Archive: Issue No. 132, August 2008

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Interview with Liza Essers
by Cara Snyman

Since purchasing the Goodman Gallery at the end of May, Liza Essers has had her plate full. ArtThrob at last caught up with her to get some details on how the deal came about and her plans for the future.

Cara Snyman: Why did you buy the Goodman?

Liza Essers: I was thinking of starting my own gallery. But the Goodman has been the custodian of cultural development, in particular the visual arts in South Africa for the last 43 years - it would have been an absolute shame to let that legacy end, for Linda's work to discontinue. She has single-handedly put contemporary art from South Africa on the international map, and during the apartheid years managed to be a voice out there in the world, through the visual arts, telling what was really going on in this country.

It is also the only gallery that has been recognised internationally for all these years, and it felt to me it was the right thing that the gallery would continue, that we'll continue building with what has already been established. It is an amazing platform for me to take it to the next level.

CS: So to clarify, this is not a financial arrangement for you?

LE: Oh, God no! The most exciting thing about being in this space is that it is also about my creative expression. So no: 100% committed, 12 hours a day. This is my life and I am very excited. I feel like the luckiest girl in the world - to work with the artists that are in the stable, to work with the team of people that are here, is just extraordinary. I really feel very lucky, very blessed.

CS: Will Liza Nicole Fine Art and Films and your role as dealer still continue?

LE: No. Everything is now in the Goodman stable; it does not make sense to divide my energy or time.

CS: And film?

LE: I am still involved in film projects. I started this seven part documentary series on South African artists. The conversation with Marlene Dumas and William Kentridge is currently in post production and will be released soon. I do still have an interest in the film business, thought I will not be involved on a day-to-day basis.

The way I see art is very much interdisciplinary. But I also think that in South Africa, many collectors still need to get their heads around photography or film as art. I hope I can change that, because film is a very interesting medium and important in terms of contemporary art practice.

CS: From the nuts and bolt side, how did the deal come about? How did you even know it was possible to purchase the Goodman?

LE: I actually approached Linda, two or three years ago and she immediately shooed me out the door - told me that the gallery is not for sale. And then we worked together on a couple of projects and I took an exhibition to London, so we got to know each other. She saw what my experience was, what my skills were, how I worked.

She had initiated conversations with other people to buy the gallery, and then last year October or November she just called me and said: 'Are you still interested in buying my gallery?' We started engaging in a process and I think for Linda the critical thing was to sell to someone who she felt could continue the gallery with the same vision. I feel very privileged that Linda has handpicked me to continue the Goodman.

People said to me, 'It took so long, it was up and down', but when I think about it, any deal of this nature takes six months - it's not like selling a house. We had to figure out what made the most sense.

CS: Will you comment on the transaction amount, rumoured to be R20 000 000?

LE: That is the million dollar question! No Comment.

CS: When was the gallery officially signed over?

LE: The exact date was May 26. On the same day we flew to London for 'Home Lands - Land Marks' at the Haunch of Venison with David Goldblatt and William Kentridge, meetings in London, then Art Fair Basel, Sydney Biennial with William, then back to Johannesburg to hang 'Masterworks', and then to Cape Town where we had a celebratory dinner, where the official handover took place.

CS: Tell me about the transition period.

LE: Linda will be consulting to me for a couple of hours per week going forward and will continue to be involved in offering advice, mentorship and guidance. She'll be attending Mikhael Subotzky's show at MoMA in September, which will also be an introduction into the American market specifically.

I have worked with most of the Goodman artists before on various independent projects over the last five years, and the staff too. Similarly most of my clients at Liza Nicole have been clients of the Goodman Gallery. That makes the transition easy and natural and I think that this is one of the things Linda really considered in the process.

CS: Are you worried that with the change of leadership that there might be some insecurity and artists might move to other galleries?

LE: Not at all. Everyone is on board.

CS: You've bought a fully functioning system - to what extent are you going to be making changes?

LE: The Goodman has been around for 43 years. If it has worked, and it has worked well for 43 years. I have no interest in reinventing the wheel, that does not make sense at all.

CS: What are your plans at this stage, the immediate future for Goodman?

LE: There are many exciting ideas and plans, but obviously we would not want to disclose all immediately. We have recently taken some more space upstairs so we can expand the current Johannesburg gallery, and we are looking to open a project space in the Johannesburg CBD next year.

The exhibition schedule is booked at least a year in advance and it gives me a good grace period.

I'd like to see one or two more international artists in the stable and will continue working closely with the Nirox foundation - inviting international artists to South Africa.

CS: And long term, will you be looking at an international space?

LE: Absolutely.

CS: The challenges are certainly very different from what they were in 1966 when Linda Givon started the Goodman Gallery. Going forward, what do you see as the issues in South Africa today?

LE: I think our biggest challenge as an arts community is to really work together in a couple of areas to grow the contemporary art industry. One such area is museum space - it just seems ridiculous that the SA National Gallery has an acquisition budget of a R140 000 a year [Actually it's R250 000 per annum - Ed.]. Museums are just not supported by government and corporates, and we need to really look at that as an industry, and as a community.

The second thing is to make contemporary art more accessible and to expand the audience within South Africa, otherwise the industry cannot expand. That is why public art projects are critical, and that was a lot of the work I was doing through Liza Nicole that I am still very committed to.