Institutional art: A public affair

The Constitutional Court houses an admirable art collection. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

The Constitutional Court houses an admirable art collection. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

I have asked myself these questions on a number of occasions, and I find that the answers are in short supply. Perhaps it all comes down to the institutions themselves,  although one cannot say that this is a phenomena that is unique to South Africa, and there are countless reports of institutions in the more developed countries suffering just as much from dried up funding or the total lack thereof.

Public institutions (and here I include, somewhat reluctantly, corporates) play an important role in sustaining the works of artists, by guaranteeing the value of their works through budgeted acquisitions and conservation. Museums are the most obvious form of “public institution” but it is possible that they also take the form of bodies such as the Constitutional Court.

I recently took a walk-about through the Constitutional Court’s art collection in order to get a sense of the role art plays in communicating the court’s work and begin to try answer the above questions for myself.

The court’s art collection, which is run by the Constitutional Court Trust, has very humble beginnings.
From a meagre budget of R10 000, which was allocated to Justice Albie Sachs in the early days of the court, it has grown considerably to include a range of works from various artists – some prominent and others less so. The court has been fortunate enough to have works donated to it due mainly to the reputation that it has and the personal connections of Sachs. It includes an admirable collection of Dumile Feni's works, one of South Africa’s most prolific artists, who was a dear friend to Sachs during the years of apartheid.

Every piece in the court’s collection has something or other, to do with the ethos of the court’s mission, function and role. The gallery area is filled with treasures from Marlene Dumas, William Kentridge, Karel Nel, Willem Boshoff, Judith Mason and some rather oddly placed pieces by French master Marc Chagall, which were donated by his family. There is of course room for improvement as far as the use of space and collecting go.

For the former, it is a matter of providing a means through which visitors to the court can be easily directed to the artworks and given information about them and how they fit into rubric of the court. In this way these works can serve as alternative narratives about issues that highlight the work that goes on within the building of the court.

For the latter, it is a matter of making the necessary additions to the court’s collection that will reflect much of the relevant and contemporary issues that have come before it. What makes this a delicate subject however is that one would have to think of works of artists such as the Zanele Muholi and Nicholas Hlobos of this world as their subject matter have for the most part dealt with issues (the existence and reality of different sexual orientations amongst black women and men) that are pertinent to the court’s function and scope.

It is nevertheless, in this light that one ought to remember that Muholi is the same artist who caused former Minister of Arts and Culture Lulu Xingwana, to walk out of her exhibition deriding the immorality of her work. Therefore, given that the court is now effectively led by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, who has made it clear that his being a Christian is first and foremost, one can only imagine the reception that suggestions of acquiring the works of such artists will receive.   

The collection, it must be remembered, owes much of its existence to Sachs, and it is by and large, around his personality or unique perspective that it has come to be shaped. Sachs has said and written, particularly in his journal article contribution, Preparing Ourselves for Freedom: Culture and the ANC Constitutional Guidelines, something to the effect that art provides the subjective balance to the laws' often objective and rigid process and structure thus its importance within the greater scheme of the court’s function.

The future of the collection however, will require more than simply being associated with a personality. If it is to function as a separate but complimentary extension of the court it may need to take on its own personality. It can't be denied that the court, unlike many institutions that hold and promote art through their collections, has been fortunate. The symbolism that it carries and status that it holds, both locally and internationally, mean that it enjoys the kind of allure that they do not.

In clear contrast, institutions such as the Johannesburg Art Gallery and Pretoria Art Museum struggle to maintain the same kind of allure despite being specifically made for the collection and promotion of art. Budgetary constraints, a lousy funding system for the arts as we have in South Africa and the lack of similar public standing mean that these institutions are on a different playing field altogether.

But like many of these public institutions of art and art collections the court also has to confront the question of sustainability. As already alluded to, questions that pertain to the relevance of its collection, whether it is merely decorative in purpose or if it really supports the ideas that are represented by the court, are unavoidable as they ultimately have a bearing on the scope of its potential use and further existence.

I believe however that it is through innovative programmes such as education, the use of technology - social networks and mobile applications - that these institutions can further the importance of art in society, and their own significance. These sought of programmes have been beneficial for institutions in other countries like the Museum of Modern Art, Tate and the Brooklyn Art Museum allowing them to tap into an audience base that would’ve previously eluded them. 

The public’s sense of ownership and kinship to public institutions, be they of art or any other sphere, is arguably an important aspect which cannot be ignored. It is after all this very sentiment which will aid in the continued invested interest of their sustainability.

Mpho Moshe Matheolane

Mpho Moshe Matheolane

Mpho Moshe Matheolane is a Motswana from the little town of Mahikeng. He is a budding academic, researcher and writer with interests in art, history, semiotics and law. He sits on the Constitutional Court Artworks Committee – a clear case of serendipity – and is a firm believer in the power of an informed and active citizenry. Read more from Mpho Moshe Matheolane

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