“I know how hard it is to be an artist,” said the man who still paints in his spare time and hopes to one day have a solo exhibition of his own.
“It’s difficult, especially for young and less-established artists to find space where they can exhibit their work and which they can afford,” said the man who transformed the Michael Joseph Centre at Safaricom’s HQ into one of the most attractive and sought-after arts venues in the country. It’s a space where not only visual artists exhibit without charge, but neither do thespians, dancers, poets, musicians or even yogis, who pay only a nominal fee.
“That was a decision I made soon after I came to Kenya in 2010,” he said.
Concurrent with that decision was his choice to change the name of the space to honor his predecessor, Michael Joseph, who was also an avid supporter of the contemporary Kenyan arts scene.
“It was one of the first decisions I made when I arrived here,” he said. That and the plan to renovate the space on Safaricom’s ground floor to make it a proper performing arts centre, complete with new sound and lighting systems, an elevated stage, small bar and food serving space, super-clean loos and special facilities designed to serve the disabled.
But Collymore hasn’t confined himself to creating quality space for the arts to be shared. He’s also a serious music lover, which is why, in 2014, he started up a Safaricom Youth Orchestra which he feels quite fatherly towards.
“They rehearse here [at the MJ Centre] every Saturday; plus we provide these young musicians with music tutors and master classes so they can excel,” he added.
In addition, he said he’s reserved a percentage of seats in the orchestra for children coming from less privileged backgrounds who have promising potential, but who are less fortunate than young people who come from private schools where music is an integral part of the curriculum.
The Youth Orchestra was one of the groups that recently performed at the Safaricom International Jazz Festival, staged at Kasarani Sports Centre.
The Jazz Festival is yet another of Collymore’s creations. But while he admits that the arts are not an integral part of Safaricom’s core business, the man who loves music almost as much as he loves visual art makes no apologies for having the company spearhead public appreciation for a musical art form which doesn’t just have its roots in Africa (given the Jazz genre was started by Africans shipped to the Americas and made into slaves). It’s also a global phenomenon practiced by musicians all over the world.
The global character of Jazz was clearly manifest during the Jazz Fete, as the performing musicians literally came from all parts of the world. They came from Belgium, Israel, Italy and the UK, as well as from South Africa and Nigeria.
It was a program that was pricey, but Collymore made arrangements with the embassies of each musician’s home country. That way the artists’ transport and accommodations were covered by the embassies. To reciprocate, he opened the Michael Joseph Centre for an evening to each embassy so that their chosen guests could listen to the visiting musicians and host a free cultural night of their design.
But Collymore’s attention to the arts hasn’t come cheap, since Safaricom has had to hire a whole team to keep up with all the requests from artists who want to utilize the Michael Joseph Centre space and become beneficiaries of Collymore’s rent-free policy.
“One of the best things about our space is that it’s safe, so parents don’t have to worry about their children coming here to an evening concert,” he said, noting that Safaricom’s security system is very good.
Collymore doesn’t attend all the functions at the MJ Centre, but he is a patron of the arts, buying works for his private home and occasionally commissioning Kenyan artists to create art for Safaricom’s permanent collection.
One such commission is a fabulous triptych painting by Samuel Githui of Street Life in Nairobi. “I believe a number of artists were invited to submit sketches for him to consider and it just happened that he picked mine,” said Githui, a popular local artist whose art has most recently been commissioned by the Java Coffee House chain.
Githui says that Collymore selected his sketch but also asked that it be modified according to his taste, which the artist did. The result hangs inside the CEO’s spacious penthouse office overlooking one of Nairobi’s first super-highways, just behind Mr Collymore’s desk.
Githui’s triptych belongs to Safaricom so he will have to leave it behind when he retires from his position as CEO. But that doesn’t look like it will happen very soon, especially as the Guyana-born, UK-educated CEO just married the Kenyan artist and gallerist, Wambui Kamiru, in early April and apparently plans to settle down in Kenya and continue supporting the arts.