Gallery Profile: Stevenson
by Ladun Ogidan
Since inception in 2003, Stevenson gallery has morphed from Michael Stevenson to Brodie Stevenson, and now has two galleries in Cape Town and Johannesburg that focus on the work of artists from the region. The gallery also has an extensive publications programme and an international exhibition rooster that often brings the work of people like Francis Alÿs, Rineke Dijkstra, Thomas Hirschhorn, Glenn Ligon and Walid Raad to South Africa, for the first time. In this interview, Omenka speaks with one of the directors Joost Bosland.
Stevenson is a leading gallery in South Africa and indeed Africa. Over the years, the gallery has morphed from Michael Stevenson to Brodie Stevenson, and now has two galleries in Cape Town and Johannesburg. What will you say is the success behind this growth, particularly with downturns in the global economy and the low level of art appreciation on the continent?
We have just been slowly doing what we do best for the past twelve years. The real source of our so-called success is the vision and tireless work of our artists. ultimately, we work for them and only exist by their grace.
Has your curatorial thrust changed over the past several years?
The vision for our programme has not changed much since we opened the gallery in 2003. Any perceived shift is due to a wonderful new generation of artists to emerge from our region–people like Samson Kambalu, Portia Zvavahera, Kemang Wa Lehulere and Edson Chagas.
Who are your clients and how would you describe the South African collector?
Our clients still largely live in Europe and the United States, including a number of collectors with roots in our part of the world. That said, we now have a handful of clients in Nigeria, and people like Piet Viljoen and Emile Stipp have changed the collecting landscape in South Africa. On the whole, local collectors are younger than our international audience, which holds promise for the future.
You have an extensive publications programme. In the digital age, how important is it for you to print catalogues about your artists?
Perhaps we are old fashioned, but to our mind the digital space will never replace printed matter. Our catalogues have an amazing life out in the world, and ensure our exhibitions travel far wider than they otherwise could.
How would Stevenson adapt to these changes?
We try to be aware of the digital realm and have recently been experimenting with social media. But ultimately we are a company that shows physical things in the physical world, and art fairs and catalogues are still much more important to us than newer media.
E-Commerce is an aspect of the art market that has emerged in recent years. In your opinion, why do you think several gallerists are unwilling to adapt to this approach?
When one works hard all year long to create amazing exhibitions, it can be frustrating to see this effort reduced to jpegs attached to emails. It is rare for pictures to do justice to the works we show.
How do you ensure an all-round artists development programme that also aligns with the gallery’s particular focus on the African region?
We don’t have an artists’ development programme. If anything, the gallery and the artists we represent develop in tandem, and our growth is largely due to shifts in the practice and ambition of our artists, rather than the other way around. In a strange way our job is quite easy—we are surrounded by amazing talent, and all we have to do is offer it a sustainable platform.
In what way does the exhibition space affect the gallery programming?
Everything we do is determined by our space; it sets physical limits to the size and scope of our exhibitions and requires a certain amount of programming every year. Thankfully we have two beautiful galleries with relatively high ceilings, so most of the projects our artists propose are possible, one way or another.
How important are art fairs in promoting the work of your artists, and how do you decide on which artist gets the exposure?
Art fairs are essential, though paradoxically what we show at each particular fair is secondary to the effect of our mere presence. When encountering new people in the art world, discovering which fairs we do (Frieze London, New York and Art Basel Miami Beach, for example) immediately creates a level of trust that would otherwise take years to build. In terms of fair programming, much is determined by the kind of practice that our artists have. Ambitious videos or subtle conceptual gestures, for example, struggle to translate into an art fair context. And yes, the question of how we will pay for our astronomical shipping bills sometimes does affect our decisions.
There is a growing proliferation of art fairs, do you foresee them gradually becoming more relevant than exhibitions in local galleries, particularly with the advantages of large visitor numbers and increased exposure for the artists?
Our job is to provide our artists with a structure in which to realise their creative ambitions. Situations where art fairs are more appropriate for this purpose than a gallery space are, will remain rare. Art fairs can only exist by virtue of the amazing programming that commercial galleries offer worldwide.
You have participated in major fairs like Frieze New York, Frieze London, Paris Photo and Art Basel Miami Beach. In what ways has this impacted on your artists?
Some careers are directly affected by exposure at specific art fairs–Nicholas Hlobo’s solo show at the ICA in Boston, for example, was the direct result of our first participation in the Armory Show. However, one should not overestimate their importance. Nicholas would have been successful without that moment too.
Are there any plans to expand the gallery in terms of locations in other countries?
Absolutely not. It is expensive enough to keep doing what we do!
You are increasingly representing high profile non-South African artists, how do you select the artists you represent?
We must just love the work. It is that simple.
What do you see as some of the challenges South African gallerists are presently facing?
The challenges facing South African galleries are not so different from those facing galleries in other parts of the world; we have to pay our salaries, our rent, our art fair fees… The one thing that is perhaps more of an issue is shipping. We have no good local art shippers, so crating and handling always leads to frustration. Not to mention that our distance from most of our clients means the shipping costs are disproportionately high.
What does the future hold for art in South Africa and what do you picture as Stevenson’s role in the future development of the South African and larger African art scene?
We try not to think about the future much. The present is way too interesting.
Images: Mario Todeschini
Gallery profile: Stevenson was first published in Omenka Magazine Volume II Issue II.
August 16, 2019