Copper from part of the roof at the Johannesburg Art Gallery has been stolen which has led to major leakages in the basement due to the recent heavy rainfall.
 Picture: Nokuthula Mbatha
Joburg Art Gallery needs a new lease of life, writes Gabriel Crouse.

In a glossy magazine called SA Art Times you would have hit something jarring in February, as if you were suddenly in the wrong room. You were not in the cultural paradise you expected. You were in hell and the boss was asking for forgiveness.

Under the headline “Why I Left JAG”, Antoinette Murdoch published a strange and damning apology. Murdoch was the chief curator of the Johannesburg Art Gallery, but now she’s left.

She “apologise(s) sincerely for the inconvenience caused by (her) sudden decision to leave JAG”.

The thrust of Murdoch’s argument is that JAG has become so hellish that she cannot be blamed for leaving, suddenly or not.

She has a point. Her tyres were slashed, her car broken into and she was verbally abused at work.

The culprits are at large, some of them are claimed to still be in the municipality’s employ. That is unacceptable and extremely regrettable. One way or another these accusations must be investigated and settled.

At the same time that Murdoch apologises for leaving JAG so suddenly, the South African art world is breathing a collective sigh of relief.

Galleristas, patrons and artists around the country are asking each other why Murdoch didn’t leave sooner. That is because Murdoch played a role in the metaphorical and literal sinking of the most important gallery in Africa, and the near drowning of its 100 000 works of art.

She makes zero attempt to address the fact that, under her leadership, the gallery was reduced to putting on one genuinely significant exhibition a year (at the gallery’s peak there would be more than a dozen a year); that visitation, aside from children bussed in by their schools, has reduced to less than a trickle; and that the gallery has flooded again, forcing its closure until further notice.

According to acting chief curator, Musha Nehuleni, the vacancy has still not been advertised. For the fresh blood, whenever it arrives, and those who stayed on board, opportunity is afoot.

The immediate task is to protect the work and repair the building.

When this critic last visited JAG, artwork had been removed from the most vulnerable parts of the flooded basement to safety.

In addition about 100 paintings and photographs were being catalogued for trips to Italy and elsewhere, their travel and insurance paid for by eager foreigners.

The problem started when, under the previous administration, Bankuna Construction and Engineering was awarded a R15million tender to repair JAG’s roof, despite the fact that they had no experience with heritage sites like JAG.

They botched the job and another eight-figure tender was awarded to do the repairs again last year.

This time the work was undermined by copper theft.

The new city council will be eager to prove themselves capable where their predecessors failed.

An audit is under way and there is an earnest confidence that old mistakes will not be repeated.

The more enduring challenge will be to realise that the fundamental problem with JAG is also a unique strength. As the baseball guru Yogi Berra once said, “no one goes there any more, it’s too crowded”.

The streets around JAG throng, averting established art-patrons because until now these have been considered the “wrong” kind of people for art: poor, black and predominantly foreign.

Haikona!

I took the last four months off from art criticism to assist a research project into the impact African immigrants have on this country for the Institute of Race Relations, and in the course of that research I spent weeks walking the streets near JAG asking questions.

One of my guides was Pressage Nyoni, a Zimbabwean-born optimist who connects entrepreneurs in the CBD with high finance.

He arrived in Joburg in the 1980s and what was his favourite place to visit? JAG.

A place of tranquillity and humane reflection in the bustling city. He submits that many of his customers would love to visit JAG. And he agrees, the men playing chess and the women playing with their children in Joubert Park (adjacent to the gallery) are perfectly suited to check out some art.

When asked on an arbitrary basis, those men and women agreed too.

Pressage started visiting JAG just when Christopher Till pivoted the acquisition programme to focus on African art.

Decades later the collection, partly thanks to the geniality of Wits Professor Karel Nel, is a global heavyweight. Johannesburg has changed too.

It is now an African city, perhaps The African City. Its CBD is occupied by Zimbabweans and Ethiopians, Somalians and Malawians, Nigerians and Congolese as much as any other group identity.

JAG’s collection mirrors this complexity.

There is so much to see on both sides. The streets around JAG display an irresistible confidence of style.

Tokens from the West, West Africa, North Africa, South Africa and beyond are blended in fabulous adornment. JAG’s collection not only undermines the idea that Africa was and would be homogeneous without colonisation.

Like its surrounding multi-cultural bonanza, it undermines the stupendously condescending idea that Africans are mere victims of cultural appropriation.

Rather, it is possible to see the works of Pissarro, Picasso and Dali rhyme and clash with subsequent work by Gerard Sekoto, William Kentridge and Gladys Mgudlandlu.

The meeting of these worlds would develop a unique cross-cultural conversation from which every participant would benefit. And that success could not help but succour attention and patronage, setting off a virtuous cycle.

The crucial thing for the city council to realise is that the business of running a gallery is not exactly the same as curating new exhibitions.

Acting chief curator Neluheni agrees, she would like to have an administrative “boss” going forward. JAG has not had an administrative head for over a decade.

The boss’s mission is to nag and seduce, to make deals and keep the accounts necessary for curators to enjoy a magical freedom; the freedom to find art that will suck in crowds and change minds. Marianne Fassler, head of the Friends of JAG, agrees.

The Friends of JAG has had to facilitate exhibitions, most recently in collaboration with the Goodman Gallery, and perform such perfunctory tasks as buying the gallery toilet paper.

Fassler sees great opportunities to create initiatives that bring in money and ensconce creativity. Christopher Till agrees too, so does every other major figure in the art world that I’ve interviewed: JAG needs a director.

Without administrative support, Murdoch had an impossible job keeping JAG afloat and so will her successor.

Mayor Herman Mashaba made big promises when he opened a show at JAG last year, accurately describing JAG as a key to unlocking the next level of inner-city rejuvenation.

JAG could extend the Braamfontein and Constitution Court/Metro Centre vitality to the other side of the Gautrain and open a fresh face to “little Ethiopia”, the banking district and beyond without displacing local residents.

But that won’t happen either. Unless Mashaba and the city council realise that there are two doors leading out of this damned scenario.

Either the curatorial staff continue to follow an impossible command: keep one eye on the art, one eye on the money and don’t squint at tomorrow.

In that case the fiscus will empty tens of millions into JAG in another burst of hope despite the risk that JAG will capsize again in a decade.

Or they will secure their bet on JAG by also appointing an experienced director who saves them trouble, raises 10 times what she/he earns in sponsorship and commercial enterprise and fixes every leak before it becomes a flood.

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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