Screwed beneath the blue heritage plaque at the entrance to the recently re-opened Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) is a metal plate, a curious relic from times gone by. The plate tells the visitor that except for Mondays throughout the year, Good Friday and Christmas Day, the gallery is open to members of the public from 10am-5pm Tuesdays to Sundays. Entrance, we are told with breezy pride, is free.

With its crisp formalities and sense of civic purpose, the plate is a sign of less troubled times. During such times it was assumed that all self-respecting cities needed an art gallery, which bought, stored and displayed art for the public good.

Such times are with us no longer and, over the years, JAG has sunk into a swamp of politically motivated neglect, corruption and despair. Said one art-industry professional who didn’t want to be named: "There’s been systemic underresourcing of the institution going back 30 years. Maintenance has always been seen as a bit of a grudge purchase anyway, and posts have been left unfilled for decades."

The nadir of JAG’s largely sleepy 102-year history occurred in January when the gallery was closed temporarily, with the then curator, Antoinette Murdoch, resigning from her post. The closure was the result of flooding and water damage in two sections in the gallery, which, in turn, was the result of either poor workmanship (on the west wing roof) or historical problems and pilfering of copper plate from the roof of JAG’s most recently added (northern) wing.

The public response to the closure was that all-too familiar contemporary mixture of fatigue and incredulity, a piquant compound which might yet find its way into the dictionary as a new word – "fatulity". The questions were obvious: "Could it get any worse?" "Abutted on one side by a taxi rank and never the nicest spot in the CBD, had JAG finally reached the end of a long and fraught road?"

Two Sundays ago, however, the gallery staggered, punch-drunk and heroic, to its feet. A small exhibition by Angela Ferreira, a Maputo-born artist with a foot in SA, was opened within it, and though much of the gallery space is still empty, there is a cautious optimism in the air.

It will, however, be months — if not years — before the gallery is restored to something approaching its former state. Of the two water-damaged areas, the northern wing is probably worst affected. This wing was added to the original Edwin Lutyens construction by architects Meyer Pienaar & Associates in the late 1980s and is widely seen to be the start of the gallery’s long war with damp.

The roof above this section was never entirely waterproof but with the heavy rains of summer came fresh problems: plating from the roof was stolen, with thieves burrowing through the fence between the northern border of the gallery and Joubert Park. Water damage was widespread in this section of the gallery, and the exhibits within it were moved to safer storerooms and put under tarpaulins and sometimes boxed for safekeeping.

Flooding has also taken place in the west wing of the gallery, where the roof has been re-tiled with expensive Italian tiles at inordinate cost. Johannesburg’s art community is generally suspicious of the need for re-tiling and of the contractors used, and there are dark mutterings about the role of the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) in the initiative and the legitimacy of the tender process. The re-tiling job was so poorly done that there is limestone seepage through some of the arches; small sections of the parquet floors have been warped and damaged and the gallery’s western walls are blistered and cracked. In some parts of the western annex, walls have partially disintegrated.

Wandering through the gallery’s currently empty rooms surveying the water damage in the two sections is a sad and pathos-filled experience, though one is also occasionally made aware of JAG’s simple sandstone beauty. One of the large display rooms close to the entrance is dominated by massive wooden shutters wider than an embrace and well over two metres tall.

Here was a space, we are reminded, that citizens could stroll through, daydream in and be proud of.

Full audit

Running in tandem with renewed optimism over the gallery, there appears to be a strengthening of the political will over its future. Former mayor, Parks Tau’s neglectful leadership has given way to a more enlightened approach under new mayor Herman Mashaba, who has certainly made all the right noises about JAG’s future. Important people appear to have been embarrassed and heads might yet roll.

"As far as we can tell, JDA has opened bids for heritage architects to tender for a full audit of the gallery," says Eben Keun of Friends of JAG, who play an unheralded but precious watchdog and support role. "This said, we do have concerns about some of the companies which have apparently bid because we believe they were instrumental in some of the earlier mess."

A heritage and architectural audit is good news, because the gallery’s treasures are many and unique, and they deserve to be well cared for and preserved. It has, for example, a print cabinet, the envy of many a larger metropolitan gallery and a fine collection of etchings, local sculpture and Dutch and Flemish oils from the 17th century. It also owns a range of Impressionist paintings and a wide collection of SA art ranging from JH Pierneef to Anton van Wouw and Ernest Mancoba.

Buried within the bowels of the building is a large library (with a newly appointed librarian) which contains not only a large collection of art books but the entire Federated Union of Black Artists (Fuba) archive. The black-consciousness-inspired union was home to artists like David Koloane and Job Kekana in the 1980s, and it’s a priceless asset precious few are even aware of.

Despite the political and public neglect, the gallery also has a theoretical lifeline way beyond the role of the JDA and its funder, the Gauteng department of community development. In 1986, to celebrate the centenary of the city of Jo’burg, Anglo American set up a trust fund for the purchase of artworks to be housed in the gallery. Despite JAG’s checkered past, the trust remains active. It could play a part in the rejuvenation of the gallery’s future, particularly when many in the art and heritage community call for the privatisation of public assets, as Steven Sack did recently in an opinion piece in the Mail & Guardian.

Gradually re-emerging: A cause for cautious optimism. Picture: RUSSELL ROBERTS
Gradually re-emerging: A cause for cautious optimism. Picture: RUSSELL ROBERTS

For all the finger-pointing at the JDA and individuals like Tau, JAG itself doesn’t have a proud past. Motivated, in part, by Florence "Florrie" Phillips, wife of Lionel Phillips, Randlord, jingo and one of the early chairmen of the Chamber of Mines, the original building was designed by the imperial architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens and built with blocks of biscuit-coloured sandstone. It is a quiet, high-roofed and rather sombre building with stone and parquet floors. Its pedigree is stoutly imperial, later becoming an apartheid-era amenity for only a small section of the population. This aside, it contains some fabulous art and some intriguing treasures. With the requisite political will and a charismatic curator to drive it, the gallery might yet become the sanctuary the city deserves.

The JDA was approached for comment about its role in the January flooding and the current audit process. No comment was received at the time of going to press.

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