#UPHeritageMonth: Reimagining the experience of art in a pandemic-affected world

Posted on September 27, 2021

The combined weight of the COVID-19 pandemic and the trend away from art being represented in mainstream media such as television means that the experience of art in galleries and museum spaces has had to be completely reimagined. For art institutions around the world, lockdown has largely meant migrating online.

Our society needs art, especially now. It can boost our mental health, and is instrumental in creating an opportunity for self-reflection, healing, and building critical capacity in the way people engage with the world. It’s a tool we can use to intervene in spaces where there’s a high level of uncertainty, allowing us to dream and broaden the horizon.

In a way, the pandemic happened at the “right time” for the Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria (Javett-UP). Just six months after it opened its doors on Heritage Day, 24 September 2019, South Africa went into hard lockdown, and the centre shut its doors. It would have taken years for Javett-UP to find its feet and achieve its aim of making the Pan-African artistic experience accessible, relevant and engaging. So, its newness became our advantage. Without a concrete established way of doing things, lockdown opened up opportunities for the centre to reinvent itself as a site of multiple experiences, and begin developing a new way of thinking and doing.

Javett-UP is a partnership between the philanthropic Javett Foundation and UP, but its funding is not indefinite. Finding other ways of generating income so that we eventually become self-sustainable is a priority. There are huge costs involved in running an Art Centre, from paying rent to curating and activating exhibitions. Javett-UP needs around R20m annually to achieve its operations and programming mandate optimally. University students and schools used to make up the bulk of our visitors, as much as up to 80%. When Javett-UP reopened last year, we still had a fair number of groups, but many declined after January because lockdown has meant that schools are prioritising time in the classroom. So we, like other arts institutions across South Africa and around the world, have had to test new ways of generating income so we can get back some of our costs and also generate more to secure the next project.

Even without a pandemic to speed up innovation, arts institutions have a responsibility to create alternative public platforms. Some of the ways in which Javett-UP and other institutions are doing that is by exploring ways of live-streaming tours, during which staff interact with artists, and the public is able to ask questions. Institutions are also installing QR codes, which visitors can scan with their smartphones to find out more about the art they are viewing.

In addition, digital art publication Culture Review is assisting our centre in using social media platforms such as TikTok to bring in other voices, those not necessarily familiar with art spaces, to make commentary about our art. It is vital that art is connected to what is happening in people’s lives.

We also need to establish new networks, and open up opportunities towards working together and sharing our experiences as artistic platforms in our region. To this end, we are conceptualising a monthly Facebook podcast of dialogues with other Tshwane art institutions and collectives anchored in townships around us.

But it is not only how art is represented that needs to be re-envisioned – keeping arts spaces alive will also require imaginative thinking. One of our major responsibilities is to sustain operations at Javett-UP in this difficult climate. The South African arts scene is dire. The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg couldn’t cover costs when it reopened briefly and is shut “until further notice”; the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town has closed permanently; as has, most recently, the anti-apartheid landmark Liliesleaf Farm Museum in Johannesburg.

Art spaces can become spaces of dialogue, where ideas are shared and reflected upon, and so serve as an antidote to the level of imprisonment in a lockdown situation. By engaging with different forms of artworks, each developed in a particular context, art allows us to enter a world of multiple voices. It can contribute to how we think about the future and how we position ourselves in our society. For this and other reasons it is vital that government and other stakeholders work with arts institutions to ensure the survival and ultimately the financial sustainability of these pillars of any well-balanced society.

Lekgetho Makola is CEO of the Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria.

- Author Lekgetho Makola

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