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The private becomes public: South Africa’s first privately owned museum opens

by Marilyn de Freitas posted on December 13, 2012.

The New Church, the first privately owned contemporary museum in South Africa.

The art of collecting developed during the Renaissance era where the d'Medici family collected works by young artists and provided them with a space to work, create and develop ideas. In the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the Capitalist system, the image of a collector became that of a status symbol and "the truly 'private' art collector was born". Prominent works often disappear from public view into private or corporate collections only to reappear when sold at auction often years later. The opening of the first private contemporary art museum in Tamboerskloof in Cape Town should have had the tongues wagging at this innovative move to South Africa’s scene.

Instead, Founder and executive chairman of asset manager of RE:CM, Piet Viljoen went about acquiring a space quietly wanting to put his collection into the public sphere.

Viljoen bears no art background and describes himself as possessing the "clinical gene" but is an avid collector of South African Contemporary art. He developed an interest in art when first seeing Brett Murray's work "Africa", a large-scale West African figure with Bart Simpson heads crudely sprouting across the figure. Following a tipoff of a miniature bronze sculpture of Murray’s work, Viljoen started his now 480-piece collection.

The opening of the New Church, a juxtaposition between the old 1890 Victorian architecture and the South African modern contemporary works in his collection including Penny Siopis, William Kentridge, Walter Batiss, Robin Rhode, among others, is filled with contradictions. As a person from a financial and investment background, Viljoen dismisses investment in art; stating it rarely shows a financial return, with a strong possibly of a negative loss. The roots of the privately owned museum seen in some of the biggest art capitals in the world, is the newest 'plaything' of the super-wealthy, these buildings bearing the name of collectors offering us, the regular citizen, a chance to view some of the best pieces. It offers a new stage for contemporary art often only seen in commercial galleries under prejudicial ideas. The New Church is a modest contribution to a still developing South African art scene.

Aside from the aesthetic draw card of art, Viljoen states that he collected pieces that could stand on its own two feet and have a strong social message, reflecting things often overlooked within society. Wlliem Boshoff's Blind Alphabet is one such piece which plays on the assumed constructs of viewing art by creating art that is specifically made for a blind audience. He goes against his investor drive and believes buying art is primarily driven by emotions of victory, cultural superiority and social distinction. He believes that collectors have a role to play in facilitating the critical "examination of societies’ values and norms by people who have generally not been co-opted into the power structures of politics and business."

ACULEATE (beset with small prickles)from 'Blind Alphabet' collection

"The phenomenal creative world that Piet Viljoen's collection reflects allows us deep insights into the complexities of the human subjectivity; the precarious, fragile achievement of a sense of selfhood continuously made and unmade in form and indeed experience," Penny Siopis stated in her exhibition essay of the first curated show of his collection, Subject as Matter on view by appointment until the end of summer.

"Hopefully with the help of the artists and their work, the New Church can act as a conduit to a more truthful interpretation of the times we live in," Viljoen remarked in his opening speech. He describes his collection as a hobby, an addiction such as someone collecting old cars. He states that he finds art fascinating and believes the works acts like a mirror towards society and reflects the importance of art in disclosing social, cultural and political issues. A newbie to the art world, he has no fixed plans for the New Church yet. He aims to keep it completely non-commercial, reflecting his tastes in art and hopes to plan a curated exhibition from his collection twice a year. The rest of us should be thankful for his persistent urge to acquire new contemporary South African art and to show it off.


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