Concerning: The Rise of the Private Art Museum in Cape Town


In 2015 I wrote an open letter to Mark Coetzee, the now ex-director of the newly opened Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) at the Waterfront in Cape Town.  Coetzee, who resigned from his position on 16 May 2018 after trustees initiated an inquiry into his professional conduct, did not respond to the letter nor to subsequent attempts to clarify his and his institution’s position. The circumstances surrounding his resignation are yet to be fully uncovered, but at the root of it is perhaps the culture of unaccountability that he fermented.

To put my original concerns over Zeitz MOCAA and Coetzee simply (before I became aware of the extent of the abuses taking place there), they revolved around two issues. One was its murky buying practices, which I felt were distorting the market and damaging the art ecosystem. The second concerned the meaning of the words ‘Museum’ and ‘Art Africa’. If Zeitz MOCAA were going to call themselves a museum then, I felt, they should engage in what museums do. That is, they should have an open, objective, knowledgeable and diverse curatorial practice. Furthermore, they should not reduce the idea of ‘Art Africa’ to a single over-simplified idea.

My worry was that as a monolithic institution with the huge economic backing of Jochen Zeitz (the ex-CEO of Puma) it would become the dominant voice in the African art world. It has, after all, been hailed as ‘Africa’s Tate Modern’. Not only would this unduly inflate the prices of its own collection, but if it did not have an array of skilled and knowledgeable curators, then one white man, Mark Coetzee, could potentially become the dominant interpreter of what contemporary African art is.

This too might have questionable economic ramifications. That is, those who knew what Coetzee was going to buy before the rest of the market did, could, potentially, make sizeable profits. We should be cognizant of the fact that Zeitz MOCAA’s board is largely constitutive of, not curators or art historians, but wealthy collectors. What is more, most of their funders fit this bracket too. Despite repeatedly asking Coetzee, I never received an assurance from him that he was not passing on his buying habits to the coterie of collectors that surrounded him.

Thankfully though, not all of the above has come to pass. But this has very little to do with Zeitz MOCAA and its practices. Instead what in fact happened is that Zeitz MOCAA’s development seemed to set off a cold-war-style ‘arts race’. Since then, Cape Town has become the Dubai of art in Africa, with A4, Wendy Fisher’s multiple storey foundation, opening on Buitenkant Street and the Norval Foundation opening a sizeable institution in Tokai.

To a degree these developments have off set Zeitz MOCAA’s interpretative dominance. With A4 taking a more, what might be called, ‘avant-garde’ approach and Norval seemingly more focused on a ‘modernist’ view, there is a healthy diversity of voices at work. What is more Zeitz MOCAA have at least paid lip service to a more diverse approach to curatorship. They have appointed ‘curators at large’ like New York-based Roselee Goldberg and Zimbabwe based curator Raphael Chikukwa. However, quite what power these ‘at large’ curators can exhibit in the institution is, to put it politely, foggy at best. The day-to-day running of the museum is, in real terms, being performed by recent graduates. These people have had little power in the overall say in the curatorial programming and what artists Mark Coetzee deemed worthy of buying.

Coetzee, while he was still director, was recently contacted and asked to respond to questions concerning the above. He replied a week later, offering a personal tour of the museum but stating the questions ‘seem quite far removed from the reality of how the museum functions.’ A further set of clarificatory questions were then sent but no response was received.

What is concerning is that ZMOCAA’s policies have never been tested in a deliberative public forum. Indeed few critics (with some exceptions like Sean O’Toole) have tried to broach Coetzee publically on the topic. Just why this was so is hard to comprehend – other than that the museum has produced a strange culture of fear around it. Many, it would seem, felt they would suffer the consequences of criticising. Interestingly up until his resignation not a single artist, to my knowledge, had offered an on the record statement questioning Zeitz MOCAA and Coetzee’s practices. Just how this is possible in a country that has seen the devastating practices of big business and large institutions is, to me, unfathomable.

But Zeitz MOCCA’s (or Coetzee’s) resistance to open discourse and accountability is a growing story amongst these new private museums. Recently Wendy Fisher’s A4 was involved in its own debacle when it closed down, at the last minute, a public dialogue it was going to host. The debate was going to address issues surrounding Fisher’s family involvement in Israeli government contracts. To be fair, the director Josh Ginsburg felt, perhaps legitimately, that he was leading his organization into an elephant trap. Members of a cultural workers group called the CC’d Collective had, the day before, excoriated Fisher and her family in the M&G over their links to both Israeli Government contracts and its cultural agenda. Fisher, it should also be pointed out, is also a funder of the Zeitz MOCAA.

I, unlike the CC’d Collective, am simply not able to pronounce with any certainty whether Fisher is a proxy for Israeli ‘cultural’ propaganda. But the case against her, as stated by the CC’d Collective, does not look good and needs to be explained. What can at least be said about A4’s director, Josh Ginsburg, is that he has been open to questions and has not simply flouted criticism. It should also be noted that Fisher’s identity as the funder of A4 was never a secret. She is also the named sponsor of curatorial positions at Zeitz MOCAA, positions whose salary amounts to a meagre R92 700 per annum.

What is interesting about the CC’d Collective response to finding out just who Fisher is (and where some of her money comes from), is that it marks perhaps the first time artists have objected to having their hands dirtied by those they deem to be dodgy collectors. Since the Brett Kebble Art Awards and the corruption scandal surrounding the gallerist Monna Mokoena and the Venice Biennale in 2011, most artists and gallerist have largely ignored corrupt and questionable practices in their industry.

The rise of private art institutions in Cape Town has developed out of that peculiar combination of big money, big egos, and philanthropy. They are not widely described in the art world as ‘vanity projects’ for nothing. What we should recognise, with KPMG, McKinsey and the inquiry into Mark Coetzee’s professional conduct in mind, is that art institutions must fall under a certain amount of public scrutiny. And they must accept the fact that they are accountable to those they claim to be serving: the public in general and the culture industry in particular. Quite whether they are prepared to do this is still unclear. And I would appeal to the Zeitz’s trustees to lay out in the open the circumstances surrounding Coetzee’s suspension and subsequent resignation.

I think that we in South Africa, considering our history, should be deeply mistrustful of big money and the institutions it creates ­– no matter what image it tries to offer us. This is something that the culture industry (with a few exceptions) has not been. But the truth is, these private museums, need not, as a necessary condition, be harmful. Their impact is largely contingent on their practice. They can promote equity, they can be accountable, they can engage with the community, they can aid transformation. So far, however, they have seemingly got off to an indifferent start in this regard. But there is still time to pull them back from an all too familiar South African narrative. However, this will depend on whether they are willing to be accountable. But perhaps more importantly, it relies on whether artists continue to turn a blind eye to what is in front of them.

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