Archive: Issue No. 63, November 2002

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Kendell Geers responds to Maishe Maponya, November 5

In an on-going public debate surrounding theft and vandalism of works held in a collection at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, artist Kendell Geers responds to the City of Johannesburg's Maishe Maponya's recent open letter. Mr Maponya is Director: Arts, Culture and Heritage Services in the Johannesburg city government.

Dear Mr. Maishe Maponya,

Your response to my Open Letter is most welcome and I am very happy that I have managed to open a public debate on the issue of the Safety and Security of the Johannesburg Art Gallery Collection. To the end of continuing this debate in the hope that a solution may be found that ultimately protects and preserves the collection I have decided to respond to your letter and hope that my response will in turn get more members of the public involved.

You have implied that it is unfortunate that my letter was directed as one individual, but then I ask you who else better to accept responsibility than the Director of the museum? My letter was not written as a personal attack against any individual but a desperate plea that somebody accept responsibility for what is going on in the Johannesburg Art Gallery. It is clear to me that for as long as the responsibility for the collection continues to fall between your desks and for as long as the museum considers itself a victim rather than guilty of carelessness the collection will continue to be raided.

I would add that in addition to a lack of resources the museum also suffers from an even greater shortage of vision and expertise. The policies of the museum are as old and as seeped in colonialism as the building by Edward Luytens, and I believe that they are unworkable in the context of South Africa today. There are for instance works of art in storage that are extremely valuable but whose condition prevents them from being publicly exhibited and the only reason why they are not being sold is the old English colonial system that prevents de-acquisition of the collection. By selling a few of these old masters the museum would raise sufficient money to solve a great many of its security problems and may even have enough money to relocate to a more hospitable environment. I understand that the issue of de-acquisition is as emotional as it is complex but it could be a temporary solution that prevents more serious long-term losses. If the museum is so strapped for resources that you cannot prevent members of the public carrying works of art out through a single entrance I am certain that the works themselves are not being kept in the best conditions either.

I acknowledge the value that collection has to the public and why its important to keep the doors open but its also clear that the situation is not improving and whilst we are debating who should accept responsibility and for as long as the museum conceives of itself as a victim the collection is in danger. Are two warning signs not enough?

I believe that the ultimately it is your responsibility as Director of Art, Culture and Heritage Services for the city of Johannesburg to ensure that the most appropriate person be found to take charge of the museum and accept responsibility as a DIRECTOR of a such a prestigious national museum. We all know that we cannot expect support or even funding for the arts and culture in South Africa from the government for they have their hands tied with other more pressing issues right now like the AIDS epidemic. On the other hand the director of a museum should be responsible for fundraising in the same way that they are in any other museum anywhere else in the world. The role of museum director in the twenty first century has become more than anything else fundraising and here again I ask that the current director accept responsibility for the lack of resources. At the end of Apartheid, South Africa changed and so did the way art is supported. Thus in order to make the process more simple people in positions of power, such as yourself, should find ways of lobbying government to create corporate tax incentives or other ways to encourage corporations to support the arts.

The Johannesburg Art Gallery is a victim of not recognising that Apartheid is over and that the ways in which art was supported then have changed as has the audience. Unfortunately the directors of many of our museums have not changed and now we are witnessing the dissolution of a system that translates into the decimation and decay of our cultural heritage. What is needed are not more victims shifting the blame and refusing to accept responsibility but world-class leaders to do for art and culture what Mandela did for politics.

Kendell Geers