Seldom has a new museum arrived on the international art scene with more fanfare, more hope, and more excitement than the Zeitz MOCAA, which opened its doors in September 2017. At last, an architecturally dramatic museum with the location, the space and the resources to dedicate itself to the remarkable contemporary art of the entire continent of Africa and the diaspora!
The New York Times ran a feature. Almost every global art, architecture and travel publication covered the opening, and page upon page was devoted to heralding the soaring, glittering new Zeitz MOCAA as a must-see.
Until the inception of the Zeitz MOCAA, the contemporary work of the artists of Africa has not had a single home anywhere in the world. Museums like the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, actively collect contemporary art, but also collect and show more traditional historical African art objects. So the Zeitz MOCAA was a first, and the opening events brought museum directors, gallerists, collectors and journalists from all over for the opening events in Cape Town.
Of course, there were still a number of teething problems. There were extraordinary works on All Things Being Equal, the inaugural exhibition, but some individual artists’ presentations would have looked stronger if the number of works had been edited. And few would deny that the lack of an exhibition catalogue was a serious problem, one exacerbated by the absence of wall texts contextualising individual artist’s works.
However, early difficulties might be expected. The Zeitz MOCAA opened after a relatively short construction time for a museum, and it has all the potential to be a world class showcase for the exhibition of the best contemporary art of the African continent and beyond, and an institution which will bring to its doors other relevant exhibitions from overseas which up to now have passed the continent by.
The recent firing of Executive Director/Chief Curator Mark Coetzee provides a perfect moment for a re-assessment of the museum’s unbalanced internal structure. It is understood that the Zeitz MOCAA Advisory Board is working on this, but in the meantime, here are some suggestions.
Executive Director/Chief Curator
The posts of executive director and chief curator should be split. A director manages the complex business side of a museum, handles staff matters, and builds relationships with international art institutions and others. A curator proposes exhibitions, selects art and artists, considers the way the work is to be installed, prepares the conceptual framework, writes exhibition texts and catalogue entries for presentation to the public. Of course, the two individuals work closely together, liaising and planning exhibitions in tandem, but these supremely important posts cannot be compressed into one.
Since Coetzee’s departure, an interim Executive Director and Chief Curator has been announced. Both Executive Director and Chief Curator posts require heavyweight museum professionals with a track record of successful museum shows and governance, and both posts should be advertised world wide.
Which is not to say that the perfect candidates might not be right here on our doorstep.
To whom was the previous Executive Director/Chief Curator accountable?
Executive Directors usually report to an advisory board. To learn who sits on the Zeitz MOCAA board, here is an extract from a recent press release sent by the company who handles MOCAA’s media communications:
‘The Zeitz MOCAA board consists of David Green and Jochen Zeitz (Co-chairs), Isaac Julien and Wangechi Mutu (Artist Board Members), Suzanne Ackerman, Jody Allen, Jonathan Bloch, Kate Garwood, Pulane Kingston, Gasant Orrie, Albie Sachs, Anton Taljaard and Roger Ross Williams’.
Let’s break this down to see who is who.
David Green is the CEO of the V&A Waterfront, and acts on behalf of Growthpoint Properties Limited and the Government Employees Pension Find (GEPF), represented by the Public Investment Corporation Limited (PIC).
Zeitz MOCAA was established through a partnership between the V&A Waterfront and collector Jochen Zeitz.
Jochen Zeitz is the German collector who was the CEO of Puma sportswear. With Mark Coetzee acting as his curator, he amassed a collection of contemporary African art. The two then set about realizing a vision of finding a suitable venue in Africa for a museum to house and build on this collection, settling on the V&A Waterfront. Zeitz divides his time between London, the US and Kenya.
Isaac Julien and Wangechi Mutu are top international artists, Julien lives in London and Mutu lives in Nairobi.
Jody Allen is based in Seattle, and is a businesswoman and philanthropist.
Roger Ross Williams is an award winning African American film maker.
Suzanne Ackerman is Transformation Director and Head of Ackerman Pick ‘n Pay Foundation. She lives in CapeTown
Jonathan Bloch is Joint Head of Investec, a Cape Town investment company.
Pulane Kingston is a partner at legal firm Webber Wentzel
Gasant Orrie is Cape Managing Partner of legal firm Cliffe Dekker Hofneyr
Albie Sachs is a struggle veteran and a former judge on the Constitutional Court of South Africa. He lives in Cape Town.
Anton Taljaard is a property developer.
Kate Garwood is a movie producer.
So this is an impressive board, but although a number of the board members are also art collectors, and Albie Sachs was responsible for building the art collection of the Constitutional Court, it is notable that there is no one on the board with the working experience commensurate with a top level professional in a South African art museum. The inclusion of such a person could be immensely beneficial to the proper functioning of the institution.
