The ‘about’ section on the AVA’s website explains the institution as “Cape Town’s oldest non-profit, members based, public benefit organisation and art gallery, showcasing contemporary South African art in all media.” In partnership with Spier, who own the physical gallery space, the AVA is committed to the promotion and advancement of visual arts, artists, curators and cultural capital in South Africa. This year artist, writer and curator Brenton Maart took the reins as new gallery director. We chatted to him about his multi-faceted day job.
Please let us know about your background and how it brought you to your current role at the AVA?
I’ve had a bit of a varied background. I work as a curator primarily, for art exhibitions, and I’ve done that for 15 years. I studied photography at the Market Photo Workshop in Joburg and then I worked as the exhibitions curator at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG). Then, I worked as the exhibitions person and curatorial consultant at Freedom Park Trust in Pretoria – a museum built to commemorate the battle against apartheid. After that I worked as curator of the Gauteng Provincial Legislature art collection – for my sins. The space was at the old city hall, and the office was the old bell tower. Then I worked at various museums and galleries, I curated the South African pavilion at the Venice Biennale two years ago, which is probably the biggest project that I’ve done. Then I started working at UCT trying to finish my doctorate in Fine Art. And then I got this job, and here I am now.
So basically mine has been a career focussed on curatorial work and almost all of my work thus far has been for non-profit organisations or exhibitions that were not linked to commercial galleries. I’m also on the artistic committee of the National Arts Festival – in Grahamstown – and one of the things we do there is to select annually the Standard Bank Young Artist Award winners.
What does the role of curator/gallery director entail?
It’s thinking of an idea, finding partners and fundraising, doing media and publicity, designing education programmes for the exhibitions. Doing the logistics and technical management. It’s a whole cross-section of kinds of projects. I’ve worked on historical things, and contemporary art exhibitions, I’ve worked on installations. Other tasks include project management, fundraising, partnerships with government, publications etc.
What do you enjoy about the job?
One of the very exciting things is that every day is different, every project is different. I have a short attention span, not clinically but self-diagnosed! I couldn’t possibly see myself working in a 9-5 kind of job where every day is the same. I’ve taken the word ‘creativity’ literally, it means kind of to make new stuff all the time. So instead of getting bogged down in the sameness of the day to day of a ‘normal’ job, I’d much prefer to do something where you can make your own work. I see running things and the curating process as creative practice. So you have this idea and then do stuff to make that idea happen. It allows you that freedom to able to think of things and then to realise them. Which I love as a kind of activity.
What do you enjoy about working for the AVA specifically?
The reason I work at the AVA now is because I think I’ve got more of a feel, more of a bent for non-profit stuff. This is an NGO. Although I appreciate the work of museums, I appreciate the work of commercial galleries in terms of developing the sector and professionalizing the sector, in terms of job creation and that sort of thing, I find that I’m a lot more into things that don’t have commercial imperatives. I’d much rather show work and not have an urgency to sell – on the one hand – and also, I’ve got a very long history of working with NGOs before the Fine Arts sector and a big part of my interest is in public participation and public education. An organisation like the AVA allows that sort of thing. It allows us to use our exhibitions as hooks onto which we hang exciting public programming.
Another reason I work here is that this organisation has got major history in South Africa. It’s the oldest non-profit arts organisation in the Western Cape, it’s one of the two oldest non-profits in the country, the other being the KZNSA which was a breakaway from the old apartheid structure of state-funded art organisations. So it’s got a very rich political history, and it still continues today. The kind of stuff that we do is less complacent and more ‘commentary on’. For example during the elections we had Anthea Moys who is a performance artist arm-wrestle members of the political parties. Then the upcoming Zapiro show is a take on political satire in South Africa. So even though I paint this picture of us being grounded in fun, actually the kind of under current is very strongly political, working on the philosophy that arts and culture can be major political tools and tools for change.
Every single big name artist has been through this gallery. It’s been traditionally as a kind of stepping stone onto bigger and better things. Kentridge has shown here, Jane Alexander has shown here, Willie Bester has shown here etc etc. You can trace this organisation back to the 1800s. Which is one of the reasons why we’re trying to locate the AVA as a heritage organisation. Not the building itself but the kinds of activities we do are so steeped in history that there’s a cultural living history in that. You feel like you’re part of something that’s bigger that just the here and now.
What do you hope to bring to the organisation?
I’ve been here for about 5 months now so my first port of call was looking up the history of the organisation, and seeing what in its history it has done. And a strong thing that came out of there was its pivotal role in public education and public stimulation and the facilitation and support of creativity. So that’s the first thing that I want to focus on, and how we’re going to do that is to move away from this kind of ‘exhibition on the wall’. The first few months that I was here we had exhibitions that were set and they were basically stagnant exhibitions, people would work through the front door and leave in like 2 minutes. And I’d sit there aghast. That led me to the fact that regardless of how fantastic the work is, or how famous the artist is, or whether the artist deserves you spending a day in here as opposed to 2 minutes doesn’t matter, the fact is that you’ve got this stagnant exhibition on the wall. And it’s because – I’m guilty of it as well – we’ve become so used to the visual image.
