Marcus Desando has lived his life "in pursuit of being better than the day before". The new CEO of the Arts and Culture Trust (ACT) is a renowned tenor and director, and former CEO of Gauteng Opera, which he revolutionised into a contemporary, financially sustainable platform for all South Africans.
With a master’s degree in business science, Desando brings his artistry and commitment to developing the arts into a well-run, profitable business to ACT — SA’s leading independent arts funding and development agency, funded by the Nedbank Arts Affinity.
"Arts and culture — or the creative industry — are contributing about 2.9% of SA’s GDP and it could be far more if we reposition the creative industry as an industry with high value," Desando says.
"We need the corporates, government and all citizens to realise the kind of impact they can make if they become supporters and consumers of the creative sector. It’s about far more than entertainment, it’s about the economic and emotional upliftment of our country in areas where we excel."
His distinctive voice, drive and ability emerged in Mamelodi where he grew up in a family of singers: "My grandfather, Lot Selepe, started the tradition of singing together as a family every Wednesday night, including church hymns. So talent was learnt the traditional way," says Desando, who attributes his career success to Jacob Phetla, the chorus master at the NGK church in Mamelodi that his family attended.
"I started singing in the church choir at 13 where I also started learning to read music. If it wasn’t for Jacob Phetla, who is still a chorus master in what is now the Uniting Reformed Church, I wouldn’t be where I am today. He allowed me to be a maverick, to express myself to the full and to take over the church choir."
The NGK was completely segregated when Desando was growing up, but there were exceptions among the white ministers. "One was an incredible minister in our church, Nico Smith, who was a champion for black people," he says. "He didn’t believe in apartheid, he lived in our community and started an organisation called Koinonia. It was all about integrating people in the cities and townships so that people could get to know and understand each other, and support freedom for all."
Desando developed his voice and ability to read music with a private tutor and started his career in 1989 with the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal’s opera choir.
"I loved it but my ambition went beyond being part of the chorus; I wanted to become a soloist and I was hearing good things about the progressiveness of the Cape Performing Arts Board Opera [now Cape Town Opera]," he says.
"When I heard that Angelo Gobbato – the head of Cape Town Opera — was auditioning singers in Pretoria for a new programme he was starting, I leapt at the opportunity. I heard about the audition late and literally stopped him from leaving the building."
Desando was 21 when he moved to Cape Town in 1994, where he worked with Gobbato and became a principal singer and director with Cape Town Opera. "Angelo is one of the people I have been fortunate to meet. He mentored me and helped me to look at the arts as a whole. He also recognised my passion for directing and started steering me in that direction. His influence remains with me in my directing and my administrative style."
Desando has directed more than 40 productions and performed in more than 75 operas, musical theatre productions and concerts in SA and abroad. He has travelled the world as a singer and director with New York Harlem Productions, Really Useful Company, Pieter Toerien Productions and Cape Town Opera. He has also lectured in stagecraft and directed productions at the University of Stellenbosch, University of Cape Town, Tshwane University of Technology and the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
He developed his business and management skills, which he applied to great effect as CEO of Gauteng Opera, and will do the same at ACT.
"I’m concentrating on steering ACT and South African arts and culture into a financially sustainable, substantial national industry," Desando says.
"It is second nature for me to be both a creative and CEO and all the ACT staff members are able to combine the arts and business, which keeps us all in touch with the industry.
"We are in a wonderfully creative phase, with a lot of brave, innovative creations in the performing arts emerging from a new generation of fearless artists who are forging their own path and letting their distinctive voices be heard.
"As part of my activism, I would like to see at least 60% of creatives in SA being able to produce high-quality performance works of art for which they are recognised and from which they can earn a decent, sustainable living and contribute to the economy. To achieve this, we need far more investment in the performing arts, which are currently heavily reliant on donor funding."
Desando says he is excited about the growth potential of performing arts locally and internationally.
He emphasises the importance of telling South African stories in a South African way.
"From the performing arts to art galleries and exhibitions, it’s inspiring to see the kind of innovative and revolutionary ideas coming out: there’s a surviving and thriving," he says. "It is about bringing opera and theatre and dance and music into the home of every South African through recognising the worth of each of our stories, whoever we are and wherever we live.
"We don’t know enough about arts and culture beyond the metros. We spend too much time thinking about the arts and culture needs of people in rural areas instead of travelling to them and discussing their needs so as to foster more sustainable, creative programmes through education and training."
ACT is focusing on the Eastern Cape where it is engaged in education and training with organisations and communities in remote rural areas to help develop them into fully fledged arts and culture businesses.
"We would like to make this a national initiative and to offer scholarships to aspiring performers in these areas, in addition to our metropolitan areas, to help them pursue tertiary and postgraduate education in the arts and arts administration," Desando says.
"We have a wonderful development component in the ACT programme ... which we will be expanding to scale. Our aim is reach every part of SA to ignite an arts and culture upsurge."