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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 Stephan Welz

Decade: Highlights from 10 years of collecting for the Sanlam Art Collection - Opening Remarks by Stephan Welz


Stephan Welz - 2008-08-19

Johannesburg
5 March 2008

In the early 1960s Sanlam formally started a collection of South African art with three objectives: to decorate the offices of members of staff, to support and promote art in South Africa and, possibly the most distinctive, to own paintings for reproduction in Sanlam’s art calendars. The collection was originally well funded and by the late 1960s it already comprised some 160 paintings.

Already in 1968 Sanlam was able to mount an exhibition of 59 works which were exhibited in the SA National Gallery and Pretoria Art Museum. These exhibitions were not only groundbreaking in terms of the role of corporate collections being made accessible to the general public, but were also accepted with great acclaim.

The success of this collection in terms of quality, and the positive role it continues to play in promoting the arts in the public domain, can be attributed largely to the fact that from the outset Sanlam made use of some of the very best consultants, who were enthusiastically supported by management. FL Alexander and Prof J du P Scholtz were some of the earliest people involved, and though long deceased, they are still revered today for the big role they played in South African art, particularly for their important publications. Later, people such as Nel Erasmus and Ellen Davis-Mesman continued the fine tradition and setting of standards and today we have evidence of the tremendous contribution Stefan Hundt and his colleagues are making, not only towards the collection but towards South African art in general.

In one of the earliest Sanlam exhibition catalogues, circa 1970, Prof Scholtz notes in the introduction:

An important aspect of the promotion of art is the encouragement of interest among the people as a whole. To achieve this, it is necessary to bring the public into contact with works of art of recognized importance. But art is constantly renewing itself – unless it does this, it dies. For the layman new forms of art are often hard to understand; it is a well-known fact that in the past people have again and again violently objected to new work which they did not understand. But with the passing of time work which at first seemed strange and even revolutionary, ended by being generally accepted and appreciated. Therefore Sanlam must and will certainly also buy work for its collection which is new and may seem strange, provided it is honest and of good quality. A climate must be created in our country in which an art innovator will find sufficient understanding and support. Without this he cannot work and we run the risk of losing him.

Corporate art collections have increasingly been seen as a cultural asset which can be used to brand a company (by way of exhibitions, publications, calendars, etc), to build an internal corporate identity and to meet the need for community and social responsibility. In Britain last year corporate and private funding of the arts amounted to roughly £600 million - exceeding government or public funding for the first time. I believe this is as a result both of increased corporate interest in the Arts and a declining pro rata funding by Government. In South Africa this situation has prevailed for very many years now and I can think of no force that will turn this trend around in the foreseeable future. Therefore, the role corporations such as Sanlam are playing needs to be nurtured and encouraged by all who have an interest in the arts.

In his introduction to the exhibition Stefan notes:

There is little doubt that South Africa has over the past decade produced some significant creative talent. Yet a judicious and considered approach when collecting here is called for. Primary is the integrity with which the artists pursue their concept and to what degree this becomes qualitatively comprehensible to an informed viewer.

There are three very important aspects raised in this paragraph which apply to all collecting, not only as regards art of the last decade. As can be seen from the collection on view tonight, which spans more than a century, there is a bond and unity between all. With reference to the above extract from Stefan’s Introduction I would like to illustrate how this comes about.

The first idea to explore is the "judicious and considered approach". Today, probably the majority of art collectors (perhaps better referred to as art buyers because collector presupposes some degree of connoisseurship), are motivated by fashion and marketing when deciding what to buy. In recent years the art trade has succeeded in turning artists' names into "brands", selling names rather than works. Lesser and even inferior works by "brand" artists are snapped up by private as well as corporate buyers sadly lacking a "judicious and considered approach". This results in disparate accumulations – not collections.

Next is "the integrity with which the artists pursue their concept" and then "to what degree this becomes qualitatively comprehensible".
 
Certainly over the last decade much of what has been produced and exhibited with great fanfare is heralded as "cutting-edge" and "breaking the boundaries". Sadly, if this were so important a difference (compared with what has gone before) it is bound to be of no significance at all. Here the acerbic art critic for the Evening Standard, Brian Sewell, expresses my thoughts on the matter exactly and I quote him liberally: "Difference is noted in a fraction of a second and if difference is all that an artist has to offer, then there is no point in spending longer in its contemplation."
 
However, works with a superficial and in your face theme often "provide the opportunity for the curators and critics of contemporary art to write of the many layers of meaning that they could perceive, not only in the concept but in the labour of its embodiment. This is what critics and curators do today – apply meaning to the meaningless."

With my tongue firmly in my cheek I also quote Tom Stoppard: "Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art."

So much of what we are exposed to today offers nothing in terms of visual and intellectual nourishment. That is what makes this exhibition such a pleasure, as it offers what one should reasonably be able to expect from an exhibition.

Finally, Stefan sets the requirements of “an informed viewer”. The saddest indication of how poor the standing of an informed viewer is in our society at present is the current state of the SA Art Market. Of the "integrity" and the "qualitative comprehensibility" Stefan sets as prerequisites there is very little evidence. Here I could hold forth, indeed fulminate, for hours. Suffice it to say that when record prices are being paid for works of little or no quality by artists of meagre ability and less integrity, we need a serious reappraisal of the full spectrum of our public institutions and bodies – whether it is the National Gallery or the Department of Arts and Culture. We need to start looking at the role they should be playing, the educating, researching, publishing and curating functions they exist for. Certainly all are to a greater or lesser extent sadly lacking in every respect and are pursuing policies that can only prove calamitous as far as the arts are concerned.

Corporates are at present saving the day, but they do have several advantages over public collections. They don’t have to deal with the bureaucracy that government institutions have to suffer; in many instances they are better funded; they are also able to dispose of works and continually upgrade their collections, as is the case with the Sanlam Collection. However, the considerable problems of many of our leading public galleries and institutions cannot be regarded as an excuse for the fact that one is often unable to see a representative selection of quality South African art there or buy any publication of any significance relating to South African art from them. These are some of the problems which need to be addressed urgently, but while we fail to arouse public or government concern, nothing is going to happen.

As far as the Sanlam Collection is concerned it is interesting to note that monetary value is not mentioned anywhere. Although it belongs to one of our biggest financial institutions, the investment performance over the years does not come into it. Investment was never a priority; quality, conservation and stewardship have been the criteria and with that comes the confidence that in time the true value of the artists and the works will be understood and their potential realised.

This exhibition is indicative of what can be and is being done. Why are we not all maintaining the same vision and standards?

 

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

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