Maverick Life

Maverick Life

What to expect as galleries and museums open up for visitors

What to expect as galleries and museums open up for visitors
Francesco Ungaro for Unsplash

Maverick Life caught up with some of South Africa’s leading galleries and museums located in the country’s visual art hubs, Cape Town and Johannesburg, to find out how they are navigating safely opening to the public under the recently adjusted Level 3 lockdown regulations.

“I actually feel that a gallery is one of the safest places. It’s a big open space; people are solidly encouraged not to touch anything, and usually there are very few people; it’s a nice quiet and calm space to just kind of collect your thoughts, and it’s also something nice to do in terms of seeking outlets for recreation,” says Heinrich Groenewald, head of Exhibitions at SMAC gallery. The gallery is spread across three locations: Woodstock and Stellenbosch in the Western Cape, and Johannesburg; although the Johannesburg location is currently closed as they are moving to new premises.

As part of “advanced Level 3” lockdown regulations, galleries and museums are now allowed to open in accordance with regulations as gazetted on 6 July, including the mandatory wearing of masks, provision of hand sanitisers, and limiting capacity to no more than 50 people.

Like many other galleries, SMAC encourages visitors to make an appointment prior to visiting. However, this is not necessarily a strict rule.

“Truthfully, as much as any other shop, we are a space of commerce, right? As much as you wouldn’t call Spar to make an appointment before you go shopping, you don’t really actually have to make an appointment, you can just visit and it will pretty much always be a safe space to come and enjoy art,” says Groenewald.

In addition to closely monitored hygiene practices, Groenewald highlights that the gallery has implemented other practices, like always keeping the doors open so that visitors never have to touch them, and keeping masks on hand for visitors who don’t have masks. They have also implemented a roster for staff so that the same team always works together:

“For instance, I would be working Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays, with a specific team. So if any of us were to contract the virus then we would check in with our team and then we would all isolate and take the necessary precautions.”

While the government rules and regulations are clear, there isn’t necessarily a consensus among galleries and museums with regards to navigating the safest way to operate at present and for the near future. Joost Bosland for example, director at the Stevenson gallery, which has locations in Cape Town and Johannesburg, doesn’t share Groenewald’s enthusiasm for galleries as safe spaces right now.

Says Bosland: “Our first obligation is to our artists and to make sure that they can continue to make a living. We certainly don’t want galleries to go the way of restaurants. So, when it comes to anything that directly contributes to generating income for artists, I think we don’t have a choice but to continue. But I don’t think it’s ethical to go beyond that and to encourage people to come to our spaces, or open to the public or do anything that encourages circulation.”

The country’s leading larger institutions, such as the Johannesburg Art Gallery, Iziko museum’s South African National Gallery and Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town remain closed to the public. The Norval Foundation in Steenberg, Cape Town, is keeping its galleries closed for the time being while their large outdoor sculpture garden is open to the public free of charge; and the Skotnes restaurant on site has been open since 9 July.

Stevenson is currently open at both the Johannesburg and Cape Town locations by appointment only. However, Bosland encourages visitors to make their appointments a day or two ahead of their visit so they can make arrangements for a member of staff to meet them at the gallery, as they are mostly working remotely.

“We’ve received some appointments, and it’s been really nice to share our work with people again. But, at the same time, we’re not actively advertising that we’re open and we’re not encouraging people to make appointments.

“If you want to see work by an artist that you’ve been following for a while, or perhaps you’re writing something or you’re a collector, or even if you just really feel like seeing the work will give you hope in this time, then we’re open by appointment. But we don’t encourage it as a day out just because you’ve been in lockdown and are looking for something to do to get you out of the house,” says Bosland.

The country’s leading larger institutions, such as the Johannesburg Art Gallery, Iziko museum’s South African National Gallery and Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town remain closed to the public. The Norval Foundation in Steenberg, Cape Town, is keeping its galleries closed for the time being while their large outdoor sculpture garden is open to the public free of charge; and the Skotnes restaurant on site has been open since 9 July.

“We are actually in the exhibition installation phase, so we decided to close the museum until we can open our four upcoming exhibitions together on the second of September,” says Norval Foundation CEO Elana Brundyn. For the time being, “because the garden is so big, and it’s outside and there’s more than enough space, people can just come without making an appointment. But, for the restaurant, they would have to make a booking,” she adds.

While regulations have been the primary determinants as to when and how galleries can open, the industries that service the galleries also play a key role.

Ahead of the September opening, the museum is working to ensure that all safety regulations are adhered to, as well as reducing touch points, so that visitors don’t have to touch surfaces. When they do open, visitors won’t have to make appointments. Brundyn cites the approximately 10,000 square metre size of the museum as an added advantage when it comes to social distancing, and as the reason why it would not be necessary to make appointments.

“As a museum, we don’t have a huge amount of people coming through at this time of the year anyway – it’s unlikely that we would have a crowd larger than 50, unless there’s an opening. And, going forward, we would scatter those, so that we have much smaller events. I’m also thinking of creating a one-way route through the museum’s galleries, so that we always direct people in a specific direction and make sure they are unlikely to run into each other,” she explains.

While regulations have been the primary determinants as to when and how galleries can open, the industries that service the galleries also play a key role.

“What we’ve realised now is that it takes a lot longer to get stuff organised, from framing to printing to transporting work, because there are less people allowed to work in offices, so it takes longer to get the work out and all of these sort of things,” says Ashleigh McLean, curatorial director at the WHATIFTHEWORLD gallery in Cape Town, which is currently open to the public by appointment. However, like SMAC, they do not necessarily turn away visitors who do not have an appointment.

They are currently working towards an exhibition opening which will be divided into a series of small “socially distant” events. However, due to the slowed-down pace of the industries that service galleries, the gallery has postponed the official exhibition opening to an unconfirmed future date.

“I think we’ve realised that what we need to do is to kind of slow the whole thing down and have all our ducks in a row before we go ahead and announce a date,” says McLean.

She also sees this moment as an opportunity to make visiting a gallery a much more intimate, informative, and “boutique” experience.

Says McLean: “Because you can phone the director of the gallery and say ‘Hi, I’m so and so and I haven’t really bought any art before, but I’d like to come and see the gallery,’ and you can get a private personalised tour. It could be a way of accessing a level of engagement that you may not have been able to access previously.

“I certainly don’t foresee us doing those big kinds of openings of yesteryear for a very long time. But considering the fact that performance-driven art events, and music events and stuff have really ceased to exist, I think it’s important that visual arts galleries are able to still provide some kind of cultural engagement.” DM/ML

Disclaimer: The author’s partner is artist Athi-Patra Ruga, who is represented by one of the galleries interviewed for this story.

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