Liza Essers, owner and director of Goodman Gallery. Picture: Thys Dullaart
Liza Essers, owner and director of Goodman Gallery. Picture: Thys Dullaart

Powerhouse who persevered reigns over arts market

By Sipho Mabaso Time of article published Mar 3, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG - A Persevering entrepreneur who sold apparel to fund her first-year studies at university has metamorphosed into the owner of a high-end internationally recognised art gallery in South Africa. 

Liza Essers, who owns Goodman Gallery, is the only woman in the country, and one of the very few in the world, to reign over this highly distinguished market. 

The gallery represents world renowned artists such as David Koloane, William Kentridge, Sam Nhlengethwa, Sue Williamson, and David Goldblatt, whose works have sold for up to $72 000 (R1.1 million). 

It has also expanded to Cape Town and established presence in Mayfair, London. “The business makes money by selling art to museums around the world, to foundations, and private collectors,” she says. 

Essers acquired the Goodman in 2008 from its founder Linda Goodman, a doyen of the art world. Today, the gallery represents 44 artists from South Africa, the African continent, Europe, South America and the US. It counts among its major projects the 2010 Fifa World Cup tournament which was held here. 

The Goodman has also grown into an international brand that has hosted highly renowned artists such as Ghada Amer (Egypt/ US), El Anatsui (Ghana), Mounir Fatmi (Morocco), Jenny Holzer (US), Michelangelo Pistoletto (Italy), Philippe Parreno (Algeria/ France), Douglas Gordon (Scotland/ Germany), Yinka Shonibare (UK/ Nigeria), and Kara Walker (US). 

The child of Libyan refugees in South Africa, she says she fell in love with the gallery after she returned from Florence, Italy, where she learned about various art management approaches. 

She says she was driven to prove that art could indeed change the world. Essers says she set her sights firmly on expanding the continental and global footprint of her gallery.

“The Goodman Gallery had this incredible archive that really spoke to me,” she says. Essers says she honed her business skills during her stint as a corporate management strategy consultant at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) and business development director at e-commerce company eCompany in the last decade. She holds a BCom economics and marketing degree from University of Natal (Now University of Kwa-Zulu Natal). 

But her belief in arts and its potential saw her dumping the boardrooms for a new venture. “I hated the corporate world,” 

Liza Essers, owner and director, Goodman Gallery. Picture: Supplied

Essers says. “I had this deep burning desire to be in the creative space.” She is aware that she would be judged by the calibre of artists she represented. But she is determined to prove the naysayers wrong and establish a global presence for the gallery.

The Goodman Gallery is now regularly included in the programmes of the world’s top art fairs, Art Basel, (Basel, Hong Kong and Miami Beach) which attracts more than 90 000 attendees which include galleries, collectors, art experts and the media, and Frieze (London and New York), which featured 152 000 galleries from 30 countries and was attended by more than 70 000 collectors, aficionados, enthusiasts and the Fourth Estate. 

Essers, who is one of the executive producers of Tsotsi, the first South African film to win an Academy Award in 2006, for best foreign language picture, says her worst blow was when an investor who had promised to help her acquire the Goodman Gallery pulled out a week before her deadline. But she persevered. When she took over the gallery, it had about five women artists. Now, the Goodman represents more than 20 female artists. “It is now a gallery that works with African artists from all over the continent, international artists,” she says.

“I am interested in transformative art, to show that art can change society for the better. That’s what gets me up every day.” She says she sees opportunities for social change and social justice through contemporary art. The gallery, says Essers, is a space for intellectual engagement where “power structures can be confronted and challenged”.


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