13 Nov South Africa Through the Eyes of a Gallerist | An Interview with Heidi Erdmann
Having become synonymous with her location on Shortmarket Street, Cape Town, Heidi Erdmann has recently relocated her gallery, Erdmann Contemporary to Kloof Street. With her career including stints at the South African National Gallery and AREA Gallery in addition to her role as owner/director at Erdmann Contemporary and the Photographers Gallery ZA, she has established herself as one of Cape Town’s longest serving and most reputable gallerists. Since opening in 2001, she has played a pivotal role – alongside AVA and Joao Ferreira – in helping establish and develop the local art scene. Therefore, in celebration of her contributions and her new location, we caught up with her to find out her views on the development of the South African art market, the importance of content rich exhibitions and some of the challenges facing gallerists in South Africa today.
How did it all start? Perhaps a brief history of the The Photographers Gallery and Erdmann Contemporary would be appropriate?
I started my career in 1994 at the South African National Gallery. In 1997 I joined AREA, a dedicated photography gallery as curator. By 2001 I felt ready to open my own gallery. I resigned from a full time job in June, found premises in July and throughout August I walked on Camps Bay beach. I do my best thinking while walking. I opened at the beginning of September. On 11 September I was at Grada Djeri’s studio; we were shooting catalogue images for Conrad Botes’ upcoming solo exhibition in Italy (Botes was the only painter I worked with, and most of our shows were held in Italy). My gallery was 11 days old, but after seeing the footage of the Twin Towers imploding I had serious doubts that it would survive the month. But, I had planned a huge opening party for late October and decided that when times are tough one needs to work smarter. I still dance to that tune. In 2004 I moved to Shortmarket Street and added Erdmann Contemporary as a platform for select artists working in media other than photography.
Taking 1994 as a departure point, how has the art market in South Africa changed, especially during your time in charge of the gallery?
It has become more competitive. In 1997, when I was at AREA there were only two other galleries in town, Association for Visual Arts (AVA) and Joao Ferreira Gallery. The South African National Gallery was a cultural meeting point, with a café and a museum shop and an exhibitions’ schedule that was supported and appreciated. When I opened my own gallery it was with the support of both Estelle Jacobs (AVA) and Joao Ferreira. There was a sense of camaraderie; we would often refer clients to one another’s galleries. We were all managing businesses but we operated within a climate of the broader good for the industry. It is a lot more cutthroat nowadays. By 2003 several more galleries had opened up in the city, and winelands area. Estelle, Joao and I considered establishing a Federation for Art Dealers based on international guidelines. We had a few meetings but the initiative failed to gain collective support.
Also one of the most significant changes came via the secondary market; it has literally exploded over the past five years, but I am not suggesting it is all good news. It is difficult to establish a primary market for a contemporary artist if their works are under-valued on the secondary market. There are exceptions, but very few. The secondary market can also be manipulated – and it often is. Just follow the Warhol trail on the international circuit.
That being said, why do you think these developments within the local art market have come about?
The industry changed in several ways. Internationally, art fairs contributed to that change in a significant way. In the early 2000s (which is not long ago) the Cologne Art Fair in Germany was the most sought after fair in terms of contemporary art. I did my first photography fair in 2005, the first South African gallery to do a fair in the United States. Art fairs leveled the playing field; it was possible to showcase a broader selection of South African art on an international platform. The works were selected by individuals working in the industry and not by international curators who selected works and artists which they thought represented their notion of what Africa should be. I have long had an issue with the exotification of Africa, often perpetuated by foreign curators who want to keep Africa and art production within a very limited discourse.
Post-2008 many of my colleagues in Europe opted for warehouses instead of street level galleries, selling works at art fairs only. The mid-size gallery was definitely the casualty of the 2008 financial crisis. But not in South Africa, that shock wave was only felt a few years later, I think in 2011.
