Elana Brundyn on Norval Foundation as a World Class Cultural Destination
Officially launched in April 2018, the Norval Foundation is a centre for art and cultural expression, and is dedicated to the research and exhibition of 20th- and 21st-century visual art from South Africa and beyond. Located in the Steenberg area of Cape Town, adjacent to Table Mountain National Park, the foundation combines the experience of art with an appreciation for nature.
The Norval family are the founders and initial funders of the Norval Foundation. The family aims to make art widely accessible to local and international visitors by creating a self-sustaining centre for art. In this interview with Omenka, chief executive officer, Elana Brundyn speaks about the impact and sustainability of the foundation and plans for the future.
How did Norval Foundation come about, and how would you evaluate its impact so far on contemporary art in Africa since it was established in April 2018?
Cape Town has become a cultural destination with world-class institutions, a popular international art fair, and respected commercial galleries. We are proud of how this cultural ecosystem has evolved, changing the very fibre of our cultural community. When Norval Foundation opened in April, it cemented this growing confidence and excitement around what Cape Town has to offer the world.
The foundation is positioned as an accessible, family-friendly environment that caters to both art lovers and those who are experiencing an art museum for the first time. While we continually host exhibitions from internationally acclaimed artists from South Africa, Africa, and beyond, we also strive to create an environment that is welcoming to local families, children, and students.
Our sculpture garden provides a relaxing escape from the city, and has a purpose-built children’s play area and interactive sculptures. In addition, we offer picnics from The Skotnes Restaurant, so visitors can experience and interact with the museum in a laid-back setting.
Our curatorial programme intends to showcase the best of contemporary art, while simultaneously hosting exhibitions of 20th-century South African artists, to address some of the historical “gaps” in the South African art canon. This intent is supported by the Homestead Collection, housed at the foundation as a curatorial resource, which includes such artists as Gerard Sekoto, Alexis Preller, Sydney Kumalo, Ezrom Legae, Peter Clarke, Dumile Feni, and Gladys Mgundlandlu.
The Norval Foundation is also the custodian of the Gerard Sekoto Foundation, the Edoardo Villa Estate Collection, and the Alexis Preller Archive.
In January 2018, you joined Norval Foundation as the chief executive officer. What specific experiences in your successful career as director of institutional advancement and external affairs at Zeitz MOCAA and as founder/director of your own gallery established in 2006 in Cape Town, prepared you for this role?
I learned a few valuable lessons:
- Patience: The most valued virtue I have learned is having patience. Feeling impatient is not an automatic emotional response; it involves conscious thoughts and beliefs. Patience is linked to self-control and consciously trying to regulate our emotions. Working in the art world, first as a commercial gallerist and now as a museum director, I had to learn patience and to trust a natural rhythm.
- Philanthropy is an attitude—and it is not the same as charity. Charity focuses on eliminating the suffering caused by social problems. Philanthropy focuses on eliminating the social problem. I am inspired by quiet philanthropists who want to improve the well-being of humankind. In the cultural world, I see many philanthropists who are not rich but do a lot of good with the little they give. I also see many who position themselves (and not the cause) through minimal contributions.
- Beauty and perfection are boring: The notion of beauty and perfection have been redefined in contemporary art. Perfection is unattainable, and the pursuit of it makes us boring. It is our differences, our weaknesses, and our imperfections that connect us to humanity and make us real.
- Action beats angst. Action is the cure for worry, stress, and anxiety. By doing something, you will create momentum that leads to something valuable or, at the least, heals your frustration and turmoil. Opening a large-scale cultural platform like Norval Foundation involves a lot of stress and anxiety.
What separates the foundation from other spaces like Zeitz MOCAA that collect, preserve, research, and exhibit 21st-century art from Africa?
Norval Foundation was established to celebrate creativity, ask questions about our world, and engage audiences of all ages. To create an enriching experience for our visitors, we have mounted 11 exhibitions since opening and brought a lively array of cultural experiences and ideas to Cape Town and South Africa. A key aspect of the foundation is our commitment to exhibiting the sculptural and installation-based practices of a variety of artists, which is facilitated by our purpose-designed building. In particular, we invite artists and curators to respond to Gallery Eight, our largest gallery. Our upcoming sculpture exhibition by William Kentridge (Why Should I Hesitate?) exemplifies this. The gallery has reinforced floors to support works that weigh as much as eight tons and reach as high as nine metres. The monumental size of this gallery sits in an ideal contrast to the anti-monumental, spontaneous, and theatrical sculptures that form part of this exhibition. Norval Foundation is a place where the past, present, and future always come together in remarkable and unexpected ways.
Currently, Trade Winds by Yinka Shonibare CBE is showing at your space till August 2019. It features a series of artworks including sculptures, photographs, and a major installation, created between 2008 and 2018, which are all connected through their use of Dutch wax fabric. What were the primary goals of the show, and how has it been received by the public?
Our beautiful sculpture garden features 21 three-dimensional art installations by artists from South Africa and Africa. Yinka Shonibare’s Wind Sculpture (SG) III (2019) was acquired by the Norval Foundation in February and is an excellent example of this globally influential artist. It adds an essential dimension to the types of artistic practices that are presented in Norval Foundation’s sculpture garden. In addition to being conceptually and historically rich, Wind Sculpture (SG) III is visually seductive, and we are proud to have acquired the first monumental Yinka Shonibare sculpture on the continent. It has been welcomed by our visitors and has become a landmark in the area. The exhibition was conceptualised to offer a larger view of Shonibare’s practice after we acquired the major wind sculpture.
Norval Foundation has in place a vigorous programme of exhibitions and a residency. Are they conceived, planned, and funded strictly by the foundation or in collaboration with other organisations, and how?
