Odds on - creating and maintaining a national art collection in South Africa



The mainstay of any museum is its permanent collection. The story of the initiators and major benefactors of the South African National Gallery (SANG) is a significant one which cannot be told here, but which all the same has to be mentioned and acknowledged. The first efforts towards the formation of an art gallery in Cape Town were made in 1871 by the South African Fine Arts Association, and were given further impetus by the Thomas Butterworth Bayley Bequest of forty-five paintings the following year. In 1895, when the South African Art Gallery Act was promulgated, there were well over a hundred works in the collection. After years of neglect and indecision on the part of the authorities, the present building was opened in November 1930. By 1932 the Gallery had been incorporated as \'The South African National Gallery\', a state-funded institution governed by a Board of Trustees. The richness of the foreign collections is almost entirely due to the munificence of the early patrons of the Gallery. In the 20th century, Alfred Aaron de Pass, Lady Michaelis, Sir Edmund and Lady Davis,Sir Abe Bailey and Henry van den Bergh followed Bayley\'s example.


There was no regular purchase grant during the 1930s and 1940s and no full-time director, this task being carried out in an honorary capacity by the directors of the Michaelis School of Fine Art. In the late 1940s EdwardRoworth, with the consent of the Board, embarked upon a selling spree of works from the permanent collection. The Government appointed a commission of enquiry in 1948 and as a result of this regrettable experience, SANG has a policy that no works of art may be alienated or deaccessioned. The collection is part of the national treasure and we are temporary custodians of a cultural and educational resource of great value, which requires conserving and safeguarding in perpetuity.


The 1980 acquisitions policy stated that art from the European founder countries, Africa and South Africa be purchased, but it was becoming difficult to make significant additions to the modern Western or the older European collections. Since the mid-1980s the financial situation of the national art museum has steadily worsened. Inadequate Government subsidies, unsympathetic tax laws, the low value of the South African currency and the high prices of art works on the international market combined to put the SANG in an unenviable position.


At this time art characterised by extraordinary vitality and power began to emerge in the country and this, together with the financial realities, brought about a decided shift in the acquisitions policy in 1990 - from buying internationally and focusing on established South African artists to an open-ended and pluralistic approach. This meant, for example, that work originating in rural and other \'peripheral\' contexts began to be acquired alongside art that is influenced by the Western \'mainstream\'. Increasingly diversified cultural production stimulated the evolution of a policy of inclusion rather than exclusion. We have been challenged about what is suitable and appropriate for the collection of a national art museum.


Issues about \'art\' and \'craft\' and \'high\' and low\' are raised as we continue to erode traditional boundaries and eliminate categories that have invariably been imposed from outside our own borders and experience. These only serve to hinder the potential for interchange and the creation of our own theories and terminology.


Purchasing for a national collection, we are obliged to exercise the best judgement we can, for if we make mistakes, we have to live with them and so do the people of South Africa. So we are careful, responsible and cautious in the spending of public money, while at the same time being astute and adventurous enough to recognise and acknowledge new talent and trends. The national art museum has to lead and anticipate, rather than follow.


Another major task since 1990 has been to establish a collection that acknowledges and celebrates the visual culture of southern Africa, and addresses the repatriation of art works that were taken out of the country, principally during the 19th and 20th centuries. Acquisition and exhibition policies enable us to redress the imbalances created by our history and by Eurocentric attitudes and approaches, to participate in the writing and rewriting of South African history and