Over the past five years, art fairs have sprung up like weeds; in some cases it is an attempt to accelerate the growth spurt of an arts industry in specific regions. On the other hand it is simply a trend. As soon as a trend emerges the next development is in the pipeline; we are now in the Biennale phase. Collectors are rushing to Biennales for purchases; it has evolved into a commercial platform. Art Basel Hong Kong’s Encounters section features large-scale sculpture and installation works, it affords visitors an opportunity to see art that transcends traditional art fair stands. Not only are these monumental installations spectacular but perhaps also an attempt to narrow the gap between the Biennale and the art fair.
Do you feel that these developments in the art market have influenced the approach of Erdmann Contemporary and its subsequent evolution?
Thirteen years ago I had a dream, strong principles and a goal. I have evolved the dream stage, but I still have my principles and goals. I am an owner-run business which requires a firm handle on keeping my machine as lean as possible. The key to success is the ability to balance opportunities and not to spread oneself too thin. It is learning how to say no thank you, and for that decision to work in your favour.
I am not a sprinter; I am a long distance runner. If I spot a talent, I watch them for at least a year, two or even three. If I lose them in the process, it is not a loss. I am always watching several artists at any given time. Opening a gallery is very easy, but to usher a gallery through several decades is a challenge. I do not follow trends nor do I like jumping on bandwagons.
This year, after a ten-year stint in the city centre, I decided it was time to move. I considered the move as an opportunity to collapse the rigid boundaries within the industry, marry different disciplines and extend the functionality and hours of an ordinary commercial art gallery. I organized my first successful exhibition in 1993; I was ready and hungry for a conceptual change.
My gallery has evolved from being dedicated to photography into a multi-media platform. Having said that, in 2014 my program was, with the exception of one exhibition, completely photography orientated.
In thinking about ushering your gallery through almost a decade and a half of constant change, how important has it been for Erdmann Contemporary to remain relevant?
I have no interested in selling beautiful paintings, that is the domain of the oversubscribed industry of vanity museums and galleries that specialize in the decorative arts. I am interested in hosting exhibitions that are content rich, relevant in terms of contemporary thinking, to a broad and diverse audience. I have a 21 year old son; he is a third year student at Stellenbosch University. He has been collecting art since he was 11 years old. His first purchase was a Billy Mandindi painting with money he borrowed from Estelle Jacobs to pay Billy that same evening. He would visit his local museum and galleries providing they scheduled relevant exhibitions; but curiously in Stellenbosch the academic museum’s exhibitions’ schedule does not attempt to attract a young student audience. In three years he had visited the museum once, and that was on a research trip for an essay. Being relevant under any circumstances are important, that is how we build the next generation of museum-goers and collectors.
Finally, when considering the next generation, in your own experience as a gallerist, what do you see as some of the challenges facing galleries in South Africa?
Galleries are businesses just like supermarkets, both operate on a demand and supply premise. But what separates us from a supermarket is conversation. Nobody is interested in how much you paid for a tin of baked bean at Woolies. But imagine it was a signed and editioned Walter Battiss print bought from an obscure auction. The question is: Does the hostess of the dinner party have enough wine to sustain this conversation?
On a more serious note, I will add the following: As gallerists we have to grow our industry responsibly, and that in itself is a great challenge. Consider South Africa’s participation in the Venice Biennale both in 2011 and 2013. Fiasco is the only word that comes to mind, followed by bad press. In 2011 the main culprit was a gallery owner; in 2013 I believe it was a case of sloppy curation. In both instances the only loser is the South African arts industry at large.
My greatest embarrassment is usually at social gatherings where I meet X, one of South Africa’s greatest living contemporary artists; it would be a name I have never heard off. Market traction is not measured by financial success only; it is in combination with critical traction and universality in terms of relevance, which takes years and not two exhibitions in Cape Town. If we can rid ourselves of this desperate affliction to be the largest, the greatest or the best, half the battle would be won.
Yes, therein lies the irony, and the challenge. This is after-all an industry driven by the ego.
Continuing with Heidi’s program of thought-provoking and critically engaged exhibitions, Erdmann Contemporary presents the Sasol New Signatures Western Cape Finalists, a group exhibition that presents the finalists of one of South Africa’s premier young, emerging art showcases. Exhibition is up through December 5th.
Interview by Houghton Kinsman