Interview with Roger Ballen Foundation

In addition the the small publisher interviews, I am pleased to offer a series of interviews with members of photographic not-for-profit organizations. The following interview is with Chief Curator of the Roger Ballen Foundation, Meredith Randall.

MM: How and why did you start the Roger Ballen Foundation? What is the mission of your foundation?

MR: Roger had been thinking for the past 5 years or so that he would like to start a photography foundation, to give back to a field that has enriched his life. The idea began becoming more concretized from the beginning of 2007 as he began to systematically meet with artists and art professionals in South Africa, discussing his idea and asking others for their opinion. During this process, I also spoke with Roger, at the end of which asked if I could come on board. To me, it sounded very exciting as there are not many art foundations in South Africa. (To my knowledge, besides the Art Galleries and Museums, there are a few residency programs, such as the Bag Factory and Nirox, the Ampersand Foundation which is a NY residency program, and then schools.)

Our mission statement is:
The Roger Ballen Foundation is dedicated to the advancement of education of photography in South Africa. RBF creates and supports programmes of the highest quality to further the understanding and appreciation of the medium. Working with artists from around the world, our program enables students and general audiences to engage with notable contemporary photographic art that would otherwise not be seen in South Africa.

MM: In the United States the government requires that you have a base fund to establish an endowments and foundations. What does it take to start a foundation in South Africa? Does what is the role of the government in this process vs. the private sector? How difficult is it to attain this status?

MR: It is not easy to set up a foundation in South Africa. The tax code is quite prohibitive on it. I will explain a little of it, but please understand, it is quite complicated, my description is very simple and I am by no means an expert on it. We spoke to a number of lawyers and tax experts before we could proceed. It was a lengthy and complex process. From my understanding, there are 2 types of trusts you can set up. One allows you to receive donations without having to pay a donations tax. The second, which is restricted to foundations involved in education, religion, security, and maybe sport (not art nor culture) allows for a certain percentage of a donation to be tax deductible. It is very difficult to obtain permission to be able to not pay VAT (14%) on goods purchased. It is very difficult to sell goods either, as the South African Revenue Service does not want unfair business competition. The trust cannot operate outside of South Africa (85% of all money spent must be spent in South Africa). All foundations must apply to the SARS for approval and ever year must submit our financial records for review.

I do not mean to be crass by only speaking about money. We are not a huge foundation. Loosing 14% of all of your expenses on taxes has a large impact on what we are able to financially able to achieve. Further, if we could receive donations and extend a tax deduction to our donors, we could increase our revenue. These are basic tools that are extended to non profits in the States.

When I first started at the Foundation, one of the questions I asked myself was why there were not more foundations of this kind in South Africa. The only answer I am able to come up with is that the tax code does not encourage them.

MM: Why did you begin with a seminar with Stephen Shore and what types of projects will you fund in the future?

MR: South Africa has some amazing local artists, from William Kentridge (film clip shown below) to David Goldblatt to top notch up and coming artists. In South Africa, one only has the opportunity to see local art. In the past 3 years or so, there have been a few shows with African artists each year. Besides this, South Africa is quite isolated, one is only able to see what is happening elsewhere by reading slightly outdated magazines journal or surfing the web.

Roger often attributes his own visual literacy to his New York childhood when he was surrounded by many of the great photographers of the day such as Cartier-Bresson, Evans, Kertesz, Steichen, Strand and Arbus. Ballen’s mother worked for the photographic Magnum Agency in New York in the 1960s and in the early 1970s opened her own photographic art gallery in the city. This experience made him appreciate the value of being exposed to world renowned photographers and instilled in him the desire to create a similar milieu for the South African artistic community.

We support bringing in top caliber artists for an exhibition and lecture series. Stephen Shore (film clip shown below), to me has been an idea artist: his work is fantastic, has had a huge impact on the trajectory of art photography and I believe his lectures will provoke an interesting debate in South Africa.

Stephen has also agreed to host a master class. We have received applications from many of the photographer lecturers from around the country. One of the exciting potentials is that the South African art community can hopefully increase their fellowship with each other.

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