Archive: Issue No. 55, March 2002

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Transforming the 'White Giant Building': The Tatham's director responds
by Brendan Bell

This article is a response to an open letter/opinion piece by Gavin Anderson - click here to view - and was first published in the Natal Witness

An invitation to attend a workshop for African art museum curators at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is nothing short of a triumph for the Msunduzi Municipality, the Tatham Art Gallery, and the communities the gallery serves � particularly as the invitation was unsolicited, coming from a world renowned institution via a source which respects the professionalism and work of the gallery and its staff.

The gallery makes no claims to outright excellence. Constant critical self-evaluation through reviewing strategic and operational objectives are the keys to whatever success in transformation the gallery can claim.

By its very nature, transformation is a lengthy and sometimes necessarily heated process. Rather than perceive lack of funding and staff capacity as difficulties, the gallery embraces these as challenges in its efforts at transformation, a concept which informs its overall strategic initiatives and all its activities.

I do not intend to enter a public question and answer session with Gavin Anderson regarding the concerns of third parties. Suffice to say that it is the policy of the Exhibitions Committee to provide feedback to artists who submit portfolios for consideration.

Issues concerning gallery staff have been dealt with internally. The gallery board is satisfied that the acquisition of my own work for the permanent collection was dealt with in a professional manner by the Acquisitions Committee. So too with its attempts to acquire, within limited means, works of contemporary and historical relevance.

Anderson's concern about the central prominence of the British and French collections in the Lorna Ferguson Room is justified and is being dealt with. That the issue has not already been finalised is purely a matter of logistics and capacity.

His contention of selling off part of the collection to fund more relevant purchases suggests a misunderstanding of the purpose of museums. Art museum collections reflect histories and modes of cultural production. They are a collective memory for future generations of both positive and negative histories and as such have to be left intact. Censoring a collection is not, in my view, a healthy transformation tool.

It may interest your readers to know that the narrative works referred to by Anderson are among the most popular with members of the black community. The gallery holds its own very fine collections of Zulu material culture, examples of which are currently on display.

Current display policy is, however, biased in favour of contemporary work. Works by both Hindu and Muslim artists have been acquired for the permanent collection. An important early brass Ganesh is on semi-permanent loan to the Natal Museum as part of its display on the Indian community.

Tourists and local visitors to the Tatham Art Gallery frequently remark very favourably on the regional nature and professionalism of the displays, as they do on the helpfulness of staff and general condition of the building. The gallery and its coffee shop are frequented by all members of this community, some 40 000 visitors each year.

Response to requests for interpretations of works on display in the gallery appear firstly in Fotag Focus in the Natal Witness's Friday supplement. These are laminated and displayed next to the relevant works and have proved very popular with visitors. No other concerns have been raised that they appear only in English.