THE BIG INTERVIEW: Artistic heritage finds a new home at Wits
Early yesterday morning, special projects curator Fiona Rankin-Smith met me on the corner of Jorissen Street and Jan Smuts Avenue in Braamfontein.
Where once stood a grimy petrol station now stands a magnificent new space, the Wits Art Museum, which houses a collection of 10000 art works.
Rankin-Smith is shattered, she says. It's clearly a deep exhaustion, the result of years of dedicated hard work that she and the team at WAM have put into making the museum, once a mere dream, become a reality.
But to compound the stress and exhaustion of planning and building, and then curating the inaugural exhibition, WAM! Seeing Stars, there had been a celebratory party for its funders the previous night.
"It was a good one," says Rankin-Smith.
As we walk up the ramp from the street and a small street gallery into a double-volume exhibition space, the remnants of the party are being cleared up, while preparations are under way for another celebration. There is good reason to celebrate.
Rankin-Smith is delirious at being part of the team to see the fruition of this project.
"I feel like I've just given birth to a huge baby," says Rankin-Smith.
"I'm thrilled to have been part of this project. And to see it realised is just beautiful," she says as she shows me through the various spaces in this new museum.
In the part of the gallery facing Jorissen Street, there is a large display cabinet exhibiting a collection of African pieces. Passers by can see works in new glass cases that for 10 years have been kept hidden in storage space on the campus.
For years, there hasn't been a gallery to show the University of the Witwatersrand's large collection, nor has there been space big enough to show the masks that hang at the foot of a ramp.
What was started in the 1950s by the late Professor Heather Martienssen as a collection to help the teaching of art history and fine arts has become one of the finest and most priceless collections of classical and contemporary African art and South African art.
The collection grew over the years and in the 1970s it was given its first home, the Gertrude Posel Gallery, named after the woman who funded its establishment.
But in 2002, the gallery was closed down to make space for student facilities. Although the collection kept growing, it never saw the light of day.
It was then that Rankin-Smith, who has been a curator at Wits for 28 years, and her fellow Wits curator, Julia Charlton, plotted and planned a new space where they could preserve and exhibit this rich and layered collection.
After conducting a space needs analysis and presenting their wish list to the university, they were offered parts of three Wits buildings - Lawson's Corner, where the old Shell petrol station stood; University Corner; and Dental House.
Once the space was allocated, through a competition process architects were chosen to create a building that would be home to the collection.
Nina Cohen and Fiona Garson, the architects, "punctured the three buildings and then knitted them together. The ramps and staircases interweave and thread through the spaces," explains Rankin-Smith.
Weaving, wrapping and holding are the words used in the architect's proposal. The idea was to create a building that would hold and protect a collection of works through many years to come.
The exterior walls are partly clad by bricks arranged to look as if they have been woven together.
On the inside, in the double volume exhibition space, you look up onto a ceiling that looks like the bottom of a bowl.
In this bowl, accessed on another floor, is the storage space. And it is in this storage space, with its new and old cupboards and shelving, where many works forming part of our cultural heritage are being carefully looked after and cared for. Everything is stored at a constant temperature.
None of this could have been possible without the generous contribution of private funders who gave 75% of the total cost of the R41-million building project. The rest was contributed by the university.
Walking through the spaces, which will exhibit permanent collections and temporary ones, Rankin-Smith also points out the many works which have been contributed to the museum.
"It's exciting, isn't it?" she says, not able to hide her delight and her pride.
There is a series of David Goldblatt photographs that he gave to the museum.
Robert Hodgins donated his collection of print works. An important collection of drawings and sketches produced by exiled artist Gerard Sekoto was donated to the museum in 2010.
These contributions and the financial donations must, I think, be seen as recognition of the work that WAM is putting into looking after works of art and the work Charlton and Rankin-Smith have put into realising their dream of opening a world-class art museum in a city that wants to reach for the stars.
At the funders' party, artist William Kentridge addressed the 200 guests. According to architect Garson, Kentridge said it was the university's duty to have a space to show its collection. There is also space for offices and student research, and it is a space where "the university shakes hands with the city", says Rankin-Smith.
- WAM will open to the public on May 19. For more information visit www.wits.ac.za/wam