On 16 May 2018, the director of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Mark Coetzee, was allegedly presented with a piece of evidence at a meeting of the Zeitz MOCAA Board of Trustees. It supposedly confirmed that he was involved in serious personal abuse of his young curatorial assistants. That afternoon the trustees sent out a message saying they had started an investigation into his professional conduct. Coetzee resigned.
Since then a veil of silence has descended over the trustees and the museum. It has been confirmed that the young curators, who suffered at the hands of Coetzee’s abuses, have been gagged. Whether they were verbally told not to speak out by the trustees or were forced to sign non-disclosure agreements, the trustees are not prepared to confirm. When contacted these assistants have kowtowed to the will of their employers and have duly not spoken out. In this day and age this is deeply concerning. They need to be able to speak their truths.
But there is further institutional bad practice at work at Zeitz MOCAA. Firstly, a look at MOCAA’s mission statement reveals something important. It states: ‘Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) collects, preserves, researches, and exhibits twenty-first century art from Africa and its Diaspora’. Here the word ‘researches’ should be questioned.
Let us take the Tate Modern as a kind of gold standard. At the moment the Tate has two researched solo exhibitions currently showing; MOCAA claims to have three. At the Tate there are Joan Jonas and Pablo Picasso; at MOCAA, Ruby Swinney, Banele Khoza and Penny Siopis. You may ask, who are Joan Jonas, Ruby Swinney and Banele Khoza? A cursory search reveals that Joan Jonas was born 1936 and that she is ‘a pioneer of performance and video who has pushed the boundaries of art for the last five decades’. The Tate’s website reveals that the exhibition has been researched in collaboration with several other museums.
On the other hand, Swinney was born in 1992. She graduated from UCT in 2015. She has had one exhibition at Whatiftheworld. She has shown at Mullers, the opticians, been on some ‘graduate shows’ and exhibited at local art fairs. She sits very comfortably in the middle of a group of young white female painters who fill the commercial galleries of Cape Town.
Here I should state that there is nothing necessarily wrong with her painting. But while the Tate’s researched assertion is that Joan Jonas influenced two genres of art practice, nowhere is it competently explained by MOCAA why Swinney’s painting should be held in such high regard. MOCAA must cogently explain why Swinney’s work should be considered as worthy of being researched and preserved as an embodiment of African contemporary art.
Sadly some of this is true too of Banele Khoza’s exhibition. The simple truth is, that almost all of it was exhibited down the road at the Smith Gallery only a month before being placed on exhibition at MOCAA. If the Tate did something like this, there would be, quite rightly, a public outcry. ‘Lazy’, ‘bad practice’, ‘unresearched’ and ‘suspicious’ might be only a few of the words of opprobrium directed at them. So, the overarching question is why should South African (or African) museum research, curatorial and ethical standards be so low?
The next question that follows is, how does the acquisitions policy work at MOCAA? When asked by the critic Melvyn Minnaar, what MOCAA’s acquisitions policies were, Coetzee answered: ‘Any work acquired has to fulfil the mission of the museum and follow the code of ethics defined by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD).’ If one looks up the AAMD ‘Professional Practice in Art Museums’ handbook one discovers that member museums (which MOCAA is not) ‘must have clear, written collections management policies, including collection goals and acquisition and deaccession principles, procedures, and processes.’ Zeitz do not have this published on their website and when asked for it by email there has been no response. The AAMD’s handbook further states: ‘the director and the curatorial staff are responsible for identifying possible acquisitions.’
Coetzee admitted that this was similar to MOCAA’s policy, stating to Minnaar, in the same interview, that ‘I have one vote out of 14 [of the curators]. No one has a veto right and a majority has to be attained for an acquisition to take place.’ Again, when Zeitz were asked to confirm whether any acquisitions meetings of this nature had taken place, nothing was forthcoming. Here one should bear in mind that it was Coetzee’s claim that 13 assistant curators, on a one year contract, being paid R7200 a month, who had only recently graduated, had the same amount of power in the acquisitions committee as the director. Not only does one suspect that this is not true, but if they did then there is something fundamentally peculiar about MOCAA’s structure and policies.
I said above that MOCAA was not a member of the AAMD. And quite frankly, in its current state, it would seemingly not be admitted. Most recently the AAMD imposed sanctions on two of its members, the Berkshire Museum and the La Salle University Art Museum, for ‘violating one of the core principles of art museums.’ This states that money made from sales of the collection can only be used to purchase more work for the collection and not used for profit or other purposes. According to the AADM they were caught using money taken from the sales of works in their collections to ‘support operating budgets or expansion initiatives.’ Just quite how Zeitz plan on functioning in this regard is entirely mystifying, their funding model is again something that they will not reveal when asked.
They certainly have not made clear what MOCAA can sell out of the collection. Considering Coetzee has had a habit of buying whole exhibitions (like Swinney’s, Khoza’s and many others) one suspects that at some point he planned on flipping works in order to bring in money. Of course, there might not be anything fundamentally wrong with this policy. That is, so long as they keep within the international standard as set up by the AAMD. MOCAA have seemingly taken museum ‘rules’ into their own hands.
Another disturbing element to the Swinney story surrounds the amount of her work MOCAA has bought. For a young museum, which has large historical and curatorial gaps in its collection, the pursuance of one young unproven artist’s entire body of work is suspicious and almost certainly bad practice. As stated in her bio on the MOCAA website, her work has been collected bythe M&C Saatchi Abel Collection, which funds MOCAA. M&C Saatchi and Abel in fact did the museum’s branding. A danger of MOCAA was always that it would affect the prices of artists’ work it bought and exhibited. And with this came the concern that those who knew what Mark Coetzee was going to buy might engage in a form of art world ‘front running’. Clarity around the museum’s acquisition policy and how and when information of acquisitions is distributed would allay these sorts of suspicions.
With the resignation of Coetzee I can now repeat the call I made to Zeitz in 2015: things can be corrected. But this correction will seemingly not come without pressure from the public. What the public should demand of Zeitz MOCAA is:
- that Zeitz MOCAA conforms to the international standards of museums as set out by the AAMD.
- that they begin to show accountability and openness.
- that they have a more measured and deliberative approach to buying artists’ work.
- that they allow their staff to speak their truths.
This article mistakenly said that the Matthias Hartman Collection funds MOCAA. The piece has been edited to correct this error.