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The making of a contemporary art gallery: A look at 99 Loop

The making of a contemporary art gallery: A look at 99 Loop

Art galleries are enigmatic public spaces. At worst they exude a hostile sterility or feel elitist, and at best they are welcoming and encourage communal discourse. 99 Loop is a gallery that promotes the latter. After unforeseen delays that come with converting a 140 year old heritage building into an art space, they were able to open their doors to the public in August last year. In the past six months this “small fry” has been growing their online database, participating in First Thursdays, and exhibiting the work of established and emerging South African artists. Despite their non-descript name, walking past and seeing artworks through their large street-facing windows entices both locals and tourists to enter the space and engage with the works. 

We chatted to manager Lena Sulik about the process of converting the space into a gallery and how 99 Loop hopes to contribute to the local and international art scene in years to come.

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Tell us a how 99 Loop came to be and how you got involved. 

I’m the manager of the gallery. The entire process was started by Morne Marais, who is the owner and director. He owns the building and bought it specifically to turn into a gallery. He thought it had a lot of potential being in the CBD, and he decided to do it as a collector and art lover who also has a very good business sense because of his background in finance. He brought me on board with my fine art experience and thought I could get that side of things up and running. We spent about a year and a half turning this rickety, mucky old building into a gallery. We got architecture studio Rennie Scurr Adendorff, who redid the Fugard Theatre in District Six, to redo our building because they specialise in heritage building. With them, we turned the space into a gallery without losing the building’s character, with its Victorian shopfront and Georgian windows. We also retained the beautiful brick work and the ceiling. We wanted it to have a warm, contemporary feel but very much keep the character of the old space. It needed to be a comfortable space, where people enjoy spending time and don’t feel intimidated.

Galleries can seem like terribly elitist spaces. How does 99 Loop combat this? 

We’re incredibly lucky to have the location we do because we are right in the middle of the city and we have giant glass windows you can see through, so we have a lot of foot traffic going past. It helps that people can see what is happening inside. The public’s response has been good so far. Of course we have our critics and our fans, but we’re just going to keep doing what we do. 

First Thursdays has also been instrumental to the Cape Town art industry. It’s invited people to be part of the art experience. The industry is growing and the audience is growing. At events like First Thursdays, when you’re with a group of friends, you don’t feel intimidated by the spaces and you know where they are because someone has given you a map with all the details. This makes it easier for people to engage, which I love. With First Thursdays, it’s quite intense having thousands of people in the gallery in a single evening. I love that people are here and hopefully enjoying themselves. 

The art world is all about the relationships. It’s more about the relationships than the art, quite frankly.

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What are some of the challenges you’ve faced since opening? 

The building itself is quite a challenge because it is so very old. We tried knocking nails into the walls and huge chunks of plaster and bricks fell out. When we opened up the ceiling, the beams were full of beetles and worms so we had to get the place fumigated and shut down the building process for a week. Otherwise, it’s been relatively easy and pleasurable getting the place up and running. It just took longer than I expected with it being a heritage building so we had to deal with the council and city council. We were hoping to open at the end of 2014 and that didn’t happen. But, it’s important that old buildings are protected – it’s just a lengthy, bureaucratic process. 

It’s about deciding what has to be retained and what should change, as you’re unpeeling layers and layers of history. So, every time you unpeel another layer, you have to stop the process and recheck whether it can be altered or covered over, if you can put new ceilings in etc. 

What do you know about the history of the building? 

A host of things. We keep having people stopping by the space and telling us, “Oh, my granddad had a hair salon here in the 1960s” and that sort of thing. It used to be an electrician’s workshop, and prior to us it was a ceramic shop. Before that it was Buur & Muur antique dealers and Christopher Moller actually had his gallery in the space before he moved to Kloof Street. So it’s been an art gallery for a while. 

Tell us about the idea behind the name, 99 Loop? 

The name came out of a very lengthy discussion Morne and I had for months and months. We didn’t want something that was too focused on something in particular, especially because we’re still defining ourselves as a gallery and working out who we are. We wanted something as simple as possible and we got designer Adam Hill on board, who just did a phenomenal job with the logo. It’s been interesting watching people’s reactions to that and how they engage with and try to work out what our name actually is.

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There’s been a surge in new gallery and exhibition spaces in Cape Town. What’s the vision for 99 Loop and where does it posit itself in the local arts scene?

We are still working that out, but having such a big space allows our vision to be very, very broad, so we can bring on quite a variety of artists. So far, we’ve exhibited everything from photography, installation art, traditional paintings, sculpture, and hopefully we’ll bring in performance pieces later on this year. Otherwise our stuff leans towards contemporary urban art. As an emerging gallery, we are bringing in a lot of emerging artists. We do have a couple established artists on board who we’re very excited about, like Lizza Littlewort and Andrew Adler. 

We want to help artists we’ve already brought on board to develop their careers and provide them with support where we can. It’s very much a process for the artist and the gallery in terms of developing a career. We’d love to see our younger artists develop their careers further – showing internationally and being in some big collections. That would be amazing and it’s something we’re working towards.

