Catherine McDermott, ICOM UK Committee Member, interviewed Candice Allison, Director of Bag Factory Artists’ Studios on a recent visit to Johannesburg, South Africa.
How are South African museums engaging with social justice and youth empowerment?
Museums in South Africa are working hard with diminishing year on year resources to offer affordable or free entry and educational events particularly for national holidays like Youth Day and Human Rights Day, but getting audiences interested is a challenge.
Spaces like the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios supplement the work museums do and are often the first point of contact that audiences have with art. We run an Inner City Kids Programme for less privileged schools and youth groups which include creative activities and visits to a local gallery or museum. In August we will be hosting two creative workshops at the University of Johannesburg Gallery, which will introduce the learners to Trans, a group exhibition featuring various artists who have been involved with the Bag Factory.
Because we can be more flexible and accessible to areas like Soweto, Mayfair, and Sophiatown, we bridge the gap between disadvantaged audiences and the museum, inspiring young people to find out more about their museums and return with family members who have never visited a museum. In recent years we have seen a surge of interest from young people concerned about whose heritage, and how that heritage, is being preserved. The more young people engage with arts and cultural organisations, the quicker museums will serve all demographics of South Africa, not just an elite few.
Can you tell us about the mission of the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios?
It was founded in 1991 by artist David Koloane and British businessman and art collector Sir Robert Loder, at a time when black artists were not permitted to study fine art at high school or university, and few black artists had exhibited in South African museums. For the first time, the Bag Factory offered all races the opportunity to work, participate in workshops, and exhibit together.
We offer 16 subsidised studio spaces to emerging and established artists, with two additional studios reserved for our international artist residency programme. A programme of exhibitions, workshops, and events that take place in the gallery, and a curatorial development programme offers much-needed training and development for young curators. A priority is to develop South Africa’s first international curatorial residency programme with the aim to establish partnerships between international curators and local artists.
How would you assess the impact of the Bag Factory?
Over two and a half decades The Bag Factory Artists’ Studios has launched and supported some of South Africa’s most celebrated artists including William Kentridge, Penny Siopis, David Koloane, Pat Mautloa and Sam Hlengethwa; hosted more than 200 international visiting artists; and offered space for many emerging curators to develop projects. We collaborate with museums at home and abroad and we have the advantage of flexibility. As a small, not for profit cultural organisation we have relatively low operational costs and a reflexive programme funded on a project by project basis.
Can you offer any examples of good practice of interest to UK museums?
Our experience is that communities that many museum professionals assumed were not interested in museums – are now voicing their thoughts about the exhibits that museums decide to show and not show. The wave of protests witnessed in recent years at exhibitions including works by artists such as Dana Schutz at the Whitney Biennial; Sam Durant at the Walker Art Center; Beezy Baily at the Barbican Art Gallery; and Kelley Walker at St. Louis’ Contemporary Art Museum illustrate that previously excluded audiences are demanding to be included with expectations that many museums find a challenge to adapt their programmes, interpretation methods, and audience outreach programmes to include these audiences in meaningful dialogue and debate. These mishaps shouldn’t discourage museums – rather, they should look to community arts organisations who have been successfully serving marginalised audiences for years.
Candice Allison is the newly appointed Director of the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios in Johannesburg, South Africa. Previously, she was the curator at The New Church Museum in Cape Town. As an independent curator she has curated exhibitions at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Iziko South African National Gallery, University of Stellenbosch Museum, and LKB/G in Hamburg. She curated Kudzanai Chiurai’s solo exhibition Madness and Civilization (2018) at Goodman Gallery Cape Town, which will travel to Kalmar konstmuseum, Sweden in October 2018; and Södertälje konsthall, Stockholm in 2019.
The views and opinions expressed in this interview are the author’s own.