Reaching up: The architecturally impressive atrium of the newly opened Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town’s Waterfront. Picture: SUPPLIED
Reaching up: The architecturally impressive atrium of the newly opened Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town’s Waterfront. Picture: SUPPLIED

Before its weekend opening, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa at Cape Town’s Waterfront hosted the who’s who’s of art world collectors and museum curators.

With a budget of about R500m, it has promised to put African art on a worthy pedestal. The public relations message was disseminated long before the opening: plans were announced; there were fashion balls and museum nights; sponsors and donors; and fundraising (despite the naming right holder’s fortune).

The public relations heat was turned up in the days before the opening. The glossies were competing for angles, the art world flew in to see the masterful gift of building and content, and a cloak of awe had been spread over Cape Town.

The growing presence of the Zeitz museum’s huge budget in the hearts and minds of local artists, gallerists, curators, and other cultural wheelers and dealers is already apparent.

There are faint echoes of how Brett Kebble stole the art scene early in the 2000s with his generous awards. (Most artists were duped by the lure of the money and never questioned its source.) Some cultural observers are questioning the effect of contemporary private "patron-branded" art museums — a growing phenomenon — that reflects the whims of a wealthy collector on the rest of its social and cultural environment.

Billionaires who have pinned their names to large art spaces include Francois Pinault (Paris and Venice), Bernard Arnault (Paris), David Geffen (Los Angeles), Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli (Milan), George Lucas (Chicago), Eli Broad (Los Angeles) and Mera and Don Rubell (Miami).

Zeitz director and chief curator Mark Coetzee established the Rubell Museum in Miami.

It is argued that these new, big-budget private museums usurp the traditional role of established public art museums as civic centres of cultural expertise. This arose because, in the past 25 years, art had become an important plaything for the extremely wealthy.

There have always been art patrons through history and art is easy prey to propaganda. But there is a new parvenu paradigm: quick rich and quick art.

As recently developed status currency (the rich had already annexed the others) the effect has been that art prices have rocketed. While this is fantastic for artists, it also relocated taste, expertise, knowledge and insight from professional, dedicated culture practitioners at art museums, schools and institutions to a new class of "collectors" and dealer operators.

This undermines the traditional spaces in which cultural significance and excellence have been determined. The high prices also seriously disadvantage traditional public art institutions and collections with their limited public funds. All these "new museums" carry their patrons’ monikers and are financed to play the publicity and self-promotion game to the hilt.

Artworks have been donated to the Iziko South African National Gallery collection by Coetzee. Is this a good thing or compromising?

A major issue is the manner in which institutions such as the Zeitz decide what to buy and show. As a "private museum" this is an in-house decision, with no transparent cultural and social engagement with the host city. Traditional, established and best art practice has advisers, consultants and selection committees defining norms. The world’s great public art galleries and museums operate like this.

Coetzee says Zeitz has an art acquisition committee with 14 curators and two registrars without voting rights who advise on conditions and logistics. They also consult with four "curators-at-large" and three "adjunct curators". He says: "I have one vote out of 14. No one has a veto right and a majority has to be attained for an acquisition to take place."

The committee meets quarterly. "Any work acquired has to fulfil the mission of the museum and follow the code of ethics defined by the Association of Art Museum Directors and International Council of Museums," Coetzee adds.

Board members have no voting rights on acquisitions and are not allowed to influence that process. "Not even Jochen Zeitz or the V&A Waterfront."

Recently, a young artist boasted about her entire first exhibition being bought by Zeitz. Is this good or bad news for a young artist? Is this constructive for creativity? Is acquiring an exhibition not an imposing, hubristic statement of power?

Artworks have been donated to the Iziko South African National Gallery collection by Coetzee. Is this a good thing or compromising?

Critic Matthew Blackman best summed up the problem two years ago: "This, although seemingly an act of philanthropy, is not best practice. At its root, it will rewrite history and distort the voice of Iziko South African National Gallery and promote the art-historical interpretation of the Museum of Contemporary Art Africa.

"This is not only creating a hegemonic distortion of history, but also a distortion in the market, in that the stature of these artists is increased by the fact that they are now part of two prominent collections rather than one," Blackman said.

Coetzee says he had given away his entire personal art collection. "I donated my artworks to Iziko South African National Gallery. I felt that I should not own any artworks that are of the same period as the museum as that might be conflict of interest."

With its large budget, Zeitz will have no problem stealing the limelight from other institutions. The National Gallery, Cape Town’s great art museum, is in serious trouble — lacking funds, expertise and leadership.

Pretoria University is building a new contemporary African art museum. Unlike Zeitz where an individual institution’s art collection and taste will dominate and be showcased, it will be a space of dialogue and international exchange.

But both share a murkiness of mandate: what does that "Africa(n)" mean? Does this mean artists born in Africa? Who moved here? Art made in Africa? Art about Africa?

Set in the V&A Waterfront, in its triumphant architectural splendour, vividly marketed by sleek public relations practi-tioners, the awkwardly named Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa may well offer superbly presented art. But will it promote aesthetic invention, originality and creativity at grassroots level on the African soil and in the backroom art studios of the Mother City?

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