What makes for a good relationship between a gallery and an artist? 

The art world is all about the relationships. It’s more about the relationships than the art, quite frankly. A good relationship is about openness, honesty and being upfront. It’s about understanding that you are dealing with something that is ephemeral and quite fragile, that is it difficult to define, and there are egos involved because you’re dealing with someone’s soul, which is not always an easy thing to do. 

When planning exhibitions, what strategy do you employ and how long is the process? 

It depends. Sometimes we bring artists on board very quickly. There’ll be plans a month in advance and we’ll have a body of work. With other exhibitions, like Daniel Clarke, we took over a year to plan because we had to find the vision and select the artworks. 

My experience of tourists, after having been in the industry for almost a decade, is that tourists used to walk into a gallery and ask, “Where’s the African art?” They’d want the stone carvings and township scenes, painted masks and smiling children. These days they’re not doing that so much anymore.

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In your opinion, what are the key elements of a well-curated show? 

It depends if it’s a solo or group show. Our focus is generally on solo shows, which is a very different experience to a group show. If you have a group show and you bring a bunch of works by different artists together, this always creates the experience and lends itself to the curation. When there’s an interaction between the different pieces, magic can happen. With a solo show, it’s quite different in terms of a particular artist’s vision. How you convey that vision through curation and how the pieces lend themselves to the space plays into it. It’s a physical thing, especially in this gallery where we have quite different rooms with different atmospheres. Some of them are small, more intimate and have lower ceilings and wooden floors and others are bigger with higher ceilings or concrete floors.

How involved in the curation process is the artist? 

It’s their body of work. It’s their vision. We leave that up to them. We’re happy to engage with the artists as much as they want in terms of getting stuff up on the walls. Some artists leave it up to us and others have a vision of how the show should work, so we’re happy to accommodate whatever works best for them. Just because an artists is good at creating work, doesn’t mean they’re good at curating the space. 

Michaelis made a virtual tour of last year’s graduate show. How does the virtual world affect the future of galleries? 

That’s something we talk about a lot. It’s not problematic but it’s an interesting issue. A lot of artworks don’t photograph well at all, so seeing them in person is completely different. Seeing them in context is also different. Galleries can be great places to be in; you’re in a beautiful building having a cup of coffee, maybe a glass of wine, and interacting with other people. I think galleries are important in adding to the experience of art. 

What’s your relationship like with other galleries? 

We’re very much a small fry or the new kid on the block. There’s a lot of potential for working as a community because every gallery has its own aesthetic. There’s potential for growing a community of artists, where we refer people to each other, artists, clients and maybe collaborate on events together without being too territorial. 

Nowadays, how much power does a gallery have in impacting the art scene? Do you think it’s necessary for an artist to cultivate a good relationship and be represented by a gallery? 

That’s a contentious issue. With Instagram and Facebook, you don’t honestly need a gallery to be successful. Where the difficulty comes in is if you’re an artist who is selling your own work privately, then you’re basically working two jobs. It depends on you as an artist. Do you want to spend time creating the work, or do you want to spend some time curating the work and the rest of it doing admin and social media posts, which is what the gallery should be doing? They should be growing your career and helping you reach different audiences, because while there are a lot of younger people on social media, many older collectors aren’t. You need to find a good balance. 

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What’s the ratio between international and local collectors? 

Because of our location in the CBD, we’re on the tourist route and get a lot of tourists through the door. We’ve been selling very steadily to them, particularly over the summer season, but we also have a lot of South African buyers as well, so it’s a good mix. There’s much interest in South African art and design from overseas at the moment. People are coming and buying because they’re learning more about African art, the scope of it and the amazing stuff that we have happening here. 

My experience of tourists after having been in the industry for almost a decade is that tourists used to walk into a gallery and ask, “Where’s the African art?” They’d want the stone carvings and township scenes, painted masks and smiling children. These days they’re not doing that so much anymore. People’s perceptions are changing. 

Can you share any current trends? 

There are always trends and I think the internet has a lot to do with that. People are seeing what’s popular online or picking up imagery that’s popular and trying to jump on that bandwagon. Quite abstracted, soft landscapes has been very popular over the last year or so. Five years ago, painting wasn’t popular at all, now galleries like Stevenson are exhibiting painting exhibitions all the time, which I love. I’m thrilled about that.

What’s your favourite thing about working at 99 Loop? 

There are quite a few. I enjoy being surrounded by art, it really is a privilege to spend every day with these beautiful things that I tend to get quite attached to. So I actually get upset when they sell because I miss having them around. Being able to engage with so many different people and spending time talking to artists to find out more about the process behind their work are things I enjoy as well. I also love hearing people’s responses to works, whether they love it or hate it, and why.

Are there any exciting things can we look forward to this year? 

We’re opening a bar and restaurant downstairs, and there’s Cape Town Art Fair next month which we’ve been planning for ages. It’s the first time we’re participating, so we’re very excited.

For 99 Loop’s latest exhibitions and news, follow them on Facebook and Instagram.

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Selected photography by Basil Brady



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