Archive: Issue No. 49, September 2001

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Art Foundation: Gone with a bang or a whimper?
by Robyn Sassen -

The Johannesburg Art Foundation has officially closed. Is this an indictment of the structures that support local contemporary art?

The new owners of the house in which the Johannesburg Art Foundation operated take up residence during October. To all intents and purposes, the JAF will quickly become history.

Of course the legacy of as dynamic and brave an institution as this remains with those who learnt and taught there. On a local and international art marketing and awareness platform, the Foundation's proudest achievement remains William Kentridge.

The African continent has colloquially come to be known as a hunting ground for fine art graduates who become art missionaries via a process of unemployment, entrepreneurship and feelings for the greater good of Africa. An art missionary is as iffy a thing as a religious one: it has the power either to destroy or create.

In many respects the Johannesburg Art Foundation fits the bill of "art mission". It started under the gentle humanism of Bill Ainslie and his Dutch wife, Fieke, in 1971. Bill was born in 1934 and educated at Natal University. A rigorous painter who garnered success for his work, he taught at various institutions, including the Cyrene Mission in Zimbabwe. Politically articulate, he was keenly aware of the damage apartheid inflicted on local art.

The studio began informally, operating from Cecily Sash's Randburg home. It moved to Annerley Road, then Jubilee Road, then Elfinwold Road, all in Parktown. Eventually, in 1977, Bill and Fieke bought 6 Eastwold Way, Saxonwold, that came to be the Johannesburg Art Foundation, a family business formalised as an Non-Governmental Organisation in 1982. This was characteristic of its humanity, but as time passed, a reason for its demise.

The tennis court was the parking lot and the sense of creative productivity an essence that for many years filled its rooms. One didn't graduate from the Foundation. Courses were about skills, but marks weren't given. You didn't need a matric to study there. It was here that the romantic notion "artist" - in layperson's terms, a layabout or scallywag - was taken seriously. Under the leafy shadows in northern Johannesburg, in this place of innocence, art was the equaliser, not money, qualification or political affiliation.

Making art together is a most intimate level of communication. A rich commixture of people were an intrinsic part of the studios - gardeners alongside women of leisure; domestic workers alongside Sunday painters. Enabling an unspoken dialogue and bond to develop between people of diverse orientation through art was a part of Bill's modus operandi.

Visual art for adults was not the Foundation's only focus in its heyday. Lionel Abrahams, David Goldblatt and Barney Simon, among others, played significant teaching roles. Papermaker and teacher Lynda Ballen brought her burgeoning children's studio to join the Foundation in the early 1980s. She developed her programme to offer art as a matric subject for those unable to take it at their schools. The creative dynamics in the Foundation touched many. People came there to build up portfolios. They came there to seek succour from drugs. It was like a tiny piece of European zeitgeist: a sanctuary where you could draw and paint and write and listen and talk without the intervention of time or responsibilities.

Unforgettably, it was also in the heyday of apartheid: black artists working or living there - and even Fieke herself - recall the horror of being on the receiving end of Special Force representatives' impromptu visits at rude hours of the night, checking for illegal visitors; the indignity of bailing artists out on pass charges; or the necessary ducking and diving around the law for black professional artists who had to justify their presence if found "loitering" in a white suburb. Because the house was in a white area, the black artists enrolled at the Foundation were under the Ainslies' wings. The direction of the give and take was always apparent.

Conversely, and the argument is never one-sided, at this time outreach art centres were being fostered by the Foundation: Fuba, Funda, Alex Art Centre, Thupelo, Katlehong Art Centre and others. These establishments gave possibility to artists far from Saxonwold and they attracted international attention: people like Sir Anthony Caro, Kenneth Noland and Robert Loder began to develop sensibilities toward southern African art.

At this time, interest in South Africa art was unusual. The whole country was deeply under the stigma of apartheid. Caro's input manifested in the Triangle Workshops, exchange programmes between London, New York and South Africa.

