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‘Between Dreams and Realities’ book review

Between Dreams and Realities – A History of the South African National Gallery, 1871 – 2017
By Marilyn Martin with foreword by Albie Sachs | Publisher: Print Matters Heritage | ISBN: 9780639937816

Between Dreams Realities book review

Written by Marilyn Martin, a former director of the South African National Gallery, Between Dreams and Realities tells the engaging story of South Africa’s pre-eminent art museum. Based on extensive research and experience, this book revisits important exhibitions, events and forgotten controversies; it highlights the achievements of directors, who often faced political agendas and strained relationships within and outside the institution. 
     The book’s narrative begins in 1871, with a bequest of 45 paintings and money for the establishment of a public art gallery in Cape Town, and ends in 2017, a time of extraordinary changes in South Africa’s art and museum sectors. Richly illustrated with key artworks, installation shots and photographs of individuals and groups, Between Dreams and Realities considers the aspirations and role of civil society in creating and maintaining a national institution for the common good. 
     Concurrently, the book examines long-standing government disinterest and neglect for the museum, and the difficulties that confronted directors in acquiring a collection worthy of its status. It also tells the story of excellent public cooperation and support, and of boards of trustees, directors and staff together overcoming the realities of budget cuts, government interference and severe space constraints. 
     Peer reviewers firmly acknowledge and support issues raised, and the crucial role that a cultural institution such as the South African National Gallery plays in our society. 
     ‘For the first time within the South African art historical discipline, we have here an all-encompassing text by a respected art and architectural historian who has the courage to boldly tackle and address key and controversial issues pertaining to art-political minefields and the frequent lack of support by the State, past and present, regarding the arts in this country,’ says Eunice Basson.
     ‘As chronicled here, SANG’s history is told as one of a triumph over adversity, and I agree with Martin that, given the museum’s precarious status at present, the book provides a convincing argument for its crucial importance as a cultural institution. By charting its history, Martin concludes with her hope that it provides a road map for its future as well,’ says Pamela Allara.
     As Albie Sachs states in the foreword: ‘Meticulously researched and carefully written, this book is more than just a rich repository of information about an important public institution with high intentions. It is the pained life story of an organic body that was dedicated to idealistic pursuits and yet found itself bedevilled by egotism, materialism and official indifference. In making a striking and substantial contribution to the history of the South African National Gallery, Marilyn Martin presents a rich story, with perhaps more agony than ecstasy, of our constantly evolving South African aesthetic imagination.’
     After eleven years as director of the South African National Gallery, Martin was appointed director of art collections for Iziko Museums in 2001. She retired in 2008 and has since worked as an independent writer, curator and lecturer. She is an Honorary Research Associate at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town. In 2002, Martin was admitted to the Legion of Honour of the Republic of France at the rank of Officer and in 2013 she received the medal of the Fondation Alliance Française in Paris.

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Who wrote the foreword to Between Dreams and Realities?

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