A month ago, Christopher Till visited the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) after a colleague told him to check how the gallery – said to house the continent’s largest art collection – had deteriorated.
Till was director of JAG from 1984 to 1992.
“I was devastated. I mean, it’s the same kind of feeling when you see the tragedy of magnificent buildings exploding in Ukraine.
Till said there was a guard at the gate and some of the galleries were closed, while those that were open had no lights on.
“I know the building, so I was able to take a look. And what I saw was an absolute travesty,” Till said, describing how the west pavilion, which was closed, had water running down the walls from the rain outside and was filled with old furniture. and dilapidated and empty shop windows.
“The whole ‘new’ underground gallery was sealed off and completely empty, with the trailing screen walls stacked on the ground and [they] were extensively damaged by water,” Till said.
The JAG is partly housed in the Lutyens buildingone of the oldest buildings of the South African arts establishment, built in 1915 in downtown Joburg, near Joubert Park.
Once “shiny”, the JAG is beginning to reflect the decadence of the surrounding area.
An empty parking lot welcomes visitors and at first glance everything seems in order in the gallery.
But visit on a rainy day and the disrepair becomes apparent.
Several leaks and cracks are visible in the Phillips Gallery. The lights don’t work, the windows are dirty and pigeon droppings are splattered on the outdoor sculptures.
“This is unfortunately where many of our public museums in South Africa are currently compromised, with the collections they contain at risk,” said a former curator of historical art collections at Iziko Museums in South Africa. Sud, who wishes to remain anonymous. .
“Leaking roofs, aging wiring and lighting systems, and other failures put our treasured collections at risk from moisture and fire damage.”
Till said the gallery experience was completely different when he was its director.
“When I arrived and took over, we made the Johannesburg Art Gallery the epicenter of the art world in Johannesburg by far. It was vibrant, it was alive.”
Till said then that they had 30,000 visitors a year.
What’s at stake
Works by European masters like Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Rembrandt, to name a few, are in the gallery – although you won’t see them. They are stored in the basement, with approximately 90% of the approximately 10,000 works in the gallery’s custody.
In terms of African works, Professor Emeritus of the Wits School of Art and the Wits Art Museum, Anitra Nettleton, a specialist in African art, said Daily Maverick“There is a large collection of works by South African artists from the late 19th and 20th centuries – although it was not until the very end of the 1980s that works by black artists were acquired .”
This traditional African art from Southern Africa includes the Jacques collection of headrests, the loan from the Brenthurst collection of South African art (of the Oppenheimer family) and the Horstmann collection.
Nettleton said it was difficult to assign a monetary value to the collection, although the Brenthurst collection alone could be worth several million rands and is irreplaceable in monetary terms.
“But the value of this collection for Johannesburg and Gauteng goes much further,” Nettleton said.
“It’s part of a colonial story and a story of the emergence of the colonial shadow into a different culture and – we hoped at some point – a more enlightened social and political matrix.
“I think because the institution is still seen by many as a colonial imposition, its value to our heritage is lost.”
With the current state of the gallery, dripping water, a lack of security and temperature control, this precious and culturally important art is in danger.
“Water in contact with a work of art is invariably destructive to it…Most materials used by artists, such as canvas, wood, and paper, are hygroscopic [absorb water from the atmosphere]said former curator of South Africa’s Iziko Museums.
Excess moisture can cause materials to expand. The paper discolors and wrinkles, the deformations of the wood and the canvases stand out from their background. Gold ornaments on old frames can also come off. There is a risk of mold forming on painted surfaces and on the backs of paintings, especially on works stored in the dark.
How did we come here?
JAG is owned by the City of Johannesburg. The city provides its budget, pays staff salaries, and is supposed to oversee the maintenance of the structure.
Steven Sack, who was director of arts, culture and heritage for the city of Johannesburg from 2004 to 2011, said Daily Maverick that the city runs a portfolio of museums (including the Hector Pieterson Museum, Museum Africa and the James Hall Museum of Transport), which are under-resourced.
“They all have a lot of vacancies and they all have aging infrastructure that is not properly maintained. They all have collections that are deteriorating and in danger,” Sack said. He wrote a report on this 10 years ago and says that since then very little has been done to address these issues.
“The reason is that arts and culture is such a small portfolio — it’s very difficult to make your voice heard within the municipal system. If you also think of the city, the city is mainly responsible for the functioning of the city, water, lights, roads.
The city’s museums were never a priority, but even with the budget he had, repairs at JAG ran into problems.
According to Till – who was the director at the time – and Sack, when a new wing was built in 1986 it had chronic leakage problems due to the way it was built.
“They ran water pipes in the concrete and they cracked,” Sack said, “and so it was a disaster the first few rains.”
Till said the leak is between the existing old building and the new building.
“It’s criminal that the galleries ended up in the state they are in,” said heritage architect Brian McKechnie. “If they [the City of Joburg] had just done the ongoing maintenance of the building and then had an appropriate maintenance budget, we wouldn’t be sitting where we are now.
Sack explained that, as with all city departments, the buildings are owned by the city but are managed by the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) and the Johannesburg Property Company – implementing the city’s branches.
The JDA has a list of contractors and, according to Sack, hired contractors with no experience in managing heritage buildings, who worked on the building from around 2018 to 2021.
“They did more damage – when they finished, the building leaked more than when they started,” Sack said.
Joburg city spokesman Nthatisi Modingoane said Daily Maverick“There are a number of things that have impacted our ability to keep the building in peak condition, including a long history of misdiagnosing infrastructure and design issues that have progressively worsened over time. over the years, and not for lack of trying.
“During most of the second half of 2021, a team of structural engineers commissioned by the Department of Community Development through the JDA carried out a thorough assessment of the entire building, not just the parts that came to the attention of the public.
“Based on the report, we are now able to properly diagnose issues and prioritize future interventions appropriately. We are investigating the viability and financial implications of a number of possible sites that could serve as temporary storage for collections at risk.
Where do we go from here?
A meeting was held recently with city officials and relevant stakeholders, and Heritage Architect McKechnie said Daily Maverick: “They have identified that the building is in a truly critical condition and that they need to undertake major work and protect the works they need to move them offsite and store them safely and create a satellite gallery.
However, McKechnie said, “What the city of Joburg says it does and what actually happens is not always the same thing.” DM