WHAT IS THE point of collecting art? Isn’t it sheer indulgence when one considers that many in this country scarcely have enough to eat? No, not really.
Art – whatever the medium – is a window to a nation’s soul. It captures histories, moods, thoughts and emotions. It provokes a reaction within the viewer: be that anger, empathy or awe. It inspires debate, discussion and meditation. And as John Ruskin could so profoundly say: “Art is not a study of positive reality: it is the seeking for ideal truth.”
The importance of art anywhere should not be underestimated yet in South Africa sadly that is the case. I went to the South African National Gallery last week. Entitled WHY COLLECT? NEW ACQUISITIONS MADE BY THE IZIKO ART DEPARTMENT, 2005–2006, their latest temporary exhibition is a courageously audacious attempt to draw to attention to its shocking lack of funding.
For the first time since 1994, government granted Iziko Musuems, the state organisation tasked with running the gallery, a measly R141 000 to buy new art for the period 2005-2006. That, incidentally, is approximately 3% of the cost of our deputy-president’s R4.5 million chartered flight to the United Kingdom and back a few months ago.
Aside from a piecemeal budget, the National Gallery is faced with other challenges in enlarging its collection. After Trevor Manuel removed the vat-exemption of state-affiliated museums in his 2003 budget speech, the gallery has faced a further funding squeeze. In addition to this, donated artworks are no longer tax-deductible, providing no incentive for private donors to offer priceless works to the gallery. The offer of original Picassos to the National Gallery a few years ago was subsequently withdrawn for this very reason.
The National Gallery is a beautiful place, a place to be proud of, a place to showcase South Africa’s creative depth and diversity to the world – and to the nation itself. It is time government took simple steps to ensure that no more opportunities are lost in the enlarging and maintenance of this window to our nation’s soul.