Archive: Issue No. 62, October 2002

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Theft of artwork leads Kendell Geers to call for the resignation of JAG director

The theft of a Kendell Geers' artwork entitled 'Suitcase', part of the permanent collection of the Johannesburg Art Gallery, from the gallery during an opening has led to a call by the artist for the resignation of gallery director Rochelle Keene. The open letter from Geers is being disseminated on the internet, and was written as a response to a letter sent by Keene to Geers. The correspondence reads as follows:

27 September 2002
Dear Kendell

I am sorry to inform you that on the evening of 24 August 2002 at the opening of our highly successful show: [re]; vision, one of your works entitled Suitcase, which was on display in our permanent exhibition, was removed from the Gallery, carried outside to the parking lot where an obviously drunken vandal tore the photocopy off one side and left it outside where it was tracked down by a member of the staff. We assure you that the work will be professionally restored and we will keep you informed regarding its redisplay.

On a happier note, congratulations for your inclusion in Dokumenta. Hope all is well with you. Warm regards
Yours sincerely
Rochelle Keene


Dear Rochelle Keene

I am as shocked as I am outraged by the contents of your letter dated 27 September 2002 for the incident is an ominous sign of what we can expect from the Johannesburg Art Gallery in the future. It is widely known that on the 29 or 30 June 2002 an El Greco painting was stolen from your museum. (I am curious to know why you cannot say whether the work was stolen on the 29 or on the 30 June ?) But then less than two months later somebody walked out with yet another work of art that is not so small as can easily be hidden beneath a large jacket or even in a large bag. The fact that the sculpture was later recovered in the parking lot does not excuse the fact that it was carried out unnoticed at a time when your security should have been at its most observant.

Moreover the tone of your letter strongly suggests that you are not aware of the gravity of the situation. I would like to know with what logic you can you consider the opening of an exhibition to have been "highly successful" when a work of art was stolen and then vandalised in the parking lot. Furthermore I find it unthinkable that an "obviously drunken vandal" would manage to steal a work of art out from a museum of international cultural treasures, escaping unnoticed by presumably SOBER security guards on a heightened state of alert.

The issue at hand is not whether my work can be restored or even that it was recovered, but rather that in less than two months two works of art have been stolen from your museum. I can only observe that it seems you refuse to accept responsibility for the first theft and the logic now implies that the Johannesburg Art Gallery is open to daylight robbery. Will you finally take action when all the Pierneefs are stolen, or the Gerard Sekotos, or the Impressionists, or will you wait until the Collection is being sold on the world's flea markets ?

The collection does not belong to you but to the citizens of South Africa and it is to those citizens that you owe an explanation for why it was able to take place twice in two months (are there other instances of theft or vandalsim that we are not aware of?) and more importantly what you plan to do to rectify the situation and safeguard our cultural heritage. If you had even the smallest degree of self respect you would immediately submit your resignation and recommend that the museum be closed until such time as a suitable director can be found who is better qualified to safeguard our art collection.

Kendell Geers