Woman on top – Dawn Robert­son

DAWN ROBERT­SON is driv­ing a change in arts and cul­ture.

True Love - - News - By SISONKE LABASE

With a ca­reer in the arts span­ning more than 15 years, Con­sti­tu­tion Hill CEO Dawn Robert­son has made her mark in this field as a cre­ator and a vi­sion­ary. “As a child, I was al­ways draw­ing with crayons, in­stead of run­ning out­side like the rest of the kids,” she ex­plains. “But I couldn’t study art be­cause black chil­dren were not taught this sub­ject at school back then. So my par­ents found a tech­nikon for me to study art af­ter hours while in high school. This en­abled me to ap­ply for a Fine Art de­gree and be ac­cepted.”

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing, Dawn worked as an Arts Education lec­turer at the Univer­sity of KwaZulu-Natal, a job she found ful­fill­ing. “I loved work­ing with young peo­ple. I’m not the nor­mal lec­turer; I was one of the gang. I worked mainly with small classes of fourth-year stu­dents, and I en­joyed de­sign­ing the cur­ricu­lum my­self. What I loved most about my work was the project I started when I re­alised that tra­di­tional art tech­niques – like bead­ing, indige­nous pot­tery and grass weav­ing – were dy­ing. We would live with ru­ral crafters for a few days and doc­u­ment their work, and the stu­dents would learn to make the crafts, so they could teach it to oth­ers. This has en­sured that these hand­i­crafts will not only sur­vive, but also thrive.”

Af­ter five years in academia, Dawn moved to Pre­to­ria to start a job with gov­ern­ment in 2003: “I got a phone call from some­one in the Depart­ment of Arts and Cul­ture, ask­ing me to set up the arts education pro­gramme. “I had to move from Dur­ban to Pre­to­ria mid-year. It was a huge shift, both be­cause of the phys­i­cal trans­fer, and be­cause I was mov­ing from be­ing an artist to be­ing an ad­min­is­tra­tor and deal­ing with artists.”

Dawn made tremen­dous strides in shap­ing the depart­ment, and con­sid­ers be­ing the pro­gramme di­rec­tor of a project called CreateSA among her best work. “To start some­thing from noth­ing and see it to fruition is the best thing. I had to de­velop a project pro­posal to make sure the NGOs and art cen­tres around the coun­try, which were train­ing up­com­ing artists, were prop­erly reg­is­tered with the cor­rect qual­i­fi­ca­tions frame­work. I im­ple­mented the project and de­sign qual­i­fi­ca­tions, and to see the stu­dents grad­u­ate in the end was amaz­ing. These peo­ple wouldn’t have got a qual­i­fi­ca­tion with­out this project, so it felt good to make a mean­ing­ful im­pact.”

Dawn then served as the co­or­di­na­tor for the Gaut­eng FIFA 2010 World Cup Tech­ni­cal Task Team, whose mar­ket­ing show­case Gaut­eng Get­away 2010 high­lighted tourism ac­tiv­i­ties the prov­ince had to of­fer and con­trib­uted to the suc­cess of the soc­cer spec­tac­u­lar. Her per­for­mance in this role won her the job of CEO of the Gaut­eng Tourism Au­thor­ity, a post she held from 2011 to 2016, un­til she was lured away to her new po­si­tion at Joburg ’s Old Fort.

“Con­sti­tu­tion Hill is an amaz­ing space,” she says. “Now that I’m ac­tu­ally here as the CEO, and I see what we have to of­fer, it’s even more re­ward­ing. This lo­ca­tion has such a rich his­tory, dat­ing back to the 1800s. It used to be a fort, and was then the no­to­ri­ous Old Fort prison, which housed such iconic anti-apartheid ac­tivists as Madiba and Robert Sobukwe. Now the Con­sti­tu­tional Court is lo­cated here, so the lib­er­a­tion story has come full cir­cle, and the court’s lo­ca­tion is unique to South Africa. Be­ing a part of the place’s his­tory now is re­ally hum­bling. Our future is also here on site.”

Find­ing the bal­ance be­tween the court as a place of work, a her­itage site and as an art venue is tricky, she says. “But that’s the unique sell­ing point here. You see ac­tual apartheid-era cells, with the original graf­fiti of those im­pris­oned here on the walls; you can’t get that any­where else. It’s hard find­ing the bal­ance: I re­mem­ber when the Eco­nomic Free­dom Fighters came here to protest in sup­port of the Fees Must Fall stu­dent leader, Bonginkosi Khanyile. It was dur­ing his court case and peo­ple came to my of­fice say­ing there was a prob­lem with tours. Peo­ple could not be guided around the premises and see the art­works. They were also scared be­cause of the toyi-toy­ing. But it’s part of the ex­pe­ri­ence, as this is a real-life work­ing mu­seum.”

Once Dawn sets her mind on a project, she im­merses her­self in it – and so it is with her role at Con­sti­tu­tion Hill. She’s in­volved in all as­pects of the run­ning of the place. “I’m very hands-on. My days are crazy: I get to the of­fice, but have to go here and there around the premises – so of­ten I’m not in the of­fice. This is why I gen­er­ally wake up early and do any writ­ing and ad­min­is­tra­tion work be­fore

“FOR ME, SUC­CESS IS FIN­ISH­ING A JOB I STARTED AND SEE­ING IT THROUGH TO FRUITION.”

I get to the of­fice. I walk the site al­most three times a day. It’s 26 acres, and I get to ev­ery spot. From check­ing on the build­ing main­te­nance to plan­ning tours, my days are busy, but ex­hil­a­rat­ing,” she laughs.

What she loves most about be­ing the head of Con­sti­tu­tion Hill is im­part­ing knowl­edge to her staff. “The most im­por­tant thing for me, in ev­ery job that I’ve taken on, is mak­ing a dif­fer­ence. At this point in my ca­reer, I am en­joy­ing men­tor­ing my team and bring­ing out the best in them. I don’t have a top­down ap­proach. The most im­por­tant thing is look­ing for growth op­por­tu­ni­ties for them – that’s my true role as CEO.” Dawn makes sure she re­wards her­self by tak­ing at least two hol­i­days a year. “My favourite pas­time is travel: see­ing new places and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the di­verse cul­tures the world has to of­fer. I’m plan­ning a trip to Cuba right now. I love im­mers­ing my­self in some­thing new.”

How does this in­flu­en­tial woman, who’s held sev­eral dif­fer­ent po­si­tions of au­thor­ity in such a short time, define suc­cess? “For me, it’s fin­ish­ing a job I started and see­ing it through to fruition,” Dawn in­sists. “Work­ing in gov­ern­ment has taught me to do so, since the state works in five-year cy­cles. The abil­ity to de­liver on some­thing you’ve per­son­ally in­vested in is truly spe­cial.”

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