Elevating the Artist : How the John Keells Foundation re-imagines CSR

Large enterprises engaging in CSR activities may be commonplace, but its ability to empower lives are incomparable. Some of the biggest brands in the world have opted to re-visit what CSR means, changing the corporate responsibility game altogether.

In America, Google CEO Sundar Pichai opted to stand up for “what’s right” through his willingness to publicly counter anti-Muslim comments made by President Donald Trump. As a global giant, Google knows that CSR means doing what’s best for the people.

Closer to home, a corporate powerhouse has been exploring these ideas for over 20 years.

John Keells Holdings PLC (JKH) is Sri Lanka’s largest listed conglomerate in the Colombo Stock Exchange with 70 companies spanning 7 sectors. But this is business prowess; to seek out the real heart of the company, look to John Keells Foundation. Established in 2005 as JKH’s dedicated CSR entity, the Foundation’s work spans six focus areas: education, livelihood development, health, environmental causes, disaster relief and perhaps the most interesting of all – arts and culture.

The world over, loving and loathing artists has been the norm. The unknown graffiti-artist Banksy is both a hero and defacer of public property. A Van Gogh sells for millions, but Vincent was called a madman. George Keyt was called a vulgar recluse, but his Lankan spin on cubism, forever changed history’s perception of him. An organisation bold enough to understand this fine balance and foster artists, helps creative thinking progress.

This is exactly what happens at Kala Pola, an initiative of The George Keyt Foundation. This year, the popular open-air art fair celebrates 25 years of bringing artists and art lovers on to Colombo’s streets. JKH engaged with Kala Pola in 1994 - the year after its inception, becoming one of the island’s first corporate arts patrons; 2018 also marks 24-years of unbroken patronage by the John Keells Group.

Each year, the crowd grows, the art increases as do the incomes of artists from all over the country. Kala Pola is a guaranteed income for visual artists in Sri Lanka. The total value of sold art increases annually and with it the artists’ income grows exponentially. Recent records show Kala Pola drawing over 327 artists, 22,000 visitors and generating Rs. 12 million in a single day’s sales that all go directly to the artists.

Many things deter artists from choosing the arts as a career including its inability to generate a steady income. This is where Kala Pola has and continues to make a difference, reminding us that the arts are essential for social advancement and can be a sustainable livelihood for talented artists.