The Wits Art Museum collection: From garage to gallery

‘Before, the space seemed to hold its breath,” said curator Julia Charlton, ­looking down at the core gallery of the new Wits Art Museum on the corner of Jorrissen and Bertha streets in Braamfontein. Now filled with what she describes as some of the “stars” of the collection, the space features an eclectic mix of contemporary works with traditional African artefacts reflecting the diversity of the 9 000-piece collection.

The space is a mammoth 5 000m2 and runs seamlessly through three adjoining buildings, from ­University Corner through to the Lawson ­Building. A major architectural feat in itself, one of the first hurdles, however, was simply to get the university to agree to allocate the space.

In a climate in which the arts are so often overlooked in favour of the sciences and space is a valuable commodity — especially in inner-city Jo’burg, as anyone trying to park at Wits can attest — the museum illustrates the university’s commitment to expanding its cultural capital.

Fundraising for the project, which cost about R40-million to build, took place over 10 years, but became a reality at the end of 2005 when the university as well as ­private donors began committing space and funds. Interestingly, as Charlton told me on my last visit, the acquisitions budget for the Wits collection was cut as early as 1992, and only reinstated after 2005, leading to the ­contemporary collection being sustained during these years almost entirely by donors.

One of the significant donors was Linda Givon, whose generosity ensured that many of South Africa’s top artists are represented in the collection. Another was ­Robert Hodgins — the museum boasts Hodgins’s entire print archive. In the course of his career, Hodgins donated one of every editioned print he made, totalling about 300 works, making it a gem in the collection.

In a nod to its history, the core exhibition space will still carry the name Gertrude Posel Gallery. The original Gertrude Posel Gallery, located in Senate House, was started in 1972 with funds “given with a warm hand” by Posel.

The footprint of the past in the new

One of the major challenges presented to the architects, Nina Cohen and Fiona Garson, was to decide what went and what remained.

“It was really about recognising the footprint of the past in the new,” they said. Garson and Cohen won the competition to design the museum in 2005 and faced the daunting task of literally having to halve their intended budget in what they described as “value engineering”. This process allowed them to “distil and discipline” their vision so as not to lose their focus.

Using the first principle of renovation, they said: “The sustainable way to build is to reuse space.”

This can be seen in the way they have adapted the existing structure of the former Shell garage on University Corner. Now the Forecourt Gallery, the rounded arches create an almost seamless flow on to the street in a move that aims to incorporate the city into the museum. This is emphasised by the enormous panes of glass, which they said were some of the most expensive materials in the project, because of the demands of ultraviolet light and climate control.

The outside brick façade was inspired by a basket-weave motif, which achieves a particularly modern “plastic feel” combined with a distinctly African aesthetic. 

Inside the core gallery, the floors are also the original terrazzo, giving a distinctly white-cube incandescence to the space.

Towering above this central exhibition venue is the heart of the collection, contained by three enormous sloping concrete slabs strangely reminiscent of the curvilinear Wits Art Museum logo. Explaining this shape, Garson said: “We wanted gently suspended elements rather than a whole chunk of concrete — but not too frilly — it had to be utilitarian.”     

The design of the crypt-like basement gallery in the Lawson Building also presented its own set of challenges. Because they were renovating underground, extensive waterproofing had to be done to existing walls, a preservation ­concern for many galleries and museums. “It was a shame to lose the existing texture, but it had to be done,” said Garson.

Intimate viewing experience

In another nod to the past, even the ramp of the former Volvo dealership, owned by Wilfred Lawson, has been reworked, gliding gently from the core gallery to the second-floor mezzanine level.

As wall space is the primary ­concern in the design of any museum, every bit had to be utilised, giving the chance for an intimate viewing experience. A troubling area for the curators was the region now known as the Stair Gallery, which leads up from the basement behind the Core Gallery. This problem seems to have been solved by content.

Visitors taking the time to stop will be delighted by a series of small black-and-white David Goldblatt photographs, followed by a series of masterful drawings by Gerard Sekoto done during his stay at St Anne’s Asylum near Paris in the 1940s. This series, Charlton told me, was repatriated and bought by the Sowetan newspaper, which donated it to Wits in an ­education trust.     

Many of the works on display have these kinds of intimate ­stories attached to them. As Wits co-owns the Standard Bank African Art Collection, the diversity of what is on display is staggering. Charlton showed me a Luba Mboko ­figure in one of the cabinets near the entrance. These carved, bowl-­bearing figures come from the region that is now the Democratic Republic of Congo and are used for divination purposes.

The story of this particular example attests to the colonial history of Africa. Attached to this figure is the story of a missionary, Reverend WFP Burton, who documented the material culture and lives of the Luba people during the 1920s and 1930s. However, in that jaded turn of colonial history, part of Burton’s purview, while spreading the word of God, was to confiscate objects of ­idolatry. Not being able to bring himself to destroy them, he donated them to the social anthropology department at Wits, which sent him unexposed film in exchange.

This underpins one of the functions of the museum, which will also house the Centre for the Creative Arts of Africa, a research institute chaired by Wits professor Anitra Nettleton. 

With the fraught position of public-art institutions in the country, the Wits Art Museum is sure to contribute greatly to the cultural landscape of the Johannesburg art world as well as reposition our understanding of art from the continent. 

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