They call me a bibliomaniac,” says Jack Ginsberg, who is well known as an art collector and philanthropist in South African art circles. “The polite term is bibliophile.”
Regardless of whether it was love or mania (or both) that drove him, over the course of almost 50 years, Ginsberg has assembled a collection of about 3 500 artists’ books. Artists’ books are artworks in the form of books. Although his collection might not be the biggest in the world, it is significant.
“As soon as I became interested in artists’ books, I started picking up books about artists’ books,” he says. “I continued doing that while I was collecting artists’ books. When I started collecting, I could only find about 30 books published about artists’ books.” Now, the archive also numbers about 3 500 books, articles, catalogues, and the like.
These two collections together are now housed in a dedicated centre upstairs at the Wits Art Museum (WAM) . “This centre is really unique in Africa and probably the southern hemisphere; and, as far as the archive is concerned, in the world,” Ginsberg says. “So we hope it will become a centre of excellence where people will come to study. It adds another component, appealing to many of the university’s consituencies.”
Students, academics, even members of the public — by appointment — will be able to visit the centre and access its resources. The centre plans to hold about four exhibitions a year, too.
The collection covers everything from the “democratic multiples” of polemical student zines to rare and beautiful unique items worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. There’s even one in the shape of a real horse skeleton by South African artist Pippa Skotnes, with an entire book inscribed onto its bones and then fully reassembled. The category “artists’ book” has only really been around since the early ’70s, and Ginsberg was there at its inception. The artform, essentially, has grown and developed as his collection has.
In one of the cabinets in the reading room, there’s an artists’ book by Miro — an entire book made up of limited-edition prints — displayed along with one of the original woodblocks used to print it. Next to it is a monograph, which happens to feature the work created with the woodblock on its cover.
There are books made of glass, metal, cork, and wood. There are pop-up and pop-down books, miniature books, flag books, a 10m-long folding book, even digital books... About 400 of the works in the collection are by South African artists.
So, why would Ginsberg give away something so rare, and which he has spent the better part of half a century lovingly assembling? “People who collect things are in a dilemma,” he says. Their collections tend to outlast them. “To keep the collection together is really important, because it is much more than the sum of its parts.”
So, by donating it to WAM and establishing the centre, Ginsberg has found a way of preserving it in perpetuity. “It’s a win-win situation,” he says.
• The Jack Ginsberg Centre for Book Arts Opening Exhibition runs until 6 July, Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 4pm in the WAM Basement Gallery
• From the April edition of Wanted 2019.