Zeitz museum boss astounds the art world, so why did he resign?
Mystery still surrounds Mark Coetzee’s dramatic and surprise resignation last Wednesday as executive director and chief curator of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz Mocaa).
So far, Coetzee has not responded to inquiries after the museum’s public relations company released a terse statement that he was suspended from his duties, with this loaded statement: "An inquiry into Mr Coetzee’s professional conduct has been initiated by the trustees. Mr Coetzee has since tendered his resignation."
The ever-sensitive and sometimes small-minded local art world has been tittering since. And, of course, the direction of the tourist-luring Zeitz Mocaa is up for discussion, because Coetzee was, if anything, the boss.
The shock resignation came two weeks after the opening of the Norval Foundation in Steenberg, an echo of the Zeitz Mocaa’s concept of capitalist collector art.
The trustees have announced that the Nigerian photography expert Azu Nwagbogu, an adjunct curator, will take over the directorship. For the rest they are staying tight-lipped about that "inquiry".
When the hoopla around the opening of the converted 1921 Grain Silo in the V&A Waterfront reached fever pitch last September, it was a dream come true for Coetzee, who literally started his professional career as art promoter in the tiniest space in central Cape Town.
In the mid-1990s he showed cutting edge art in the Mark Coetzee Fine Art Cabinet in Bree Street. He was a well-travelled practising artist and obtained an MA in fine art from the University of Stellenbosch in 1997.
In 1999 he left the country and, in Miami, by chance — as he explained in an interview in 2014 — became involved in the management of rich collectors’ art holdings.
Initially he worked for nine years with the well-known wealthy couple Don and Mera Rubell, assisting them in establishing one of the world’s first rich collectors’ museums, a trend that was to catch on. "The Miami Model", as he called it, was the blue print for the Zeitz Mocaa, as it is for the recently opened Norval Foundation gallery in Cape Town.
Jochen Zeitz, former head of Puma, asked him to help with the African art collection, and so became the rainmaker of the current museum.
"Since my Fine Art Cabinet days, it has always been my dream to have such a museum in Cape Town," Coetzee said in 2014.
But ever since plans for the museum were announced five years ago, the concept has had its critics.
The conversion of the gorgeous old building — a heritage-protected thorn in the flesh of the enterprising tourist-shopping entrepreneur owners of the V&A Waterfront — by the swashbuckling, trendy designer Thomas Heatherwick did not please all, despite the abundant public relations and photo opportunities. Punted to have cost about R500m, the exact funding has never been clarified. Fundraising was set up from the start, despite the building bearing an individual’s name as patron.
Art owned by Zeitz was the core of the first exhibitions, but the exact status of his commitment is not clear.
Perhaps the most important criticisms of the Zeitz Mocaa centred on its curatorial operations and selection of art.
At the same time more sensitive cultural observers worried about the influence of this "big money" presence in local art circles. Suspicion of hegemony in choices and acquisitions follows subtle money power, while gallerists are happy to play to that.
Early on, critic Matthew Blackman questioned both the presence of the new high-profile art authority and its curatorial methodology.
Last week, Blackman wrote that Coetzee has recently failed to respond to questions about the institutional practices at Zeitz Mocaa.
"There have been unconfirmed rumours for some months that abuses of power were taking place, the nature of which is not known. Although several people at the museum have been asked for comment, none has been forthcoming."
In response to first accusations that all decisions were made by one person, Coetzee gave a rundown of curatorial management and explained after the opening that he had only one vote out of the museum’s line-up of 14 curators. Board members have no voting rights on acquisitions and are not allowed any influence on that process.
"No one has a veto right and a majority has to be attained for an acquisition to take place," he said in an interview.
"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."
Other than demonstrating the transparency or otherwise of this kind of private-public cultural institution, the big question hovering over Coetzee’s abrupt departure is whether that system held up, or whether it and the personalities in play could not accommodate one person’s dream.