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Vermaak | Entertainment > Visueel | Visual > Artikels | Articles > Decade: Highlights from 10 years of collecting for the Sanlam Art Collection - Opening Remarks by Dr Wilmot James

Decade: Highlights from 10 years of collecting for the Sanlam Art Collection - Opening Remarks by Dr Wilmot James

Dr Wilmot James - 2008-08-19

Bellville Exhibition
7 August 2008

Oscar Wilde once said, "All art is immoral." He also said that "It is through Art, and through Art only, that we can realise our perfection; through Art, and through Art only, that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence" (Intentions, 1891). In human society art is ubiquitous because we are born with the capacity to make and appreciate art, although, as with all other qualities, how well we do is regulated by the normal principles of human variation.

The ubiquity of art was recently revealed by the archaeological discoveries at Pinnacle Point near Mossel Bay. Here two of the world’s more renowned archaeologists, Sally McBrearty and Chis Stringer, found humanly produced artefacts dated at 180 000 years old that suggests modernity in behaviour not at all different from yours and mine today. The use of imagery suggests a neural wiring of the brain regulating our ability to be artistic, musical and mathematical in a manner typically associated with modern humanity. They wrote that "Pinnacle Point evidence is significant because it suggests that early humans in Africa inhabited a cognitive world enriched by symbols before 160,000 years ago", a staggeringly long time in human evolution terms (Nature 449, 18 October 2007, p 794).

Art, therefore, is a substantial, fundamental, inherent and not an incidental, peripheral, superficial part of our nature. As a result, we are culturally impoverished and spiritually diminished without art. We are culturally enriched and elevated in our humanity by having art around us. If we wish to build a cultural environment that elevates the soul of South Africa we must invest in it and do so in an organised and deliberate fashion. Civilisation rarely happens by accident. As a country and nation we must encourage the making of art by example. Teachers must talk about and teach it at school. We must buy art and encourage the development of a culture of buying art.

I open this exhibition titled Decade: Highlights from 10 years of collecting for the Sanlam Art Collection by congratulating Stefan Hundt, the curator of the Sanlam Art Collection, for putting this together. Stefan provides a fascinating account of the history of South African art and the role of Sanlam as a corporate buyer in supporting the visual arts in the catalogue he produced for the exhibition. I encourage you to read it. Stefan wrote to me to say that he has "put in exhibition a work of each year of acquisition beginning in 1997 through to 2007". He tells me that Sanlam has spent just over R4 million in art acquisition between 1997 and 2007. Its market value today is likely R9 million. Sanlam, of course, has an extraordinary and large collection. Sanlam should be congratulated for enriching our lives by having such a persistent art-buying tradition.

I would also like to challenge Sanlam to do more. More of the works in the basement should be dusted off and placed in exhibition. More of the works should be placed in exhibition in places other than Bellville. Perhaps some of these should be sold to generate revenue, which can be used to buy more of today’s art. More should certainly be spent on buying art, because it supports our artists and, as it turns out, is a very good investment. In this we need to examine very closely how much the artists actually get, as there are many sharks in this business.

I would like to challenge other companies to do more. The number of companies that invest in the visual, fine and performing arts is relatively small. I am not convinced that our tax regime encourages art acquisition and it should be looked at carefully. I do not think that our national Department of Arts and Culture does enough to introduce reforms and innovations that support the arts and culture community in a manner that is deliberate, organised and sustainable. How young emerging artists get into the gallery pipeline and all of the support networks that help them develop a command over their intellectual property, legal contracts, tax, pricing and sales – in short, democratising the art production and exchange business, which still remains organised along medieval patron-centred lines, not a bad thing in itself, but certainly not appropriate to current circumstances!

In particular, artists that are not part of institutions need support. We should become smart and innovative about this. We need to include artists – all artists, not black artists only – in empowerment schemes. We need to find ways of providing them with health care, insurance and annuity policies. Indeed, that is Sanlam’s business. The Ford Foundation created a highly innovative programme called United States Artists which gives US$50 000 each to fifty artists working in a wide variety of disciplines and at various stages in their careers.

If we therefore really want to enrich our nation with art in an organised manner, we must pay heed to Aristotle who said that the good of humanity "is the active exercise of his soul’s faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue ... Moreover, this activity must occupy a complete lifetime; for one swallow does not make a spring, nor does one fine day" (Nicomachean Ethics bk 1, 1098a 16-20).

  • Dr James is a non-executive director of Sanlam and executive director of the Africa Genome Education Institute.

>> Click here to download the catalogue of the exhibition in PDF

>> Click here for more on the current exhibition in Bellville