so worthwhile,” Lankester said. “Steering this ship has been a privilege and has resulted in a ton of memories, moments, friendships and learning experiences I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life. But I feel it’s the right time to move on with my career and to give the Festival space to bring in some new energy and ideas.”
Mjekula mapped out the management arrangements for the next few months: “We’ve recently appointed Nobesuthu Rayi as the Festival’s Executive Producer and we’re currently recruiting for an Artistic Director. Once that process is finalised, and with the continued service of Brett Bailey as Artistic Committee Chair, the artistic team will be complete and can focus on the programme for the 2020 Festival. To oversee the business side of the Company, and to manage a smooth handover from Tony, we’re drawing on the expertise of our Board and putting together a transition management team. The core operations team consists of very experienced, long-serving members of staff and Tony will continue serving, on a consultancy basis, after his departure through until the end of the year to ensure a smooth transition,” he said.
“The Festival dates for 2020 are 25 June to 5 July and we’re all focused on ensuring it is another great event,” Lankester said. Our primary focus over the next few months is to ensure that our portfolio of projects – including the National Arts Festival in 2020 – has a strong team in place to drive it.”
Since Lankester’s appointment the Festival has expanded to include other Festivals and events, including the fledgling Sharjah Fringe in the United Arab Emirates, due to be staged in early 2020. The Festival has also taken on the production of projects on behalf of the Grahamstown Foundation – including the National Schools Festival, Scifest Africa and the English Olympiad. Lankester was also the inaugural Chair of the World Fringe Alliance which has connected Makhanda to the global arts world and has seen dozens of performers travel between member festivals.
“But the biggest joy has been helping evolve the National Arts Festival in new directions, together with its extraordinary team,” Lankester said. “We’ve grown the audience substantially, refreshed the brand and pushed the boundaries in so many ways and worked hard to keep the flame of creativity alive. As important is the way in which the Festival has integrated with the broader Makhanda community – from the annual Masicule concerts, through to our Festival Gallery and Creative City project. The national arts landscape is a tough one, and the job hasn’t been without its frustrations. But art always wins through and prevails. I’ve always had a sense that I’m merely the custodian of this very special Festival – it existed for 33 years before I joined, and will continue to flourish and thrive for many decades to come.”
At the same time as announcing Lankester’s departure, Mjekula confirmed the recent appointment of Annabell Lebethe and Michelle Constant to the Festival Board. “Both Annabell and Michelle have deep and extensive experience in the arts sector, and have varied and flourishing careers in it. They bring to the Board a wealth of experience that we are very fortunate to be able to tap into – and we look forward to a long and fruitful relationship with them both,” he said.