They are the modern-day Medicis. The 21st-century Guggenheims. Contemporary benefactors of the arts, who use their sizeable fortunes to collect and protect the rich archives of creativity that governments can’t (or won’t) enshrine.

In the SA context, Louis Norval is the newest of these. Or perhaps, strictly speaking, he is the latest to place his long love affair with visual art in the limelight, opening it up to public engagement and allowing us mere mortals who don’t dabble in property empires to enjoy and learn about people, ideas and work we might never have had the opportunity to do otherwise.

William Kentridge and Marguerite Stephens. Picture: SARAH BUITENDACH
William Kentridge and Marguerite Stephens. Picture: SARAH BUITENDACH

For the low-key executive chair of the Homestead Group and co-founder of Attfund Limited, this philanthropy has manifested on an epic physical scale. His is the new art gallery and archive, named the Norval Foundation, that has just opened in Cape Town.

We’re not talking about that massive silo structure at the V&A Waterfront — that’s the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, which opened seven months ago. That’s also a privately funded world-class art space. Which makes this, the Norval Foundation, Cape Town’s second stellar art space. But it’s really a different thing altogether, a national treasure of a singular kind.

Tucked between the crevasses at the foot of the Constantiaberg, half an hour outside the City Bowl and within chukka-hitting distance of some of the most beautiful homes of Constantia’s mink and manure set, is this low-slung and deeply appealing new home of SA art.

Africa by Edoardo Villa. Picture: SARAH BUITENDACH
Africa by Edoardo Villa. Picture: SARAH BUITENDACH

Designed by dhk Architects, this contemporary concrete box of treasures might look compact from the outside but that’s a trick of the eye. Once you’re indoors, you realise just how voluminous it is. This is a vast structure that houses galleries, offices, a library, gift store and restaurant.

But what’s the deal? Why does this space exist in the first place? It’s simple really. As director Elana Brundyn puts it on the frantic morning we take a walk around the foundation — it’s throwing a big launch dinner that evening — in among cleaning crews, cherry pickers and builders: "Louis has been collecting art for 20 years. In fact, his love is keeping art collections together. When he went to auctions he felt so sad that someone had spent so much time and effort to put a collection together and then it got broken up."

A case in point is the Bruce Campbell Smith Collection Norval bought in its entirety. It includes over 450 pieces by key black South African artists created between the 1920s and early 2000s. "The Norval family’s wish was to make art available to normal people," Brundyn says. So what you’ll see here is some of their collection — but that actually represents a tiny proportion of what will be exhibited. There are other works on loan to the gallery and, critically, three collections that the foundation is looking after — those of local artists Gerard Sekoto, Edoardo Villa and Alexis Preller.

Skotnes Restaurant. Picture: SARAH BUITENDACH
Skotnes Restaurant. Picture: SARAH BUITENDACH

Going walkabout

Villa’s unmistakable mid-century metal sculptures form part of the foundation’s maiden exhibition. Adjunct senior curator professor Karel Nel has put the show together. It’s a first-of-its-kind retrospective entitled Re/discovery and Memory that revolves around the figures Sydney Kumalo and Ezrom Legae created between 1958 and 1968. They’re shown alongside works by Villa, their friend and colleague. To juxtapose these classic sculptural works with the now, Nel tasked contemporary artist Serge Alain Nitegeka with creating large-scale responses to the Villa element of the display. The youngster’s pieces are something to behold — but it’s the sky-high Africa by Villa that stops people in their tracks. This monolith of a sculpture was last seen in 1960 at Iscor’s HQ in Pretoria. It boggles the mind to think of the logistics required to get it out of retirement and to the Cape.

Across the building, and for something completely different, chief curator Owen Martin has put together the contemporary Pulling at Threads, which looks at the idea of materiality and craft in the digital age. In the mix are Billie Zangewa’s bewitching silk depictions of everyday life, Nick Cave’s button-embellished Soundsuits and Igshaan Adams’s woven mixed-media masterpieces, and work by William Kentridge and Marguerite Stephens.

Re/discovery and Memory exhibition. Picture: SARAH BUITENDACH
Re/discovery and Memory exhibition. Picture: SARAH BUITENDACH

In the main, visitors will come to see this kind of internal display, and those that follow it, but it is impossible not to acknowledge that this building is also very much outward-facing. How could it not be, when you consider its location — vistas of Table Mountain are the backdrop of the main gallery and rolling vineyards jut over the property’s boundary fence. There’s also the sculpture garden, landscaped by Keith Kirsten and dotted with installations by Victor Ehikhamenor, Michele Mathison and Wim Botha. This is also the view from the exceptionally chic Skotnes Restaurant, headed by chef Phil de Villiers. It’s named for Cecil Skotnes, whose impressive 20th-century panel reliefs line the walls. That’s the kind of devilish detail that abounds. Even the chocolates for sale in the gift store are bedecked with images from the collection.

For most of the week, entrance to the foundation is R140. "We benchmarked this off movie ticket prices," says Brundyn. But on Mondays anyone can visit for free. And people under 18 and schools will always be able to come without paying. "Like libraries and education, art has the power to change lives and we see this as a vital educational tool," says Brundyn.

Ogling the Legae sculptures, we bump into Norval himself.

"Stressed?" I ask.

"This is nothing compared to the opening of a shopping centre with loads of tenants," he says with a laugh, as we watch a yet-to-be-planted cabbage tree topple in the garden being created in front of the gallery, to be completed by dusk.

Does he realise what he’s doing for SA art, I ask.

"I guess you never know the impact something like this will have on people in the long term, but you hope it will inspire and make a difference," he says.

It’s the understatement of the year, that’s for sure.