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After three years of construction, and several more of planning and fundraising, the new Wits Art Museum (WAM) at Wits University in Johannesburg opens to the public in May. The inaugural exhibition, titled WAM! Seeing Stars, previews to invited guests on the 9 and 10 May, with doors opening to the public on 19 May.

Located on the corner of Jan Smuts Avenue and Jorrissen Streets in Braamfontein, adjacent to the Wits School of the Arts, the museum comprises 5000 square metres of floor space for exhibitions and climate and lighting control which is in line with international museum standards for conservation. In addition to this, the museum boasts the largest areas of wall space in any public art institution in the country.

Previously known as Wits Art Galleries, WAM is the home to important collections of contemporary and historical African art. The first collection grew out of the small departmental teaching collection initiated in the early 1950s by Wits Professors Heather Martienssen and John Fassler with a small grant from the University Council. The collection has been built up over decades and today comprises over 9 000 artworks from across the continent.

Wits Art Galleries was the first collecting institution to include classical African art in its holdings, and in 1978 this specialist collection was founded with a generous donation of works from the collector Vittorino Meneghell. In 1979 Wits and the Standard Bank established the Standard Bank African Art Collection, located at Wits and funded by an annual purchasing grant from the Standard Bank.

Previously, the Wits Art Galleries collection was housed in the Gertrude Posel Gallery, which closed in 2002 to make way for a student cafeteria. Following the closure of the Posel Gallery, the university’s valuable collections were stored in a makeshift basement space, susceptible to flooding from the university’s plumbing system. No display space was available to the collection. The opening of WAM sees the relocation of the collection to an appropriate storage facility, with ample space for display.

WAM! Seeing Stars comprises a selection of highlights from the Wits collection, and features important contemporary artworks as well as many works from the museum’s classical African art collection.

Access to WAM is not free to the public, a factor to which WAM curators Julia Charlton and Fiona Rankin-Smith are still considering alternatives. Entrace is R50 for adults, R40 for pensioners, and free to students and Wits staff.

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