Jo’burg museums are decaying, but will privatising them create more problems?

It is generally well known that South Africa’s museums are poorly resourced and inadequately managed. So when one hears that there is a private investor who proposes a takeover of Museum Africa, and that this proposal has begun to acquire some support from the cluster of officials managing investments for the City of Johannesburg, it is time to pay attention.

We all know that Museum Africa in Newtown requires urgent attention. It has multiple heritage collections, many of which were donated to the city by citizens of Johannesburg. It is a large building with serious problems such as rising damp, inadequate staff to care for the collections, and an architectural design that is not helpful for the display of exhibitions and the effective use of the space. It has, over a period of 20 years, become less and less capable of offering a programme of good-quality exhibitions.

Despite this, a visit will be stimulating for the first-time visitor.

Museum Africa has some very valuable collections that belong to the South African public, and most of this material is well documented but locked up in tidy storerooms.

Museum Africa has a priceless and unique photo archive. Such an asset is useful to anyone who wants to write a book about South Africa and include photographs and illustrations, but the museum no longer has sufficient staff to respond to and assist researchers. A small bit of good news is that budget has been allocated to upgrade the digital interface with the collections, which will benefit users of this resource.

What is to be done about the general decay in the museums sector in Johannesburg? Is the only option to enter into a partnership with the private sector? And if so, how is this to be achieved in the light of the legislative and compliance hurdles that must be negotiated? The city would have to go through myriad engagements with interested parties, not to mention its own internal compliance and regulation system.

Most people don’t know that there is a problem with the provision of museums and culture at local level. The Constitution indicates the functional areas of museums as being a provincial competence. Local tourism is allocated to local authorities.

I recall, some years back, the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government running an extensive process to properly assign the functions of arts and culture, libraries and museums to either or both local and provincial authorities. To my knowledge, no such process has been undertaken by the City of Johannesburg.

Gauteng provincial arts and culture structures, such as the Gauteng Heritage Council, are slow and unresponsive, leading to the destruction of heritage buildings. Even in the city itself, the museums and heritage section battles to be part of the system of local government. For example, it took an official five months to get permission to host a consultation with the public to discuss the problems faced by Museum Africa.

The Constitution says the province should delegate responsibility to the local authority in such matters and that it should have an integrated plan and co-operation between the different spheres of government. This does not happen.

If Museum Africa were to be “privatised”, would this be the beginning of a new wave of privatisation of public museums and, if so, what of the collections that were donated by families, individuals or trusts? Will these donors begin a process of reclaiming their donations? How will a new private company manage these assets and what guarantee is there that, in the future, such assets would not be commercialised to benefit private individuals?

When Johannesburg established the Johannesburg Art Gallery, there was, even then, 100 years ago, the expectation that this would be achieved through a public-private partnership.

This began with the signing of a deed of donation in 1913, as described to me by art historian Jillian Carman, with the city to be responsible for the “general purposes of an art gallery … for the behoof and public benefit of the inhabitants of the said town”.

The Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG), Carman says, has had a Friends of the JAG organisation allied to it since the 1970s. In recent times the extent of the problem created by the city’s incompetence in managing infrastructure and maintenance has become an enormous task — too great for the Friends to handle.

The gallery had to be closed to address the critical state of the building and the threat to its collections. But a new young team of curators, many of them women, has taken steps to arrest further decay and is preparing to reopen in May with an exhibition supported by the Portuguese government.

As we look at the option of private museums, we need to recognise that corporates in Johannesburg have spent the past three or more decades building their own private collections, galleries and museums and funding their own exhibition programmes.

Is there a new model waiting to be birthed? How will privatised museums work? How will they generate the revenue to remain accessible to the general public? When the new tenant of Museum Africa has finished commercialising this heritage space, will there be a new public museum? What guarantees are there that collections won’t be auctioned off?

When such partnerships are entered into, will the Municipal Finance Management Act and its stringent requirements relating to the privatising of public assets and the establishment of public-private partnerships be properly followed? Has there been any public consultation about this proposal to offer Museum Africa to a private developer?

The new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Mocaa) in Cape Town appears to be redefining how museums function without state funding, necessitating a different relationship to the marketplace.

Is its institutional model completely new, as museums compete in the tourism sector for paying audiences? Will Zeitz Mocaa resemble a new kind of commercial gallery rather than a not-for-profit museum?

It will certainly need to charge a lot more for the public to enter than the South African National Gallery does. It will need an enormous endowment, and a great deal of luck, if it is to manage without the resources of the public purse.

Do we have any other choice? Can local, provincial and national museums continue to go it alone? No matter how much the state might try to rationalise costs and no matter how willing the private sector may be to go it alone, the future of museums and galleries is at risk.

There are clearly many questions to be answered and much consultation to be done. In the meantime, what is to be done? Is the risk of continuing to operate Museum Africa so great that mothballing the institution is something to be considered? Can the new, young management team make a difference?

Or will the museum continue to limp along and await the potentially messy business of a public-private partnership that does not follow due process?

Steven Sack is the chief executive of the Origins Centre Association at the University of the Witwatersrand

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