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Included is a collection of fine art collected from the 1950s, with pieces by Irma Stern, William Kentridge, Maggie Laubser, Gerard Sekoto, Sydney Kumalo and Robert Hodgins.

The museum could become one of the major museums in the southern hemisphere, says international art publisher and exhibitor David Krut.”The Wits art collection is one of the major collections in SA. Its holdings reflect an important period of the country’s art history, making it a substantial educational collection,” he says.At present all this art is available for viewing by appointment only. The museum will change that. There will be five display areas, proper lighting and “space to really commune with it”. This, says Krut, is essential.”It is essential that the collection be accessed by students and the general public, as well as the many overseas visitors who visit art galleries as a natural part of their stay. Wits’s gallery has the potential to be one of the major museums of the southern hemisphere…. (It) has a skilled curatorial staff (who) have worked at Wits for many years and are natural art historians regarding contemporary South African art,” he says.Curator Julia Charlton says: “It’s, in fact, a first for SA, where there is no space permanently dedicated to African art.”Architects Nina Cohen and Fiona Garson designed the renovation of the three buildings that will make up the museum to ensure a huge forecourt that will be open in the daytime to make it clear that the museum belongs both to the public and the university. For Charlton and co-curator Fiona Rankin-Smith it is the realisation of a dream.”We’ve been working on this for so long, It’s such a privilege to work with this collection. We have the most wonderful things, they are magnificent and funny and rich…. To be able to share them (with the public) is going to be fantastic,” says Charlton.It is a big achievement for Wits’s development and fundraising office, led for the past year by Martha Molete.”Art is seen as somewhat of a luxury in SA, with more urgent issues such as HIV/AIDS, other urgent social issues, and science, engineering and technology, but it’s important for our future. We need to have pride in our heritage,” says Molete.But the money has come in, all R38,5m of it, in donations that range from R180 to R12m. It came from just 10 individuals.”Some are just passionate about art. Some felt it was a tragedy that all this art was in storage —; the person who gave the largest donation, R12m, felt like that,” says Molete.The collection is important for three reasons, says Charlton. It is the only collection of African art from the whole continent; it has been collected, in the main, over the past 30 years; and it is a university collection, informed by university inquiry.”During the apartheid years it was not popular to collect African art. It was considered tribal, inferior. Wits began teaching African art as art —; not anthropology —; in the 1970s and the collection comes from that,” says Charlton.Because Wits was a university, some of the pieces were —; and probably still are —; controversial, one of the most famous of these being Sam Nhlengethwa’s collage, It left him cold —; the death of Steve Biko (1990).”A university is able to contain and encourage the heated debate. Some of the Wits exhibitions were closed down (during the apartheid years) because they were too politically or sexually provocative. The educational context makes this special,” says Charlton.On Monday last week the first hammer was lifted in the reconstruction of three buildings on the corner of Jan Smuts Avenue and Jorissen Street, where, as Molete puts it, “the university shakes hands with the city”.The museum is not just a gallery and 60% of the space will not be open to the public but will contain lecture halls, classrooms and climate-controlled storerooms where most of the work will take place. Garson and Cohen’s designs try to make this apparent in enormous blank walls to highlight the museum’s working areas. “This 40:60 ratio is according to international museum accreditation standards,” says Charlton.There is also a database that allocates a number to each work, noting what it is; where and when it was acquired and how much it cost; damage and repairs; where it has been exhibited; and the names of previous owners. “Provenance is a critical part of (an artwork’s) value.… If it was owned by a celebrity … that adds to its value,” says > www.businessday.co.za for a selection of the artworks and a video clip.Source: Business Day

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