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Turning the gallery inside out: Joubert’er believe it

Last Saturday more than 2 000 people braved the inner city’s ghastly reputation to attend.

Going by promises made by advance publicity, the opening’s events weren’t disappointing. There was fire sculpture, live performance, videos and karaoke. The smell of cordite and disjointed soundtracks from videos being screened all over the gallery characterised the multitude of approaches addressing the underbelly of Johannesburg.

The press releases paint an enthusiastic picture covering every possible base from media to internal organisation, but has it overreached?

The Gallery is nearing its 75th year. Boasting beautiful architecture, it has always been a landmark of white culture, marketed as important. To the regular users of the park, its structural beauty, the value of its contents and the scholarship surrounding it is meaningless. Whatever intrinsic value it may have had was compromised by it being inaccessible, not user-friendly.

Over the years, initiatives have aimed to bring African art out of the anthropological cupboard and into art museums. Redressing imbalances has been a gallery buzzword. Everyone’s tried to make the right noises at some point — from giving gallery space to previously neglected traditions to small festivals.

But the space’s inviolability was reinforced by its security degenerating over the years. Visitor numbers dropped dramatically, leaving in its wake a defunct national monument. The gallery’s death became imminent: rumours spread about an anticipated brick-by-brick move to the ostensibly safer northern suburbs.

January 2000 saw the intervention of a group of young independent arts administrators who, in conjunction with the skeleton staff at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, conceived of the JPP, an initiative not all that different from Durban’s Red Eye or Cape Town’s Softserve, with a central aim to rejuvenate parts of Johannesburg’s CBD as well as contemporary art. They received sponsorship from players like Anglo American, the Arts and Culture Trust, the Royal Netherlands Embassy and Pro Helvetia, among others. “Not enough, though,” says Rochelle Keene, the gallery’s director. “Not enough local companies care about projects like this.”

But plans were ratified, and the fun stuff about art as accessible culture was brainstormed and sanctioned. Perhaps in the fullness of time, the JPP’s success will encourage those who didn’t sponsor it to reconsider, enabling rejuvenation of inner city culture to snowball.

Possibilities become feasible when the sacrosanctity of a time-hewn (white) institution is thrown to the wind by the powers that be. Keene has been gallery director for more than a decade. Working alongside the JPP team, she tossed aside gallery etiquette in the name of bringing in the crowds and de-alienating contemporary art for them.

The JPP embraces this idea. We can see a Kathryn Smith pixellated landscape in the frame of a Monet that is absent, because it’s travelling in an overseas show. We can buy work by freelance photographers from the Park in the gallery’s shop. The distinction between gallery and park blurs.

Which makes us ask what, indeed, art is. To some, it’s a university-taught discipline that can give otherwise unemployable people the edge at trendy dinner parties. It’s also about money and fashion statements. Cutting back to modernist values, it’s about withdrawing into an atelier and wanking with the necessary tools — sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Right? Hopefully not. The picture might fit loosely, but the nuances are too shallow: Rather, art is social identity. Because this place is so diverse, identity is central to it.

That’s what the JPP addresses. It’s not teaching art appreciation to the public. Of course you’ll see the paintings and sculptures in the gallery, but the JPP is about performance, video, photography: real live art.

Drawing the crowds is one thing, accommodating them, another. When parking bays or drinks are insufficiently available for an unprecedented crowd, things can turn ugly. And nobody’s happy when they’re not accommodated. If the project is artist-based, making sure their needs are actualised should be prioritised.

Which leaves questions regarding the absence of soundtrack in Elu’s Bird. But, then again, why weren’t there rehearsals to establish a smooth running of events? Why was it advertised on up-to-the-minute releases that Steven Cohen’s Chandelier would be performed, when it was pulled early in developments? Why wasn’t the potential fire hazard by way of visible wiring, dealt with behind the scenes? Why is the enthused-about website so undeveloped?

Bottom line, the JPP may well be grinding back into life, but the task ahead for its organisers is steep. Hopefully the glitches in its smooth running thus far will not compromise what lies ahead.

Until year end, many art events are planned at the Joubert Park gallery and environs, as well as walkabouts and workshops. Watch the press for details.

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Robyn Sassen
Robyn Sassen
A freelance arts writer since 1998, I fell in love with the theatre as a toddler, proved rubbish as a ballerina: my starring role was as Mrs Pussy in Noddy as a seven-year-old, and earned my stripes as an academic in Fine Arts and Art History, in subsequent years. I write for a range of online and print publications, including the Sunday Times, the Mail & Guardian and and was formerly the arts editor of the SA Jewish Report, a weekly newspaper with which I was associated for 16 years. This blog promises you new stories every week, be they reviews, profiles, news stories or features.

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