Gallery springs to life at the Civic

It all began with a perceived need for an art advisory facility in Johannesburg. It was 2000. The Trinity Session, comprising Kathryn Smith, Stephen Hobbs and Marcus Neustetter, was six months old.

Smith was on the then-Civic Art Gallery’s advisory board, where things were administratively and conceptually crumbling for the awkward little art space in the corner of front-of-house. So Smith offered Hobbs, with his Market Theatre Gallery management experience, the challenge.

One thing led organically to another and, armed with new business acumen, Smith, Hobbs and Neustetter began quietly and strategically to shift the defining boundaries of Johannesburg’s Civic Theatre.

The Civic was pivotal for Johannesburg’s Cultural Arc project, aiming at rejuvenating the spaces from Newtown to Braamfontein to Hillbrow, with input from corporate and developmental heavies, from Sappi to the Johannesburg Development Agency.

Cracking the nod from CEO Bernard Jay, the Trinity Session was granted office space in the theatre’s disused admin suite in mid-2002, as the theatre itself was undergoing a structural and infrastructural shake-up by Jay.

They initially used a grungy-trendy corner of the parking garage as gallery space. In the interim, Jay began hustling potential stakeholders.

Humble beginnings matured to realise a gallery called The Premises, 150m2 and 4,5m high. It overlooks the Ameshoff Street piazza, offers secure underground parking and access to the Civic’s 1 000-plus daily visitors. Downstairs from the buzz of the Times Café, the gallery’s business hours coincide with those of the theatre.

The Premises is ripe to become good bedfellows with the machine of popular entertainment into which Jay has made the Civic Theatre.

Its inaugural show opened in early March. Billed Show Us What You’re Made Of, it represents six artists uniformly serious in focus, sensibility and thematics.

The spectacle is refreshing: from Trasi Henen’s wound-like red paintings of Kempton Park’s cemeteries, characterised by fantastical mourning icons in the suburban community, to Marco Cianfanelli’s immaculate ironic critiques of national emblems, the space is dominated by Alison Kearney’s installation Monument: Museum Piece, 2004 that forms part of her Portable Hawker’s Museum, as it is nuanced by photographic works by Jo Ractliffe and Terry Kurgan.

An edge of humour is patent in Frances Goodman’s aural self-portrait.

Collectively it is sophisticated and aesthetic: doing the necessary to enable the space to breach art-critical parameters while presenting work that’s eminently buyable.

Patrons had to choose between four art gigs opening in Gauteng on the same night but the newcomer pulled what Hobbs acknowledged “a substantial opening”.

Part One closes on March 27. Part Two, which opens on April 3, is less deterministic, more playful and entertaining, Hobbs says.

The Premises offers emerging artists an exhibition option away from the mainstream galleries and Johannesburg’s sometimes apologetic, sometimes not-so-kosher venues.

It offers patrons a heady look at those issues in visual culture worth seeing and marries fine art sensibilities with brass-tacks economics. Its challenge is to retain its own identity while fulfilling all these expectations.

The Premises has a three-year projection, coinciding with its lease: “To present a series of contemporary art, public, educational and developmental projects with the objective to develop and enhance audience experience of visual arts and related activities.”

Tough call? Maybe, but having established strategic partnerships with the Wits School of Arts, Johannesburg Development Agency and other city-based non-profit organisations, The Trinity Session seem to have what it takes.

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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 artslink.co.za 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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