26 Mar A 4 Foundation
An innovative art lab
Photos: Karl Rogers
Cape Town. There are academies, galleries, museums, art exhibitions, festivals … and now also a laboratory to experiment with art. At the initiative of the collector Wendy Fisher and her curator Josh Ginsburg, an innovative institute, the A4 Foundation, came into being in 2017, right in the middle of Cape Town. Here, space – literally and figuratively – was created for the passionate experimentation with art, new forms of art funding and communication of art and, particularly, for trying things out. Today, in our conversation with Josh Ginsburg, we hear some more about it.
There is a palpable spirit of optimism in Cape Town’s contemporary art scene. Three institutes, the A4 Foundation, the Zeitz Mocaa Museum and the Norval Foundation were opened within the same year. They felt committed to the promotion and presentation of contemporary African art which until then had had little exposure. All three of them work according to completely different concepts, but regularly exchange ideas and interact with each other in order to promote their joint objective.
Wendy Fisher’s collection forms the content basis for the establishment of the A4 Foundation. Seven years ago she embraced the decision for wanting to make available to the public her artworks in the most constructive manner possible. She engaged Josh Ginsburg as a curator and gave him the task to ask questions about the works of the collection, under the contextual and formal aspect of their position within the South African history of art. They quickly realised that they wanted more than just to exhibit the work. They wanted to get to its core, find the motivation for its creation so that they would then be able to emphasise the power of art as a catalyst for the social and political changes in South Africa. It was a matter of developing a concept which could act in and productively fill the areas between an academy, the art market and museal institutes. For a start, they spoke to the artists, as Josh Ginsburg explains.
Ginsburg: We asked what their most urgent need was. What essentially emerged from their answers was that a space was needed where it would be possible not only to develop new ideas, but to also test these on the public. In close discussions with further parties involved in the art scene we then drew up a concept for A4 with them for providing spaces for the artists, which was ultimately implemented here.
What does A4 stand for?
Ginsburg: These are the four first letters of Academy, Apparative, Access and Archives. These terms epitomise the essence of our concept. I suggest we have a look at the building and its various functional areas. That will make it easier to explain and understand our idea.
We start on the third floor.
Ginsburg: Here is a studio which we make available to artists, our offices and, most importantly, our multi-function venue. This is used for workshops, performances and joint cooking events. It is our central meeting point. The room functions both as an academy and an apparative, which create a common bond to enable people to work on an interdisciplinary level. A concrete example: For a workshop, we invited master students from the Urban Infrastructure of the Africa Centre for Cities and artists.
It was found that the urban space is evaluated according to completely different criteria. While the students put the emphasis on the through-flow of transport lanes within residential areas, factors that determine the quality of life were important to the artists. In this context, the function of light was talked about. Which spaces are light, which are dark, and what does this mean for security, safety etc.? The result of this workshop was that a dance, that was specially created for this project, was performed in a public space.
The second floor holds a gallery which is conceived as a classic white cube. The large total area is only divided by individual temporary display features.
Ginsburg: At the moment, we have an exhibition of David Goldblatt photography. As his works form part of our collection, I have been intensively involved with it for many years and have had a constant exchange with him, so a very personal relationship developed between us. When he died last year, it was a concern of mine to dedicate an exhibition to him and to curate it. David always worked in series, and these were also globally presented. What is special about this exhibition is that we separated individual photos and combined them with motives of other series; this enabled us to bring out for the first time the aesthetic or poetic component of his creative work.
Does your own collection feature in all exhibitions and are they curated by you?
Ginsburg: No. It is rather the exception that I curated this exhibition. It is the main purpose of our test lab, to invite young curators who can practice their craft here. However, they can also operate with our collection and other collections or works of the primary market. Our team provides for the required logistic support, the galleries provide the necessary exhibition space. That is the Access: The opportunity for direct access to our collection, but also access or the communication with artists, gallery owners or other collectors. It is of primary importance to Wendy Fisher that there is an option but not a duty to work with her collection. Quite the contrary: It is our aim to make our depot available in the future also to other collectors, so that artists and curators can work with it.
On the ground floor is the depot and the public library.
Ginsburg: We prefer to call our depot an Archive, because it is open to anybody who wants to engage with its content. I would like to give you an example of the form of cooperation we envisage with other collectors. [He pulls out one of the archive walls and shows photographs depicting child soldiers.] If you ask collectors whether they want to buy this work and hang it in their home, most of them answer ‘no’. They are simply too destructive for a private environment. However, if you ask them whether they consider the works important within the context of development of South African art, they mostly answer ‘yes’. We therefore encourage them to make ten percent of their purchasing budget available for exactly such works. These can then be stored in our archive and therefore be made available for research.
Research is a good key word. A4 is also equipped with a public library. How much is it used?
Ginsburg: Not yet so much. But this may also be so because our concept for this is not yet ready. As it holds mostly books that are relevant to the artists of our collection they would have to be presented as an extension of the exhibition – as was done in the case of the David Goldblatt exhibition. We are working on it.
An all round very committed project. How does the financing of the foundation work?
Ginsburg: A third is made available by Wendy Fisher via the Kirsh Family Foundation. Two thirds need to be acquired. We usually plan with a budget for two years. The big problem in South Africa is that there are no government incentives, like tax relief, which would support the promotion of art. We are therefore forced to convince (the public) only with our contents.
Are you satisfied with your achievements so far?
Ginsburg: Absolutely. We are a great team. Wendy is incredibly open to our ideas and allows us to experiment. We increasingly act as a bridge between the individual protagonists and feel that as an art lab we are able to make the contribution to the promotion of the South African development of art that we hoped to do.
… about A 4: https://www.a4arts.org