Hlengiwe Vilakati is the owner and manager of the Jo Anke Gallery in Orange Grove. Jo Anke however is more than just an exhibition space, rather a full-service arts business specialising in providing representation and services to young artists to help develop their careers, art dealing and consulting to private, corporate and governmental clients as well as art leasing and management. But all this is the result of a long personal journey that started in 2009 when Hlengiwe quite her job as a marketing executive to follow a calling in art. She took an internship with Artlogic, and began working towards developing her niche vision that is today Jo Anke. Five years on, we chat to Hlengiwe and learn a little about this journey, as well as hear her current thoughts and feelings on the local art world.
What made you want to open the Jo Anke Gallery?
I felt it was something I had to do. A desire to bridge a social-economic gap in the creative industry. Our growth as a young business lies in our ability to nourish our incubation program and offer simple solutions that change how people view the creative industry. Some of the best leaders in the world were great artist with a simple vision to change society.
Please share with us a little about what was it like making a mid-career career switch and moving from marketing into art?
Somehow it felt natural to do so. I have a strong belief that I did not choose art. Art chose me. And with that notion in mind, the transition was much bearable but not without challenges. Some of the challenges that face the industry is what inspires me and the work we want to do with young artists.
Are there any similarities between the two industries? If so, what?
Yes. Marketing is a beast. And so is art. It’s all about communication. My desire for advertising and marketing was driven by the need to empower every citizen with a piece of information. This could range from realising where to buy airtime to learning about a new service or product that make one’s life easier. Creativity, which is what art and marketing are about, drive the human race forward. It fosters civilisation, in however context one wishes to view. Through art, one learns about the zeitgeist of today’s society. An artwork could either be nostalgic, trigger euphoric emotions or simply tell where society stands, politically or socially. The same principles apply in advertising and marketing.
The idea of ‘the business of art and the art of business’ seems to perfectly apply to you. What are some of the professional attributes (perhaps carried over from your experience in marketing) that you apply to the work you do now?
The business is structured into 3 key departments, namely, artist-liaison and marketing department, which uses several communication strategies, to inform the public about our collection and the artists working with the gallery. Our operations department provides essential risk management and control, to preserve and enhance Jo Anke’s assets and reputation. Our corporate development division involves planning and execution of a wide range of strategies to meet our specific organizational objectives and the overall growth of Jo Anke. We wish to develop these further through the growth of the gallery; and it is our belief that artists need a gallery behind them that has a strong vision, and is organized.
What have been some of the challenges that you’ve faced starting the Jo Anke Gallery?
Like most small business, we have challenges that relate to attracting a larger audience, changing perceptions and attracting artists with similar values. And in my case, I find it more challenging to promote my own business than someone else’s. But I have to do it nonetheless.
By situating your gallery in a converted home, you’re already shifting away from the conventional gallery space. What are some of the other ways in which Jo Anke is different to other galleries?
Our business model is purely based on making art by entry level artists accessible to as many people as possible. Our future campaigns are geared towards changing people’s perception about art. We want people to think different about art. To know that art collecting does more than reflect one’s style or status. It’s an expression of the finer things in life. It’s for oneself, just like buying a designer shoe or dress. It’s for everyone.
How have people responded to the gallery, and the kind of work you do?
The response has been great. One of the great things about our space is that it offers a less intimidating environment for people with various levels of interests and sophistication. The physical design of the gallery was influenced by the same market insight. That people love art. They want to buy art. But they are often put off by the refined, patrician gallery culture associated with traditional galleries and openings. Instead they long for something exciting to stimulate trade.
We’ve had two exhibitions since the launch of our gallery last September. In August we’ll launch an online program which is to become the gallery’s primary business operando. At the moment, our focus is to build a diverse and large database of young artists, mainly 2nd to final year students and establish a professional atmosphere around entry level artists. It is also important for the gallery to create awareness of our existence.
Please share with us some of your thoughts around the notion of accessibility (in the art market, as affecting artists, viewers, galleries).
My understanding is still limited in this regard as I am a new kid on the block. But I believe in a few years I’ll have the knowledge and experience to comment on this scale.
Are there any prevalent issues or concerns that you currently perceive in the South African art industry?
The industry has to develop a stronger sense of self-respect. Then the audience will catch up and move along. At the current moment, I find the creative sector lacks systems, professionalism and policies to govern codes of conduct.
Which artists’ work do you think people should be buying right now, and why?
Thulani Zondo. He’s a great young sculptor with the mind of an Engineer and his pulse at the heart of society. I use one of his sculptors to keep in shape – that’s how beautiful and strategic I believe in his work. He makes art “easy on the eye”. Bukhosi Nyathi, also a model, is another great painter to look out for. He makes African politics pleasant with his great sense of humor.
What advice do you have for creative entrepreneurs wanting to make their big move?
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
South Africa is a great nation of capable individuals. Johannesburg is where dreams are made of. And all young artists with a long term career vision and willingness to work hard, should not hesitate to contact Jo Anke Gallery. A striving city like Johannesburg needs alternative spaces like Jo Anke that function as incubators between institutions and commercial galleries. Let’s make it work.