From Jo'burg to 'JHB ARTCITY'
by Kathryn Smith
The announcement of a big public art project for Johannesburg, destined to transform the city into "the world's largest outdoor gallery", and timed to coincide with the World Summit for Sustainable Development, has met with opposing views. The media, investors and city management can't contain their excitement, while some artists and gallerists have expressed reservations as to the process and end result.
Dubbed 'JHB ARTCITY', the idea was brought to the Section 21 company Central Johannesburg Partnership (CJP) by a final-year Wits law student, Saul Symanowitz, who had been tutoring classes in Property Finance and Investment and had invited an inner-city property investor to give a presentation. Switched on by what investor Gerald Olitzki had been saying, Symanowitz approached Neil Fraser, Executive Director for Partnerships for Urban Renewal and the CJP, with the idea of adorning buildings in Johannesburg's inner city with billboard-scale artworks.
While the idea itself is far from original, it has not been executed on this grand scale in any African city thus far. So along with the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA), BASA, the CJP and the Johannesburg Inner City Business Coalition, 'JHB ARTCITY' will become a reality, on view to hundreds of thousands of city users and visitors for an eight-month period between the World Summit and the Cricket World Cup in March 2003. It also coincides neatly with other official rebranding initiatives, one of which is the renaming of Johannesburg to Joburg by Mayor Amos Masondo.
'JHB ARTCITY' is trifaceted, the first aspect being the public call for submissions where artists can submit up to two works for consideration. A judging panel comprising Clive Kellner, Natasha Fuller, Monna Mokoena and Bongi Dhlomo-Mautloa will select the top 30 works for enlargement. Then there are plans to exhibit the original artworks in venues across Johannesburg. The panel, whose members represent some of the top corporate and public collections of South African art in the country (Nedcor, Billiton, the Constitutional Court), will also select works from these collections, seldom accessible by the public as they are not housed in museums, for enlargement. These selections will include historical South African works.
Ten prizes of R10 000 each will be awarded to the top 10 works of the 30 selected for billboard exhibition, and a prize of R5 000 will go to the artist who produces the work best liked by the public. The deadline for submissions of work for consideration is Friday June 7 2002.
One thing that struck me as strange is the lack of information circulating about the project. Artthrob had received no announcements up until about 10 days ago, but had received a query via the Exchange page. Few artists I asked had heard anything, yet the call for entries is national and the opportunity to have one's work enlarged twentyfold and on public view in the truest sense is enormous, as is the chance to win some serious money. When I did get to read an initial press release, the ambitious and apparently inclusive nature of the project seemed at odds with how the publicity was being dealt with. Ambitious projects, whether biennales, festivals or something like this, will surely fold without the support of the public, the investors and those who produce the work, and support can only be rallied through clear and wide-reaching information dissemination. A bit of web browsing (www.jhbartcity.org.za) and a couple of phone calls later, I felt a bit more in the picture and was now armed with an application form.
A careful read through the documents online established the objectives of the project: to turn downtown into the biggest art gallery in the world; to showcase and publicise the standards and quality of local artistic production; to highlight inner-city regeneration projects (with investment currently valued at R1,5-billion) by clustering the art around the project sites and developing "art routes" through the city; to promote art as integral to the cultural life of the city; provide a unique marketing opportunity for companies who support and sponsor the project; and complement other arts initiatives planned by the city for the second half of the year.
But the publicity material refers only to paintings, whereas the application form simply refers to "works". The competition, it turns out, is open to all works, not exclusively paintings. Surely this indicates a severe shortsightedness on the part of those writing (and hopefully checking) the copy? Also, the application form I downloaded originally indicated that artists' works would be reproduced with no compensation to them, on a range of corporate and souvenir items such as mugs, umbrellas and mousepads. Perish the thought.
A conversation with BASA's Nicola Danby established (with numerous apologies) that an incomplete form had been published online and, in fact, the intellectual property of artists is being very well looked after, with letters of consent, royalties and the option to select which items, if any, work should be reproduced on.
Danby also made it clear that this is not a public art project designed to comment on the context and conditions of a transforming inner city. Rather, the intention is simply a showcasing and branding exercise, designed to make art visible to a public that is no longer going to museums or galleries. As Danby said: "Although I hate the word 'showcase', this is really about taking the mountain to Mohammed and it shouldn't be judged on what it isn't."
If it works, this city is going to look damn fine, and local artists will undoubtedly get their place in the sun, so to speak, with no worries as to the legalities of releasing one's work into the corporate sphere. Furthermore, 'JHB ARTCITY' is a non-profit initiative, and money generated through sales of art-branded products will be kept in a trust to execute further 'JHB ARTCITY' events as well as benefit the visual arts sector at large. Every care is being taken to avoid art becoming a media whore, but if it can become an effective media vehicle (and a media darling), then I think we're all in a stronger position.
'JHB ARTCITY' is a fine idea, and probably just what this city needs to concretise the numerous efforts and vast amounts of money being spent on its transformation into a premier economic and information hub of Africa, as well as an environment that is clean, safe and habitable. It is also an ideal vehicle to bring business and the arts closer together in a mutually beneficial way. However, the poor way the PR and marketing has been handled seems to indicate a rushed working process and sketchy mechanisms to check what information is being circulated. If the project is to be successful, and become an ongoing project where billboards are rotated annually (this objective has been expressed), then the basics need to be ironed out first. The partners on board are professional, and they should be reflected as such.
The (hopefully updated) application form and conditions for entry can be downloaded at www.jhbartcity.org.za. If you find spelling errors and no letter of consent to sign stating royalties and similar details, please contact project manager Peta Thomas on 082 811 0045. Alternatively, simply click here to download from Artthrob.
Also, see Exchange for information regarding commissioning agents for Constitutional Hill's public art programme. A quick browse of the JDA's website or a cruise through Newtown indicates that things are up in Jozi.