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Public art galleries: are we accountable?

This year, the FNB JoburgArtFair has invited British curator, cultural historian and Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., Augustus Casely-Hayford, OBE to participate in a panel discussion on public art museums.

Chief curator of the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) Khwezi Gule, and deputy director of the Johannesburg Contemporary Art Foundation Molemo Moiloa, will join Augustus Casely-Hayford in a discussion that focuses on JAG. The Gallery’s importance in contemporary South African art has been mired by its location and physical decay over the past few years. The panel, while focusing on JAG, will respond to different models and discuss the accountability of the museum to its public, particularly at this moment of political upheaval.

Creative Feel: A belated congratulations on your appointment as the Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. What are your current plans at the Museum and what is your vision for the future?
Augustus Casely-Hayford: The National Museum of African Art is more than half a century old, and we have operated from our present home on the National Mall in Washington DC for a generation and over that time Africa, African Art and our audience expectations have changed profoundly. We must change too to become an institution that better reflects the dynamic, complex contemporary Africa that I know and love, but that also capture the continent’s diversity and long historical narrative. We want to engage in a process of renewal not just of our space, but also of our relationships. We must work more closely with artists, experts and communities across the continent, to engage in open and dynamic conversations about our discipline.

Augustus Casely-Hayford Public art galleries
Augustus Casely-Hayford

CF: You are a guest of the FNB JoburgArtFair this year and are participating in a talk about the Johannesburg Art Gallery. As a specialist in African Art operating in the UK and USA, how do you feel you can bring a different perspective to curators/museum directors operating in SA?
AC-H: It might be that I can’t – the global art market feels increasingly intimate. Those of us who focus on Africa are part of a wonderfully supportive and tight community. I often speak to colleagues in Africa, the Caribbean or Europe and we seem to be having the same conversations with colleagues, separated only by distance. And now as parts of the African art sector enjoy an unprecedented period of sustained growth, I sense a burgeoning momentum that I hope will grow to benefit everyone. And my conundrum is how to find ways to best reflect a sector that is shifting and changing with such speed.

CF: Do you feel that public galleries/museums can/should play a role in current social and political discourses and how do they do so?
AC-H: We have a duty as publicly-funded agencies to speak to everyone, to weave narratives that work to bind us, to open dialogues and, where possible, to help to heal wounds. That might sound hyperbolic, but the very best art, and the very finest museums, on their proudest days deliver programmes that speak in ways that defy difference.

CF: Do you feel that the physical placement of a public gallery/museum plays a role in its success?
AC-H: Geography is critical – galleries need to feel like they are part of communities. That is not just about placement, but it is also about how their location is managed by staff and local government. In my mind, without ongoing local buy-in, public museums cannot really claim success.

CF: The National Museum of African Art’s mission statement is ‘To inspire conversations about the beauty, power, and diversity of African arts and cultures worldwide.’ How can we as South Africans contribute?
AC-H: Well, from Jane Alexander to Marlene Dumas, from Gavin Jantjes to David Koloane, from Mary Sibande to William Kentridge – South African artists bestride my desert island list. The sheer complexity and diversity of this nation’s cultural output defies description. But it is also supported by some of the continent’s best gallerists, museums and historians who, through foresight and strategic vision, have helped shape this country’s visual arts into the formidable thing that it is. This is a place that has always found ways to inspire, amaze, shock and enthral. It’s a difficult, complex and beautiful history that has been best documented by artists.

To read more about what he has to say about government funding in South Africa, what role public galleries should play in the interaction with the public, collaborations with other galleries/museums nationally, throughout the continent and globally and more, look out for our September 2018 issue where there will be a full feature on Casely-Hayford and more about the FNB JoburgArtFair. To continue supporting Creative Feel‘s role in the arts and culture sector by subscribing to our monthly magazine in digital or print format.

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