Savouring the smell of art

The chief curator of the Johannesburg Art Gallery is driven by a passion for art that will make the gallery a benchmark for Africa.



The chief curator of the Johannesburg Art Gallery is 'in her element working with art'
The chief curator of the Johannesburg Art Gallery is 'in her element working with art'

ONE of the most exciting aspects of her job, says Antoinette Murdoch, is to go down into the storeroom where there are some 10 000 works of art, and just "smell the smell of art".


Murdoch is the chief curator of the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG), appointed in April 2009. She says: "It is worthwhile to lock yourself up there and breathe in the art. I am in my element, working with art, I am so happy."


She says she has a "wonder" for the place, which comes from not "growing up as a child in galleries".


"The first time I went to the JAG was in matric in 1990 ... I was mesmerised by the artwork - it was real art, not flower pots and landscapes."

An artist herself, Murdoch was completely blown away by Penny Siopsis' Melancholia on that first visit. "I still idealise the space."


She takes a tour group once or twice a month down into the "dungeons". "This is the most awesome job," she enthuses.


Proof of this is that she says she feels like she started yesterday, but on the other hand, it feels like she's been at the gallery forever. "Time flies when you're having fun," she smiles.


Prior to joining JAG, Murdoch was the chief executive of the Art Bank Joburg.


Best in Africa

Murdoch is in charge of the 94-year-old gallery, one of the best in Africa, with a world-class collection.


Not only does she get to live with wonderful artworks every day, but she enjoys the admin and project-related aspects of her job, she says. She administers a budget of R7-million, and manages about 30 people. At present, there are three posts that need to be filled: curators for the historical works, for traditional or African works, and for contemporary works.


Fund-raising is very much a part of the job too. Murdoch indicates that there is now an expanded funding base, with a full-time fundraiser on board. The Friends of the Johannesburg Art Gallery has a new chairman, who oversees some 700 members.


She has learned much, Murdoch says, particularly when it comes to preserving the art, like correct temperature and humidity control, and the light-sensitivity of artworks. "It has been a learning curve."


One of her goals is for the JAG to set the standard for art in Johannesburg and South Africa. "I believe in a year or so we should direct the standard – anything is possible," she explains.



The gallery is known for its dynamic exhibitions.


An important exhibition, on until January 2011, is Transformations, which focuses on women and covering 14 interlinked themes from the typically feminine such as women’s work, and the role of the mother, to social commentary on current-day issues. "The idea is to show how women's place in society has changed," she says.


There are between 30 and 50 works on display, ranging from the late 19th century to the 21st century, with 14 themes, ranging from buildings and cityscapes, self-portraits, to mother and child portrayals.


This year alone has seen William Kentridge's I Am Not Me, The Horse Is Not Mine, the Afro-Cuban Without Masks, curated by Orlando Hernández, Harun Farocki's Deep Play exploring the 2006 World Cup final games "as a metaphor for life", and Borders, from the Bamako Photography Biennial '09 in Mali, pass through its doors.



When she was appointed, Murdoch listed as one of her goals to concentrate on improving art education at the gallery.


"I don't want others to get to the gallery as late as I did." She wants to not only get children there, but families too. She wants to develop family programmes, helping people to understand the culture of art. "I want to make South Africa and Johannesburg more culturally aware."


So far there have been four interventions driven by her and her team.


From the Without Masks exhibition
From the Without Masks exhibition

A mobile museum in the form of a bus, provided by the James Hall Transport Museum, travelled to a newly launched orphanage in Soweto with art materials and some of the Cuban artists from the Without Masks exhibition. They did various art projects with the children.


An education nook has been created in the gallery, with table and chairs and art materials. Families are encouraged to join their children to enjoy art activities.


Art classes at the gallery and at the Joubert Park Lapeng, a child and family resource service, are now taking place every afternoon, run by facilitators.


And lastly, educational supplements and walkabouts are now commonplace in the gallery. A 10-page brochure, with thoughtful questions for children of 13 to 18 years, has been produced for the Without Masks exhibition, referred to as Jag-ed.


Murdoch is particularly concerned about representing female artists in the gallery. "Women are still falling short. I want to direct attention to what women have done and put right the injustices of the past. I want them to have their fair place."

This doesn't mean creating a separate platform for women, but having a more inclusive policy, with women being equally represented in forums and workshops. This ties in with her first goal of education - she'd like to educate women more regarding their art and marketing themselves and their work.