Our programme has been planned by the Norval Foundation team and is funded by our founders and patrons.
With the upcoming collaboration with Zeitz MOCAA, the idea is to do complementary exhibitions opening in Cape Town in August, Norval Foundation will present the first survey of internationally acclaimed artist William Kentridge’s sculptural practice. In Why Should I Hesitate? visitors will encounter a range of new and historical artworks that have been produced over the last two decades, which narrate Kentridge’s engagement with three-dimensional form. Running from August 24, 2019 to March 23, 2020, Norval Foundation’s exhibition will coincide with a complementary exhibition, Why Should I Hesitate? Putting Drawings to Work, at Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA), which takes Kentridge’s drawing practice as its focal point.
Besides exhibition spaces, the foundation boasts of a sculpture garden, research library, outdoor amphitheatre, restaurant, and bar. Kindly tell us more about this impressive range of facilities and why it is important for them to be in one location.
In addition to our galleries and sculpture garden, we also have The Skotnes Restaurant, The Museum Shop, art storage facilities, an amphitheatre, and a research library. The restaurant is named after famous South African artist and teacher Cecil Skotnes, and is a culinary extension of the foundation. It is free to enter and overlooks the foundation’s serene wetland. The menu is based around South African classics, reinvented with a modern twist. The Skotnes Restaurant, in the capable hands of executive chef Phil De Villiers and his team, allows us to better share the story of art by creating a welcoming menu and space for our patrons to enjoy South African-inspired cuisine.
The shop is a natural extension of our mission to make art widely accessible to more people. In terms of both price and physical access, it is easily accessible, and guests do not need a museum ticket to enter. It is a true South African museum shop, with books, exhibition posters, and other products. Of our merchandise, 80 per cent is designed and manufactured locally. Our art storage facility caters to collectors who need to stow their art in a safe environment that is built to international standards. The foundation can also be made available for venue hire, from an intimate dinner all the way to a large end-of-year function.
How does the foundation overcome the financial challenges of sustenance and the advancement of its objectives and programmes?
Norval Foundation was established by the Norval family and opened on April 28, 2018. The Norval family are the founders and initial funders of the foundation. Our aim is to make art widely accessible to local and international visitors by creating a self-sustaining centre for art, situated in the natural beauty of the Western Cape. Our biggest challenge thus far has been to build up a loyal museum-going audience. We are a destination museum, 30 minutes by car from the centre of Cape Town, and we have restricted public transport access.
Is there any public sector or government support in this regard?
Not at the moment.
Your Homestead Art Collection is one of the leading 20th-century South African art collections. Are there any plans to include art from other regions in Africa to create a dialogue with the broader African continent and her related diaspora?
The Homestead Collection is a resource that is available to our curators for upcoming shows. While works from the collection are dotted throughout the museum, our current curatorial focus is centred on achieving that balance of modern and contemporary art from South Africa, Africa, and beyond. We have a global view.
How would you evaluate Norval Foundation’s success so far, and is there any upcoming project you would like to share with us?
Reflecting on the foundation’s first year has brought to mind a number of wonderful memories. Research and scholarship generate the ideas that feed our artistic, education, and public programme. Over the past year, our curatorial programme has brought us:
- The inaugural atrium commission, Structural Response III(2019) by Serge Alain Nitegeka, which was made possible through the valuable support of the Claire and Edoardo Villa Will Trust.
- Pulling at Threads, which featured artists from the Global South and African diaspora
- Re/discovery and Memory, which focused on the work of Sydney Kumalo, Ezrom Legae, and Edoardo Villa
- Collector’s Focus: Homestead Art Collection
- Heliostat (Wim Botha)
- Batlhaping Ba Re! (Mmakgabo Mapula Helen Sebidi)
- Collector’s Focus: Véronique Susman-Savigne Collection
- On the Mines (David Goldblatt)
- Labour of Many (Ibrahim Mahama)
- Trade Winds (Yinka Shonibare)
- Collector’s Focus: Sanlam Art Collection
I launched our Collector’s Focus series to highlight the role of collectors in shaping culture. It recognises the unique contributions that collectors play in the preservation and evolution of culture, and is an opportunity to share these collections with the public. Collecting is an important aspect of human nature, even as it differs between cultures, periods, and individuals.
Among the foundation’s first year achievements, we see our growing audience, artistic programme, and knowledge sharing as our greatest successes. We are proud to be a recipient of a special commendation from the Sotheby’s Prize, the only one in Africa, for our upcoming exhibition Alt and Omega by Jackson Hlungwani in 2020. Connected to our artistic and education programmes, we have developed a series of publications for both adults and children. We are passionately committed to disseminating knowledge about art and artists by developing accessible and quality publications for a broad public to enjoy and learn from. To date, we have five Norval Foundation publications and have linked our children’s book to our education programme, aimed at children, by publishing How Vincent the Western Leopard Toad Found His Croak.
We provide a welcoming space for children to discover and learn to love art. In addition, we have hosted thousands of children as part of our initiative of offering free admission to visitors age 18 and under. The future of culture relies on the education of our children, and we will continue to ensure that every child that enters Norval Foundation does so without paying admission.
We created a concert programme with acclaimed musician and Norval Foundation adjunct curator Kyle Shepherd and gave visitors the opportunity to attend 14 incredible concerts by local and international musicians. Talented adjunct curator for performance Khanyisile Mbongwa enriched our institution through her project ‘Historical Glitch,’ a series of live art events.
With upcoming exhibitions devoted to incredibly talented artists such as William Kentridge, Lisa Reihana, Athi-Patra Ruga, and Jackson Hlungwani, the next year promises to be equally engaging.
September 15, 2021
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September 09, 2021