Essers’ understanding of risk stems partly from her background in finance and film. After a stint at Andersen Consulting, now Accenture, she worked in private equity for SMC Capital and in businesses development for an e-commerce company, before segueing into film. It is sometimes forgotten that Essers was co-executive producer of director Gavin Hood’s Oscar-winning 2005 adaptation of Athol Fugard’s 1980 novel Tsotsi. She was in Los Angeles when the film clinched the award for best foreign-language film.
“I didn’t get caught up in having a new dress made,” Essers once told me about the big night. “I grabbed a little black dress in my wardrobe and wore Gucci evening sandals.”
Tinsel Town, though, wasn’t for her. “I found all those Hollywood parties very fake. I felt so lonely and empty. I think it was a defining moment for me, actually. I didn’t find it fulfilling,” she says. “I made a decision to focus on contemporary art, and only focus on projects that feed my soul in some way.”
Essers did not entirely turn her back on filmmaking. Shortly after acquiring the Goodman she produced a documentary film profiling South African artists Marlene Dumas and William Kentridge.
The anecdote is revealing. Notwithstanding her reputation as a tough negotiator and bottom-line-conscious boss, Essers digs deep to support her artists. She contributed R1.6-million towards William Kentridge’s travelling production The Head and the Load, which opened in July at the Tate Modern.
Kentridge’s big international breakthrough happened in 1997, a decade before Essers took over the gallery representing him. I had long wondered about the power dynamics underpinning their relationship. It is genial and warm I realised. Last year, following the opening of a South African exhibition at the Louis Vuitton Foundation, we retired to a café off the boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris. Essers and Kentridge discussed the poor form of our hosts in not offering a dinner, and other art-world intimacies.
Among her big accomplishments of the past decade, Essers lists bringing Kentridge’s multi-media installation The Refusal of Time (2012), created for Documenta 13 in Germany, to South Africa in 2015. Another involved facilitating the roaming Black Portraitures conference series in Johannesburg in 2016.
“We take on a project every year where we sponsor an exhibition or event in a local public institution,” Essers says.
Earlier this year her gallery underwrote the costs of showing five recent wall-hung draperies by acclaimed Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town. Next year veteran Johannesburg painter David Koloane will show his work at the same venue.
Some people have pooh-poohed these collaborations for blurring the line between museum show and selling exhibition, a criticism Essers is aware of. “It is genuinely about giving back to society,” she says. “It is about trying to support our public institutions.”
We briefly talk about her gallery’s South African programme. She will be hosting British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare in September at her “home base” in Johannesburg, followed by Brazilian Ernesto Neto. The Chilean-American Alfredo Jaar will be showing in Cape Town.
Work aplenty, I remark. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Essers says.