Structured. Expressive. Linear. Muted. Bold. They’re all terms bandied about by the talented cellar masters of the Cape winelands, but they could apply just as easily to the creative works on display beyond the tasting room. Over the past decade, art has become an integral part of the winelands experience, with galleries and sculpture gardens sprouting like spring buds on a vine.
We won’t deny that some “galleries” offer little more than anodyne prints and animal portraits designed to separate tourists from their foreign currency, but increasingly the winelands have become a hotspot for fomenting wider interest in the world of art.
Everard Read is the oldest commercial art gallery in Africa, established when Johannesburg was a dusty mining town in 1913. The Cape Town outpost opened in 1996, with galleries in London and Franschhoek added in 2016. Remarkably, it’s the gallery on Franschhoek’s Huguenot Road that draws in the biggest crowds.
“More people go through our Franschhoek gallery in a day than our other three put together,” says Charles Shields, director and co-owner of Everard Read Gallery in Cape Town.
While the visitors to the Franschhoek gallery are not necessarily going to walk out with a frame under their arm, “what I like is that it’s a place where art can get seen,” adds Shields. “Despite the perceived cynicism of the art world, artists care. Artists want people to see their work, so galleries such as Franschhoek are about widening the audience, and possibly widening the future art market.”
Galleries and sculpture gardens in the winelands certainly enable more people to admire, appreciate, and criticise art. Without the intimidating formality of making a gallery appointment and exploring echoing exhibition spaces, the relaxed setting and open-door policy of many winelands galleries are perhaps easy ways to widen access to art.
An example is Delaire Graff Estate, atop Helshoogte Pass above Stellenbosch. Owned by international diamond magnate Laurence Graff, it would be easy to frame the estate as a bastion of wealth and exclusivity, but Delaire Graff warmly welcomes anyone able to make it to the front gates.
“We don’t charge visitors any fee to enter the property, and there is art throughout the estate,” explains Johann Laubser, general manager of Delaire Graff Estate.
While many of the most remarkable pieces are cloistered in the privacy of the five-star hotel, the public areas are filled with notable works by the likes of William Kentridge, Dylan Lewis, and Lionel Smit. Most famous is the original Chinese Girl by Vladimir Tretchikoff, which Graff bought on auction for £1-million, and returned to South Africa in 2013.
Today, she is displayed unobtrusively on one side of the lobby. And the cost to stand and admire her? Zero.
Of course, Laubser would prefer if you stayed for a wine tasting, a meal, or the night in one of the luxury lodges, but it’s not obligatory.
The payoff for the estates is that art amplifies the visitor experience, and ultimately brings more feet through the door.
IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME
“Art draws a lot of people,” says Ilse Schermers, curator of the art gallery and sculpture garden at neighbouring Tokara Wine Estate, owned by Firstrand co-founder GT Ferreira and his wife Anne-Marie. “From an economic point of view, art becomes another way of getting people onto the farm. It’s a formula that works.”
Schermers has long been involved with art in the winelands, from owning her own gallery in Stellenbosch to launching the gallery on Grande Provence Estate. Today she owns IS Art in Franschhoek’s main road, in addition to curating Tokara’s art offering.
If it’s all about visitor numbers, the cynical view could be that winelands’ galleries would simply show mass-market works to bring in the masses. And their wallets.
Happily, that’s rarely true, with most of them — and their art-loving owners — committed to showing new artists and supporting young creatives.
“Creating an art experience is a costly thing to do. You need help, you need finance to do that,” says Schermers. “In the case of Tokara, the owners are ardent art collectors and support young and upcoming artists. When selecting the artists to exhibit we really look carefully at who is growing and has something to show.”
The commercial element is a grey area when it comes to winelands art. Unlike city dealers, sought out by committed collectors, sales are less of a concern for estate galleries as they are often content to have happy visitors in their wineries and restaurants.
There’s a similar approach at Cavalli Estate outside Stellenbosch, where gallery sales support the ongoing schedule of exhibitions, but the primary aim is creating a holistic winelands destination.
“Cavalli is a family-run estate and the art gallery is the combination of personal passion and creating an experience for people who come to the estate,” explains curator Amy Lyn Eveleigh. “Along with the wine, food, and architecture, it completes the circle of beautiful experiences.”
The gallery is certainly striking. Inspired by the Cy Twombly Gallery in Houston, Texas, it’s a subterranean space stretching across 600m² where innovative lighting simulates a sky-lit ceiling.
The Cavalli Gallery exhibits the owner’s private collection of South African works and sporting memorabilia, but the main gallery space is where the most interesting work lies, with commercial exhibitions rotating every few months.
“It’s a platform to showcase what the winelands has to offer, and is very much a springboard for local artists,” says Eveleigh, who launches a new exhibition by Rodan Kane Hart in September.
Dick Enthoven’s Spier Wine Estate counts more than 3,000 works in its collection, of which around 900 are on display at any one time. To make the art more accessible, the estate is launching a map and mobile app for an arts route, leading visitors on self-guided tours of the estate.
Aside from showcasing its private collection, Spier pours enormous energy into training and mentoring young artists through the Spier Arts Academy. With a three-year course ranging from mosaic and ceramic skills to art history and business basics, “the academy trains individuals who would struggle to get into tertiary arts institutions,” explains Annebelle Schreuders, marketing director at Spier.
Then there’s the Creative Block Project, which allows both established and up-and-coming artists to create small-scale works for display — and sale — on the estate.
“From the beginning, the owners of Spier have been passionate about the arts, and all forms of art. Most importantly, they support the economy of the arts industry,” says Schreuders. “Projects like Creative Block are a way for us to keep artists going, to keep them creating rather than ending up in another industry.”
These kinds of projects are an easy way for emerging artists to find a ready audience. And, perhaps, for emerging art-lovers to start their collection. Either way, both sides win.
• From the September edition of Wanted 2019.