Arts journalist Matthew Blackman was among the first sceptics of Zeitz MOCAA, a position he has maintained through to last week’s resignation of the African contemporary art museum’s head curator, Mark Coetzee, under a cloud of improper behaviour. In this interview, he shares his misgivings about the museum’s operations and the parallels with South African society.
Has Mark Coetzee been living under a protective cloud? People we have spoken to say the revelations about his behaviour have been a long time coming.
Largely speaking, that’s true: there has been this weird sense of protection. The museum, as far as I can see, has protected him in the past. I’m sure they must have known, because I lived outside the country from 2015 until recently and I heard the rumours about abuse of power. As far as the art world is concerned, I think some protected him because they were friendly with him and others were afraid of his power. He manipulated people.
One of the things you raise is that the museum’s board was made up of mostly art collectors. How real was the danger of unethical buying practices?
There is a real danger there. Many years ago, I was asked to be an adviser for an art fund that was looking to make money from buying art. They were also going to promote the arts and some laudatory kinds of things. I sat with them and their approach was that they were going to look at what Mark was doing to make money, and follow that practice. They would look at what he was going to buy. This was the Scheryn Fund. Then they became a sponsor of Zeitz and I immediately said there is the possibility of immoral action going on, kind of insider trading and front-running. I phoned the fund immediately because my name was associated with them, and I said I wanted to have nothing to do with them because it seemed dodgy. They said I was overreacting and this wasn’t the case. I asked Mark twice what their attitude was about these kinds of things happening, and they just completely ignored me. I don’t know if it’s happening but there’s a danger that it could happen — and they need to respond to that, but they haven’t.
What about Zeitz MOCAA’s practices contradicted its positioning as a museum?
For me, a museum is a place of academic deliberation among a group of people who are qualified to be in the positions they are in, and they have a research background and there is some form of the democratic processes that happen in a museum. Curators talk about their practices, who they are interested in, why they think an artist is important. What should be the next exhibition; why it should be the next exhibition. It is part of the academic framework, but at Zeitz it was only the head curator and then there were all these weird people called curators at large and adjunct curators — but they had nothing to do with the museum and its practices. They were just names on a piece of paper. And then there was this group of recent graduates who were on one-year contracts and were getting paid about R92 000 a year. The processes that would go on under that kind of a structure … that’s not a museum. Museums do not have one head who decides everything.
What about someone like Elana Brundyn [the museum’s former director of institutional advancement and external affairs]? Did she not wield any influence in the institution?
Elana brundyn, for all her good qualities, she is not an arts historian and she is not a curator. She ran a gallery which was funded by herself and her rich friends. Im suspicious of some of what has gone on [under her watch].
You’ve said that the museum’s buying power has created, in a sense, another scramble for Africa. How does one gauge the severity of the museum’s impact on the art practice, where artists are creating work to suit its buying agenda?
When I left in 2015, all the gallerists were definitely looking at what Mark wanted. I’m not sure what has happened since then. Some settled on the fact that: “Well, Mark is not going to collect artists from my gallery and therefore I will just do my own thing. I have different collectors and I can survive without it.” Others, I guess, were less affected by him because they figured he wouldn’t be around for the long-term future because there were lots of rumours roundabout.
What are your motivations in speaking out so stridently and shining a light on these issues?
I have been deeply frustrated in the art world, by its lack of accountability and the corrupt and dodgy practices that were going on. Nobody seemed particularly worried about it and when I did speak up about it, people would tell me that my career is on the line. I felt if nobody was going to say anything about it, then I would.
For you, which of these allegedly corrupt practices were the most damning?
I was surprised to find that the Brett Kebble Art Awards had gone down so easily. Kebble did not have a particularly good reputation and yet artists were willing to take large amounts of prize money. Then there was the scandal around the 2011 Venice Biennale, which I investigated and there was R4‑million missing out of that and nobody seemed to blink an eye. And then there was this issue surrounding the artist Zwelethu Mthethwa and he is now in Pollsmoor Prison because he killed a woman. There was a lot of strange activity around that, which I was unhappy about. Zeitz troubled me as well. Then the A4 [Arts Foundation], with [artist and collector] Wendy Fisher and her money coming out of Israeli government contracts. Again, there is something worrying about that and there are questions to be answered. People soldier on and ignore it.
What is your take on how the art world is regulated and how it relates to society?
For me it’s an exact mirror of the issues we have gone through with KPMG, McKinsey and all of these things. There is a shocking lack of accountability and it comes from the fact that people are making a lot of money.
Is the problem of a legislative nature?
Why can’t there just be open processes? Why is there this secrecy and shutdown and asking people to sign nondisclosure forms? Why does an art museum seem to fail on accountability? What is it hiding? Something that claims to be for the public good seems to me very strange. When a public institution will not respond to questions, something very strange is happening.
Had this happened in another country, would criminal proceedings have been brought against Mark Coetzee?
No one quite knows the severity of the allegations against Mark, but they were significant enough for him to be suspended with immediate effect and an investigation and inquiry to be launched into them.
Do you know anything about the links between the Guggenheim Museum and Zeitz MOCAA? People have been making connections.
I don’t know too much about that but Wendy Fisher is on the board of the Guggenheim and … I don’t know too much about that.
Zeitz MOCAA’s response to detailed questions was simply to say that Mark Coetzee was on Wednesday 16 May suspended from his duties as Executive Director and Chief Curator at Zeitz MOCAA.
An inquiry into Mr Coetzee’s professional conduct has been initiated by the Trustees