Over a hundred years ago, a visionary couple founded an art museum in Johannesburg that was so ahead of its time, that a century later, its public beneficiaries still haven’t quite woken up to the world-class treasure it contains.
For this is neither a private collection nor a visiting exhibition, and never has been. It is an entirely publicly-owned collection housed in a purpose-built art museum, which itself is a high-ceilinged, grand work-of-art dating back to the early 1900s.
The art collection was the initiative of a certain Lady Florence Phillips, who cleverly secured sufficient seed funding from a locally available source: the pockets of her mining magnate husband.
But Lady Phillips’ real genius and ambition is best reflected in the way she was able to source from abroad the works of none other than a slew of international art masters, from Monet to Cezanne, Degas to Delacroix, Manet and Millais, Pissarro and Sisley, as well as securing a Rembrandt, a Turner, a Warhol, a Picasso and a Salvador Dali. Her collection would grow to include a privileged selection of 17th-century Dutch paintings, 18th and 19th-century British and European art.
Fast forward to today, and you will find South Africa (and the region beyond) well-represented, plus some surprises from the Asian continent that are astonishing for both their rarity and the manner by which the museum has managed to acquire these priceless relics. On the day I attended, there was an an ancient Indian carving (circa AD 1000), a few Japanese ink paintings, beaded figurines and carved headrests from across Africa, as well as local artists of world-reknown (yes, including everything from Pierneef to Ardmore).
The museum has become the home of the largest collection of artworks on the sub-continent. In fact, the volume of its content is so large that the museum can only display 10% of its wares at any one time.
And so now to the puzzle that the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) and its collection presents: How can such a priceless, beautiful, world-class attraction exist in South Africa, yet with such a low profile, so little fanfare, and so little appreciation from its eligible public visitors?
Of course, the visual arts are not to everybody’s taste, but there is still a strong core of artlovers in South Africa (many of who happily board long-distance flights to European capitals to visit the great masters), and similarly, there is a substantial through-flow of international visitors to Johannesburg who could surely add the museum to the their touring agenda. So what is to account for this apparent disjuncture?
Well, to start with, the French Impressionists could probably have taught their gallery owners a thing or 20 about making an impression.
First, it is situated in the last place in the entire city one might think to look — behind the bustling and chaotic inner-city streetlife of Joubert Park. To be fair, the neighbourhood is centred on an actual park that was established in the early 1900s for the Victorian pastime of having a sociable stroll through its carefully manicured gardens before teatime — nothing could have made a more eloquent or picturesque setting for an art gallery. But the political and socio-economic tides that passed through with each successive decade of South Africa’s history would see the area being redefined, until finally it met a phase of degeneration that gave the park a reputation associated with being a mecca for the homeless, and so few from the siloed-off suburbs would ever contemplate wandering this way.
But, being one of the few, I did find the reality was far less alarming than the reputation, and safe enough to lead my visiting parents through there.
In time, hopefully this little famed square of green will be touched by the numerous neighbourhood renewal projects that are successfully regenerating other parts of the city, and it is fair to also observe that in the meantime, the park no doubt still provides much needed outdoor relief for city dwellers who are normally confined to their small apartment blocks, crowded taxis or congested shopping strips (a serious game of life-size chess was underway in one corner of the park the day we were there, with many observers surrounding them in support and curiosity).
Whether it would be right to move the collection towards a home in the more affluent neighbourhoods where more visitors would be instantly available was a question in my mind, but then there was also something appealing about the future possibility of what this corner of Johannesburg could become. The renewal and rediscovery of many parts of the city have added new aspects and possibilities for enjoying a more cosmopolitan, unexpected and differentiated experience than that found in the blandness and provincialism of the various silos and suburbs that make up large parts of greater Johannesburg.
So perhaps it is right after all that the JAG should be located exactly where it is in the centre of Johannesburg, so that it can open its doors to all those who have in turn opened their own minds enough to have come through to this city neighbourhood in the first place. And, over time, perhaps the numbers will grow, turning a rich experience into a cultural rite of passage similar to that offered by many of its global counterparts, and allowing the gallery to be rightfully acknowledged as one of the great culture treasures of South Africa and the international art scene.