The death of a public museum in South Africa and the emergence of a privately owned museum

By Edward Tsumele

There was a time in art history in South Africa whereby both adults and children would go to a museum and immerse themselves in viewing art, often an art excursion whereby you would be guided through the viewing experience by a well-informed resident curator.

These Museums were often public entities whose role was to expose the public and art enthusiasts to art works and art practices of artists who were not necessarily artists usually exhibited by commercial galleries.  Commercial galleries and exhibitions that often take place at auction houses in all cases, are motivated by the profit motive. Of course in very rare cases by the public good. And there is nothing wrong with that as the role of business, any business is to make money, otherwise they have no business in being in business. The art business is no exception.

However there is space for educational institutions in the arts, often a role that was played by public museums for the greater good of society. And these museums were paid for by the public purse, and rightly so. However gone is the influence of public museums. The have either been neglected to the point of literally falling apart and the fate of the art works in these museums is not publicly known, or the budget to actually acquire new art works has been cut so deep that there is simply nothing new to see and therefore they do not attract the public to these infrequent exhibitions.

This is not to alarm the public and those who love art and what it represents  n terms of heritage value in these museums, there is an urgent need to raise  eyebrows about the state and status of public museums in South Africa right now. Even a public outrage about what is happening to the institution of a public museum in South Africa. For example take the case of the old lovely Joubert Street based Johannesburg Art Gallery. Operating from a building that was donated by a do Gooder several years ago to the City of Johannesburg, the building is almost crumbling.

The artworks, and a good collection for that matter risk being ruined by rain leaking into the building. There has not been new acquisition of artworks for quite a long time. Budgets allocated to this institution has been cut even deeper and deeper each year, making it impossible to run this gallery as a public entity that used to pride itself of being a space for the public. Its location in an accessible area whereby people from the townships who often struggle with transport, would not have that issue, as actually it is close to major taxi ranks and train stations, Successive city administrations  run by the two major political parties in the country the ANC and the Democratic Alliance have lamentably  ignored this important public institution. 

The councils who are supposedly there to represent the interest of the people who elected them, the public are quiet about it. Not even a single voice has been raised by anyone of them. Do they even know that there is something called Johannesburg Art Gallery a meres 300 metres from the council chambers? One may even be tempted to ask.

However there is a silver lining. This comes in the form of privately owned galleries, paid for by private individuals for the public good, doing the work that should be done by public museums. A few years ago Zeltz Mocca opened to great fanfare in Cape, and so did the Norval Foundation. Then in 2019, another important privately owned museum called the Johannesburg Contemporary Art Foundation, JCA )opened its doors to great excitement by the art community in Johannesburg.

So far JCA which is situated in Forest Town in Johannesburg in a building that is pregnant of history itself, good things have been happening in that space, thought provoking exhibitions and intellectually stimulating talks have been taking place ever since, even though the outbreak of Covid-19 happened.  The case in point is the current exhibition that focuses on great female artists with interesting art history and work behind their names.

This exhibition Kahlo, Sher-Gil, Stern: Modernist Identities in the Global Southwhich presents the works of these pioneering women artists, Frida Kahlo (1907–1954), Amrita Sher-Gil (1913–1941) and Irma Stern (1894–1966), together in South Africa and in Africa for the first time opened recently and I and other media professionals  had the privilege to attend a media tour prior to its opening including Laurice Taitz-Buntman  the editor and publisher of Johannesburg in Your Pocket publication and Ferial Haffajee  associate editor of Daily Maverick (pictured with me above) among other media professionals. Right now the place is attracting hordes of visitors, and you need to book in advance for this exhibition that runs till February 2023.

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