At the end of last year, Goodman Gallery Cape Town moved from its premises in Woodstock to an undeniably splendid 19th-century stone building on Somerset Road in De Waterkant. Architect Heinrich Wolff, whose firm Wolff Architects carried out a beautiful and sensitive renovation of the building, says that it was originally a convent designed by architect Charles Freeman. “It is a really extraordinary building,” he says, admiring its colonnades, courtyards, and “handsome proportions”.
When Olivia Leahy, director of Goodman Gallery Cape Town, first went to see it, it was a cookery school.
Goodman Gallery’s move follows in a long tradition of contemporary galleries occupying former religious buildings. Leahy points out that, culturally, we’re accustomed to seeing art in religious settings, which is one reason deconsecrated churches are well suited to a second lease of life as galleries. The grand proportions don’t hurt either.
Wolff saw his job as largely to pare down the architecture to its essentials and let it speak for itself. “Sometimes the role of an architect is to let the greatness of something emerge, not to create it,” he says. As a result, he and his team went to a “huge amount of effort… to make it look like we did nothing”.
While the renovated building has a strong sense of presence, it also does a remarkable job of allowing the art inside to speak. Sharp-eyed visitors will notice a shadow-line above the Oregon-pine floor subtly indicating the contemporary walling system offset from the historical fabric of the building, which not only creates a perfectly even white box so well suited to the needs and purposes of a gallery, but also conceals all the practical and technological necessities of a modern gallery.
Another almost invisible addition is the lighting in the windows. While they’re actually covered on the inside — galleries need as much walls space as possible — recessed light boxes behind each window exactly match the colour and intensity of the light inside so that the building retains a sense of depth when seen from the outside.
A central part of Goodman’s ethos is to inspire social change through the art it shows. The new space is not just about inviting people in and making the building a part of the public cultural life of the city once more, but also to slow down and shift the experience of art for the times we live in.
Even in a post-pandemic world, people’s approach to outings and gatherings is likely to be different from before. Leahy says that she’s noticed that there is much less gallery hopping than there was in the past: people choose an exhibition and stay longer.
The courtyards and outdoor spaces are well suited to the change and, along with a bookshop and coffee shop, create opportunities for gallery visitors to stop, linger, and reflect while discussing artwork. Leahy says Goodman’s intention is not just about exhibiting works, but also to encourage conversation around them and ultimately inspire social change.
Goodman Gallery Johannesburg, too, has opened a new coffee shop and bookshop, as well as a sculpture garden, with the same ends in mind.
Interior and furniture designers Maker, who developed the interiors of Goodman London and Johannesburg, as well as the gallery’s previous Cape Town space, have created a subtle sense of continuity between them. Bespoke Maker designs such as the reception desks and cabinetry are combined with vintage ercol pieces and others by noteworthy local furniture designers such as James Mudge and Dokter and Misses (including pieces the gallery has had for some time), subtly continuing the narrative of the transformative power of art and design.
“I think it’s still really positive to think about how commercial galleries and contemporary galleries can be more welcoming and more comfortable and perhaps the pandemic was a prompt for something that should be happening anyway,” says Leahy.
• Fathom | RHE Water Show, with works by Jeremy Wafer, Sue Williamson, Kiluanji Kia Henda, Alfredo Jaar, and Dor Guez is on at Goodman Cape Town, 37A Somerset Road De Waterkant, until 30 May 2021.
• From the May edition of Wanted, 2021.