Archive: Issue No. 63, November 2002

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Pre-millennial tension: Geers on the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 1997

Kendell Geers has been vocal in his opposition to the current director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery, Rochelle Keene. He already publicly stated his opinion in July 1997. We have decided to reprint one of these news articles, hoping that it will offer readers a useful historical perspective. The article appears with the kind permission of the author.

On the Johannesburg Art Gallery
Kendell Geers

The debate concerning the state of the Johannesburg Art Gallery recently took an unexpected turn as two members of the public wrote letters to the editor of The Star.
Taking an overseas visitor around the museum, Calvin A Paul was shocked by the state of disrepair the museum had fallen into, compounded by the lack of professionalism in the attitude of attendant members of staff. (8 July 1997)

In response the architect Francois H Pienaar said that "the present sad circumstances could only be a reflection of the present political attitudes within the Gauteng Government" and called for the appointment of a "dynamic and committed director" to "infuse a new spirit within the staff." (14 July 1997)

Christopher Till's resignation from the Johannesburg Art Gallery some years ago marked the beginning of the end. In less than ten years the attendance figures have dropped from 125 000 in 1988 to a mere 50 000 today, the bulk of which comprises school children.

Even the structure of the museum is collapsing and falling into a state of decay that may already be too late to repair. In the last year seven members of the professional staff have left for comparable positions elsewhere, an action that should have alerted the relevant authorities to the fact that something was very wrong.

Neither the city council, nor the management of the Johannesburg Art Gallery seem perturbed by the current crisis, instead blaming the crime and grime of Joubert Park for everything. Many former members of staff on the other hand have different stories to tell, if only they could find someone to listen to them.

The crime has certainly contributed to the demise of the museum, but it can only be blamed for so much. It certainly did not deter 20 000 people from attending a rave at Park Station across the road on 28 June, each paying between R60 and R90 to be there. It also does not explain why, when Joubert Park is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, the museum has been unable to attract any of the local residents inside.

Perhaps the residents realised they were not welcome when the museum had all the public telephones removed or when the front entrance bordering on the park itself was closed in favour of the service entrance, an act which implicitly privileged visitors travelling by car from other (more affluent) areas.

As a solution to swell attendance figures the museum is now attempting to attract busloads of foreign tourists rather than dealing with the problems they have in their own back yard.

Given the crime statistics in the area the museum lost an incredible opportunity, for instance, to welcome visitors into a physical and psychological safety zone that provided an escape from the harsh realities outside.

It is time that the Johannesburg Art Gallery moved away from colonial notions of what an art museum is allowed to be and begin interacting with the communities it serves. The fully functioning coffee-shop upstairs has for instance been closed down instead of being transformed into a jazz bar or internet cafe that provides the necessary distractions and education to dissuade local youths from a life of crime.

In terms of art itself, it has been a very long time since the museum presented an exhibition that was either interesting or relevant enough to actually attract visitors from any suburb.

The fault does not lie with senior curator Rochelle Keene, for she is not the director, nor even qualified for such a post given that she has never studied art and according to former members of staff does not have the leadership and interpersonal skills required for such a position.
Following Till's departure the post of director has remained frozen to this day, and therein lies the real problem.

The situation will only change if concerned Johannesburg citizens, interested in seeing the Johannesburg Art Gallery survive, make their voices known by writing more letters to newspapers demanding that the post of director be publicly advertised and filled by someone qualified to now save the museum.

In the spirit of the current urban renewal projects a public commission of enquiry may also help us to better understand why seven professional members of staff left the museum and why people have stopped visiting the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

This may be our last opportunity to save one of the country's most prestigious art museums.