Woman on top – Dawn Robertson
DAWN ROBERTSON is driving a change in arts and culture.
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.”