Up to now, there have been no mid level curators operating on a daily basis within the museum itself, although there are adjunct curators who have and will continue to participate from other parts of the world. With its 80 galleries, it is clear that there is an enormous amount of serious curatorial work to do. Up until the resignation of Coetzee, the in-house curatorial staff consisted of the ED/CC at the top and around 14 young people hired as curatorial assistants as part of a curatorial training programme.
These assistants, a lively, committed and energetic group, have done all the leg work in the museum, some of the curating, the writing, even being called upon to sit in the galleries as custodians to make sure no one touches the artwork.
And for all their verve and goodwill, for many, this is their first museum post and they do not yet have the experience required of a seasoned curator.
Accountability and Transparency
As stated on its website, the Zeitz MOCAA is a public not for profit contemporary art museum. NPOs receive considerable tax benefits, but are bound by the Nonprofit Organisations Act of 1997. To quote from the Code of Good Practice issued by the State Department of Social Development (2001),
‘One of the objectives of the Nonprofit Organisations Act is to encourage and support NPOs in their role towards meeting the diverse needs of South Africa’s population, by inspiring them to maintain adequate standards of transparency and accountability.
‘It is in the best interests of the organisation, its governance and leadership to pay close attention to improving its standards of accountability and transparency, by having:
‘An organisation that is willing and open to public enquiry and questioning. Transparency is fostered by providing timely, accessible and accurate information on the organisation and its activities to donors and others. Its annual general meeting must be held with full, open and accurate disclosure of relevant information concerning goals, programmes, finances and governance.’
To retain its status as a NPO, the Zeitz must adhere to the above. So far, the museum has fallen far short of providing the kind of information listed in the above paragraph. Thus, the Annual General Meeting and the Annual General Report which will be issued at the AGM will be of great public interest. In the meantime, it is hoped that the trustees will keep the public informed about new staff developments and other improvements.
The ownership of the artworks in the museum collection falls into two categories. At present, the majority of the work is on loan from the Zeitz Collection, but in the past few years, purchases have been made for the Permanent Collection of the museum. Until now, these purchases, and the acceptance of donations, have been largely at the discretion of the ED/CC.
An acquisitions committee which includes experts in the field is an essential part of a museum operating with public money.
As mentioned earlier, one of the most disappointing lapses in the debut of the MOCAA was that there was no museum catalogue on hand for the grand opening. A small broadsheet announcing the events of the opening week does not count.
Architect Thomas Heatherwick, seeing this coming, scrambled to get London support for a publication of his own initiation which highlighted his architectural process, and featured contributions about some of the artists exhibiting in the opening show.
Ten months after the opening of All Things Being Equal there is still no catalogue. As part of accepted museum practice, a catalogue frames the curatorship, traces the links between the selected works, and discusses the work by the artists. It enlightens visitors at the time, and remains as a permanent record of the event. It is not too late to produce such a publication.
Advance Notice of Shows
Advance press releases about upcoming shows in the coming six to nine months should be available to the public. Museums do not customarily divulge their full advance programmes – but art lovers will often plan a trip to coincide with a museum exhibition they particularly want to see.
At present, the museum shop offers some excellent craft objects and art materials. The buying is outsourced. But there are almost no art books. After a viewing experience, visitors want more information not only about the lives and work of artists who have caught their interest, but also about artists new to them.
To finish on a high note. A few weeks ago, young curatorial assistants Precious Mahone and Michaela Limberis organised an event in the atrium, a discussion between art journalist Percy Mabunda and musicians Reza Khota, Brydon Bolton and Mandla Mlangeni about the links between New Orleans jazz and African music. This event arose out of the exhibition of Penny Siopis’ film, Welcome Visitors! about the visit of Louis Armstrong to Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and his meeting with the composer of Skokiaan, the song which became a world wide hit. The film was part of a programme of events organised by the assistants around a retrospective of Siopis’ six films of the past 20 years entitled This is a True Story.
On this particular evening, the discussion was lively, and was followed by a rousing jazz performance by the musicians. Late evening crowds gazed down into the atrium, and suddenly one felt the excitement of being there, in this astonishing space, with the hollowed silo tubes soaring up to the glass ceiling.
Bringing together as it did the crossover between the music of New Orleans and of Africa, and of jazz and film, and of found footage and documentary and how all of these influences can be assimilated and transformed into something radically new through artistic vision, the evening initiated a conversation which ended in rousing applause.
There have been previous events featuring an acapella choir, and discussions and performances around LGBTQI+ issues which have also been well attended. And in late June, Museum Night at the V&A Waterfront drew long queues of families waiting outside in the cold night air, keen to take advantage of free entrance to the Zeitz to see what was on offer. The museum was packed from early till late.
Museum Night was a great success in drawing interested crowds and everyone in the art community in South Africa and beyond hopes that it is a sign of things to come. Visual art in all its myriad forms, drawn from every country in Africa and across the world; performance, both inside the museum itself and spilling out into the city, music, discussion forums: at the Zeitz MOCAA, it all lies ahead.