The first thing I want to do is a major shift to increase the public programming. To not have the exhibition as the be-all and end-all of it but to have it as the hook onto which I hang a public educational or interactive programme. For example, we had the Sydelle Willow Smith exhibition a while ago – photographs of convivial relationships between South Africans and foreign nationals. She is a superb photographer but the bottom line is it’s a set of images on the wall, and people are so inundated with photographic imagery that in the greater scheme of things people don’t want to spend a long time looking at that. So what we did with her exhibition was to use it as a hook and we hosted a series of film screenings, theatre performances, we had music, we had a literary event where authors read from their books, and we had a public debate. All things to get people in and get them interacting with the work.
Can you let us know a bit more about the current and upcoming AVA projects?
At the moment we’ve got this artist in residency programme, which we started with Jan-Henri Booyens. The idea is to use the three month period of winter – because it’s such a slow time in Cape Town, galleries literally close over that time, so we thought it’d be a good idea to get an artist in to work over that time – an established, mature artist – to use the time as an experiment in collaboration. Jan-Henri is primarily a painter but what he’s doing as part of this resideny is to work with audio and visual digital artists to produce new kinds of avenues.
The next exhibition after this is the Zapiro exhibition which is going to be really cool. The one following that is a retrospective of the Hand Spring Puppet Company’s work.
Just those three as an example are very different to each other, and not only is the work very different but so is the public programming. For Jan-Henri for example, the public programming is things like studio parties, live art-making. The public programming for the Zapiro exhibition is based on a public paste-up campaign that we’re doing around town. So we’re taking selected works of his and then pasting them up in big scale around Cape Town and around Zapiro Road in Gugs. And then we’re going to have a masterclass for professional satirical graphic artists.
The Hand Spring exhibition is going to be fantastic, it’s our big show for the year. It’s a retrospective of their puppets from 6 productions, their notes and studio drawings. We’re working with the international union of puppeteers and they’re doing puppetry workshops and technical workshops – how to make puppets through to kind of conceptualising a play for puppets. Then we’re doing pop-up performances, film screenings. And here the public programming is a lot less didactic and academic and more interactive and fun, getting kids involved, transforming this pedestrian area of Church Street to have weekly puppet shows.
What have been, or are going to be, some of the challenges?
The most challenging thing is our media, I think. Because I’ve seen what happens around Cape Town and around the world. It’s that people are doing exciting things, the challenge is to get people to come in and participate. We can run the most fantastic programme but if nobody knows about it then it’s a waste of time. So for me the greatest challenge, and I say this because I’m not a media person, the AVA itself is not a media-savvy organisation, is to get people to know about what we’re doing. We’ve got great ideas, great collaborators and supporters, but the key thing for us is to get people to know about it.
Because we’re an NGO the other major challenge is organisational sustainability – getting cash to come into the organisation. We can’t do it through the selling of art work – we don’t want to and we can’t compete with commercial galleries. Our philosophy is non-commercial. It’s impossible to rely on public funding, even though we should be able to. So we’re doing fundraising through various ways, we’re going to start a shop that we’re going to run over Christmas, we’ve got this Cameron Platter sweepstakes where you can win a Cameron Platter if you buy a ticket – an old-school raffle kind of thing. And, we’re looking at professionalising our services. We had an auction which was highly successful and now we’re working with an auction house to do an annual auction. What we also want to do is to go back to all those artists, people who have used the AVA as a stepping stone to bigger things internationally and remind them of the pivotal role the AVA has played in their career development and encourage them to give back to the AVA. This is the kind of organisation that should have patrons in the same kind of philanthropical way American arts organisations work.
The AVA is slap-bang in the middle of the First Thursdays district. Have you experienced the impact of this monthly event?
I think what Michael Tymbios and Gareth Pearson are doing is fantastic. It seems to be quite a Cape Town thing, where people have an idea and just through their network and co-ordination of that network, build this thing up into this power house, which is amazing. I’ve seen the numbers of people who come through from gallery to gallery on First Thursdays and it’s phenomenal. It’s jam-packed. In terms of getting people through the door and seeing what we do, it’s a fantastic initiative. It’s also super fantastic because it’s angled not so much as a fine art thing, but as a kind of party thing. So it gets people in who wouldn’t ordinarily come to art exhibitions, which is great. We have a whole cross-section of people coming in – accountants and lawyers and architects over and above the standard crowd we get. We take whatever is happening in the gallery and develop a specific event for First Thursdays.
What are some of your plans in the space going forward?
We’re in the process of renovating the building – we’re doing a heritage restoration on this building, which is owned by Spier. They bought the building in 1971 and gave it over to the AVA. In the early 1900s it used to be a Gentlemen’s Club. So the idea is to restore the building to its sparkling heritage state and then to introduce contemporary art into it. So you’ve got an old gleaming structure with super contemporary stuff happening inside. We want to take away that notion of art as something you come and look at and instead move towards art as an experience – immersive theatre and installation and that kind of thing.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
The AVA is a very special little gem in the South African art world, what it needs is to be supported and to be nurtured and to be grown. I think it has the potential to really become a major international player and I think one way to do that would be to stop seeing the AVA as a gallery which is limited by its four walls, but to see it as an organisation which allows us to do programmes beyond the gallery walls. The AVA is an organisation that has a network that extends into the international art world and it’s not just this little space in Church street.