Norval Foundation

A museum as a leisure destination

Photos: Karl Rogers

Cape Town. With the opening of the Norval Foundation, another architectural and conceptual highlight for culture buffs was created in Cape Town. The opening of the Zeitz Mocaa Museum as recently as last year drew international attention for the first time to as yet little known African contemporary art. This led to the creation of another space which feels committed to exploring and presenting the African art of the 20th and 21st century.

The founder of this new establishment is the Norval family, who, during the past two decades, accomplished the building up of one of the leading 20th century art collections of South Africa, which it enlarged by important artist collections and stock existing in archives.

For a start, the location and architecture of the foundation are very special. It adjoins Table Mountain National Park in the Steenberg region und is surrounded by mountains and vineyards. The building, designed by DHK Architects, which is characterised by its simple, straight lines and its uncluttered constructions presents itself as an elegant, modern pavilion which opens up to nature. Its west-facing side has many access points leading to the sculpture garden, facilitating entry to the gallery spaces. The restaurant – unusually generously proportioned for a museum café – invites the visitors to linger.

The external look immediately indicates that no holy shrine of art was created here, but a destination that allows us to experience culture at leisure. The events calendar emphasises this intention. Apart from the exhibitions typical of a museum of art, the events also regularly include concerts or ballet performances. In a conversation with the museum’s chief executive director, Elana Brundyn, who begins to take me through the rooms, I learn more about the idea and concept.

The route into the museum is predefined by Structural Response III, a room installation by the artist Serge Alain Nitegeka. His key subject, disjointedness caused by forced migration, is reflected impressively in an artistic form.

Image 1: Elke Backes, Elana Brundyn _ Image 2: Serge Alain Nitegeka, Structural Response III

From there we get to the picture gallery, where the artist Mmakgabo Mapula Helen Sebidi is currently being presented. Presumably part of the permanent exhibition of the private collection, I wonder? “No. This is a very important aspect of our concept: We don’t feel compelled to present our own collection. Only one single work of the collection is on display in all currently presented exhibitions. It serves predominantly as a basis of our research into determining a relevance to other contemporary works of art. We may display it, but we do not have to”, explains Elana Brundyn.

Mmakgabo Mapula Helen Sebidi, Who are we and where are we going? (Tryptichon) 236 x 331 cm (92 7/8 x 130 3/8 in.), 2005–2008

When we go through the other gallery areas and the so-called Big Gallery, the architectural highlight of the whole building, it becomes perfectly obvious that the focus is not on their own collection. The entire floor is taken up by Heliostat, Wim Botha’s stunning solo show. One wall of the Big Gallery has floor-to-ceiling windows, allowing daylight to stream in and nature to be viewed outside. Internal and external spaces become one. Because of the many coloured mirror faces integrated into the current exhibition, the light takes centre stage. “This room tests both artists and curators to their limits”, reveals Elana Brundyn. “But it is very satisfying to see what emerges under these conditions” she adds with pleasure.

Wim Botha, Heliostat

We proceed upstairs where – besides another gallery, a bar, offices and a library – we find something quite rare for a museum….. an artist-in-residence apartment. Here, architecture, design and art came together in absolute perfection. Simply a dream! “We decided to provide such an apartment to be able to invite guest curators, authors or – in short – museum experts to assist us with our own gallery work. We also use the apartment for private dinners.” Night at the Museum no longer needs to be fiction flashes through my mind.

Also unusual is the concept of the exhibition series presented in the upstairs gallery. The current exhibition in the Collector’s Focus allows the viewing of the Véronique Suzman-Savigne collection. “The focus is on the important function of the collectors in the art scene… telling stories behind their collector’s passion and showing works which, after their purchase, the public can no longer see. It is amazing to experience collector’s concepts and connections emerging during the planning and implementation of these exhibitions and watching new, important networks form.”

The floor-to-ceiling windows behind the public bar again open up a view of nature. The bar is open to the public and can be hired for private functions. “A special aspect here is undoubtedly the integration of nature as an essential and obvious component of both the architecture and the programme of the museum. Was the property chosen for this purpose or was the plot there first and the idea developed from the existing situation?

Image 1: Part 2 of Collector’s Fokus: Véronique Suzman-Savigne-Collection _ Image 2: Elke Backes und Elana Brundyn

“Well, the Norval family had toyed for years with the idea of establishing a cultural platform on the basis of their collection. So, when Louis Norval then discovered this property, which was just a nondescript, fallow piece of land, the thought became a clear vision. One inspired the other, so to speak, without there having been a concrete plan. Just like nature”, Elana Brundyn replies, with a twinkling in her eye.

More Information

… about Norval Foundation: https://www.norvalfoundation.org