Picking up the Pieces

After dragging the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) through years of misguided and inappropriate leadership, grossly inefficient management and a general lack of any creative vision, Rochelle Keene has finally stepped down. Taking the helm is Clive Kellner, who is now faced with the exciting task of leading JAG from the Keene quagmire into a new position of strength.

Kellner is known in South African art circles as an active player in the second Johannesburg Biennale, as a respected curator of international shows and for the Camouflage gallery, which he set up with Fernando Alvim. This is an extraordinary track record, one that has seen him build audiences, raise funds, manage an impressive list of international artists and programmes, foster international contacts, develop curatorial knowledge and polish his political savvy, the last an essential requirement in directing an organisation that is part bureaucratic and part creative.

During a brief hiatus from Johannesburg, Clive and (MTN Art Institute’s) Ronel Kellner “moved to a considerably quieter environment in the country and assessed life from a different perspective”. The couple had a baby, “and lived a life based on an alternate value system not predicated on materialism, success and career, but one of community, religion and rediscovery”.

Now back in Jo’burg, Kellner feels “enormously empowered by taking the reigns of a 100-year-old institution that is about change as much as it is about continuity, legacy and status”. He adds: “Without vision, people perish.”

The key aspects of Kellner’s plan are “to develop a credible local and international institution by strengthening the curatorial and exhibitions departments and content, networking and raising the profile of the museum, building institutional capacity and taking care of in-house problems quickly and efficiently.”

Kellner also notes that it is important for JAG to scale down the number of smaller exhibitions, to “enable staff to spend time preparing, researching [and] perfecting the display systems.” This is in keeping with the requirements for the forthcoming shows like the Dumile Feni and William Kentridge retrospectives, potential blockbusters that lend themselves to increased sponsorship and partnership opportunities.Another aspect of his vision includes building partnerships with tertiary institutions, and setting in place internships to assist curators with exhibition research and conceptualisation, academic rigor and the overall preparation of exhibits.

“Raising the profile of the museum also means the museum has a role to play within a larger Johannesburg art context,” Kellner says. “South African museums are, and have been going through a historical process of transformation from European style state patronage (government whether local or national) to that of an American privatised donor model. We haven’t, however, quite realised it and have no tax incentive for investment in the arts, so we aren’t about to have a sudden influx of private patrons. However, knowing this enables me to establish a private-public sector partnership model that will allow the museum to function at its optimum by outsourcing certain activities and projects through partnership.”

In response to questions around JAG’s disjunctive relationship with its surroundings, Kellner states that, “I don’t think JAG in particular has a reputation with its surroundings; I think South Africa has a reputation with its surroundings. Look at our urban space and topography — Alexandra next to Sandton, decentralised CBD, new CBD’s being developed to the North, rich versus poor, the old apartheid versus new Africa identity and so on. We are merely symptomatic of a historical process of transference into a more legitimate society. It is rather a unique position for a museum to be in.”

“In essence,” Kellner concludes, “it is not necessarily about taste or opinion, but rather what constitutes artistic merit, and whether it benefits the public.”Brenton Maart is a Johannesburg-based artist and writer