Taking action: Christopher Till, head of the Apartheid Museum, is trying to raise funds for the Javett-University of Pretoria Art Centre to make it a leading institute for art in Africa.
Taking action: Christopher Till, head of the Apartheid Museum, is trying to raise funds for the Javett-University of Pretoria Art Centre to make it a leading institute for art in Africa.
Image: Sunday Times

An art gallery designed to become Africa’s world-class equivalent to the Prado in Madrid or New York’s Metropolitan is under construction at the University of Pretoria.

The Javett-UP Art Centre will focus on the art of Africa, with plans to stage events and hold exhibitions to blow away the image of fusty and neglected galleries. At its helm is Christopher Till, who hopes to make the gallery just as unmissable as the spectacularly popular Apartheid Museum, where he is the founding director.

It will open in 2018 in a partnership between the university, the Javett Foundation and the Art Centre Foundation, an independent trust.

Art galleries designed and funded by the private sector seem to be the way to go in a country in which the government pays art and culture little attention. 

In February, the Johannesburg Art Gallery was closed due to rain damage, after the building deteriorated under a lack of care and maintenance. The Museum of Africa is also a shambles, with vast empty spaces and disinterested staff.

Till despairs that his once thriving initiatives have degenerated into dilapidation.

"I was involved in the Johannesburg Art Gallery and I was the director of culture for the City of Joburg and responsible for Museum Africa. So I have a vested interest because they were my projects and I feel very strongly about what’s happening there," he says.

Till blames a failure in his DNA for his compulsive need to get involved in various projects. He has volunteered to serve on
a committee to revitalise Museum Africa and is talking to the Johannesburg Art Gallery to see if their collective knowledge can conjure good out of the crisis, despite severe underfunding.

The gallery has the most amazing collection, he says, but the lack of financial support is crippling state-run institutions.

"Without the support of the agency which is there to support major cultural facilities you are fighting against a tsunami, because you can’t move if you can’t pay the electricity properly, can’t get the lift repaired, don’t have any money to bring major exhibits and can’t run any education and publicity programmes," he says. 

A growing group of young collectors is becoming conscious of the fact that art is to be appreciated and supported and potentially has a financial value

It’s important that such institutions are not allowed to shrivel, but are nurtured to become part of a large matrix of cultural facilities, and he believes the Javett-UP could be a catalyst towards achieving that.

There’s already a new wave of interest in art among youngsters, thanks to privately run art fairs, Till says. "A growing group of young collectors is becoming conscious of the fact that art is to be appreciated and supported and potentially has a financial value," he says.

Staging other attractive events can pique their interest further. "When I was the director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery, we took visitorship up four-or fivefold largely [because] we put on a great number of events and exhibitions.

"It’s quite possible for the Javett to be a catalyst in regenerating a dynamic programme of major exhibits and events. I’d like to see it becoming a lightning rod for generating interest in the art of Africa, synonymous with excellence in projecting the vision of the art of Africa and the vision of the artists that inhabit the continent."

The ambition really is to create a world-leading centre for art in Africa, he says.

"Why can’t we become an institute of that kind of standard? Of course we can, it’s quite possible. As an institute with a foot in academia, but its face to the public, we’d like to establish it as a campus on the continent for the art of Africa." 

The Javett family is investing most of the money needed to erect the building, which is already taking shape on the campus. After the building is complete, the family will lend its private art collection to fill one of the seven different galleries. Till has a mandate to buy more art and is confident he can persuade other private collectors to lend or donate their works to fill the other six rooms. Purchases will be chosen to fulfil the gallery’s mission to "consider, study, research, collect and present" the art of Africa.

He hopes to forge relationships with global counterparts such as the British Museum, the Metropolitan and smaller institutes for the exchange of art and to establish exchange fellowships and residencies.

A new programme being developed at the University of Pretoria will offer a master’s degree in the conservation of tangible heritage. The Javett-UP will be involved and will offer international residency programmes for artists to spend time at the university to draw international attention to the art of Africa.

First, Till is trying to raise more money from the corporate world to complete the building. He quickly swings into a polished sales pitch.

"We are looking for financial partners to invest in the idea of what the Javett will be and wants to be and how their company can be associated with that vision and what sort of exposure they will receive," he says.

The building will span Lynnwood Road with a bridge that Till promises will be an extraordinary architectural element — a literal and figurative bridge between town and gown.

The gallery could become hugely popular with the students if it promotes art as a way for them to express their opinions and feelings about the issues affecting them.

"There are issues being played out and debated that affect students and art-making is very much part of that
process," Till says.

"We’d like to support discussions on campus around sustainable economy, culture and history and the Javett-UP can play a catalytic role in art-
making, discussion groups and creative activities.

"We’d like to see the students, even if they are not art students, feel some sense of engagement and excitement and pride in the fact that on their campus, they have an institute that one hopes will become an internationally acknowledged institution."

Another aim is to inculcate a love of art in schoolchildren by creating an innovative programme to bring them in to see and make things in the gallery.

This article was originally published by the Business Day.You can view the original article here.

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