And so, the Foundation was thriving. Market currents encouraged Bill to establish graphics, cartooning, airbrushing and other courses to give students job viability.

But then tragedy struck. In 1989 Bill was killed in a car accident. A well-loved man, who did so much to address the problems of apartheid, giving hope to many black artists - like Mmakgabo Mmapulo H Sebidi, David Koloane, Durant Sihlali, Pat Mautloa, Dumile Feni, Ezrom Legae - he never saw the birth of local democracy.

From the time of his death things gradually began to unravel for the Foundation. The council running it appointed Steven Sack as director. Sack, who is today director for Cultural Development in the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, was a Wits Fine Arts graduate who had taught at the Foundation some years before. Trained as a sculptor, he'd had experience in both the formal and non-formal sectors. The appointment seemed ideal, but the challenge to fill Ainslie's shoes proved not only impossible, but unfair.

The council recognised the need to address the future both of Fieke and the Foundation, but many practicalities in this leadership shift remained implied, which led to misunderstanding and ill-feeling. Because the house and many of the elements that had kept the Foundation alive had been financed by Fieke, a deadlock arose, not allowing a new director leeway to make the Foundation his. This would involve the power to hire and fire, break different ground and reshape the organisation with new values and ideas. Many of the extant teachers at the Foundation had been working under Bill's aegis and anti-establishment philosophies and were not formally trained. Without Bill, things began to lose focus.

With hindsight, Sack is dispassionate: "NGOs by their nature are generally founded by charismatics. When they die, the project must die too, because unless the council understands that the only way they can take it forward is to bring in a new visionary and be prepared to change the whole project, it's impossible." He struggled with this untenable situation for five years with forces shifting in the industry, the country and the community.

A number of private art schools had opened up countrywide, representing competition for the Foundation. The Foundation's drawcards remained its values and established reputation, but prospective graphic designers wanted the brash, fast, trendy ideals offered by the new schools. The implications for the Foundation were serious: fine art was popular, but heavily subsidised. The market-related courses were the money-spinners.

Outside the art industry, the country itself was changing: Nelson Mandela had just been released from prison and no one quite knew what to expect.

So Sack left at the end of 1994, and almost predictably, each individual subsequently appointed to run the Foundation was faced with its deadlock. As time passed, shaky management was not the only unfeasibility. Funding was haemorrhaging. The rot had set in.

It's disturbing to see the finality of "Sold" on the house. Fieke, now in her 70s, is philosophical: "I have to get out of the house. It is the end of something that was very good. It has come to an end." With stylish European dignity, she sits in her well-appointed lounge, filled with reminders of Bill, awaiting the inevitably scary shifts in her life.

Nostalgia aside, there are other dynamics at play in today's art world that maybe discard the Foundation's values. Today's culture demands commodification and the ability to be a cog in the world. It's not etiquette to vanish into an atelier to make art that may or may not sell.

Or is this too cynical? Bill Ainslie brought magic to everyone he touched. Is the fact that just 12 years after his death, his Foundation is being laid to rest, part of a process? Or is it an indictment of the establishment, the council, the widow? Should the Foundation have been closed with dignity and solvency, at the time? Is there still a place in Johannesburg's previously white suburbs for an institution like the Johannesburg Art Foundation?

Projects like the Bag Factory have grown to adulthood and the concept that a bored privileged housewife who wants to paint must now brave the challenges of the CBD or Newtown to get proper insight into the alchemy of art making, is almost poetic.

Yes, William Kentridge is the most prominent son of the Foundation, as he is of the country, but in the Foundation's wake there is an after-image - in the sensibilities of those whom it touched, in that of the organisations it fostered; it's an after-image that reverberates as powerfully as the institution itself. The ethos behind the Johannesburg Art Foundation has indeed taken on many different shapes and flourishes. But did it go with a whimper or a bang? Depends on your take and how it or any of its subsidiaries touched you.