ART AFRICA in conversation with Stefan Hundt for the ART AFRICA COLLECTORS REPORT (AACR). An accomplished art professional, curator of the Sanlam Art Collection and head of Sanlam Private Wealth Art Advisory Service, Hundt has been curator of the Sanlam Art Collection since 1997. Since his appointment, the collection has expanded to include an additional five hundred artworks dating from late 19th century to the present. The collection boasts a representative overview of South African art and is valued conservatively at ZAR158,000,000.
ART AFRICA: You’ve been the curator of the Sanlam Art Collection since 1997 please tell us about the history of the collection, how did it start?
Stefan Hundt: The Sanlam Art Collection was founded in 1965 when the board, then headed by Andreas Wassenaar, decided to start an art collection. There was a dual purpose to the collection; the first was a social-educational function. At the time, Sanlam was employing young people – many of whom came from the Platteland and they were housed in hostels on the company grounds in Bellville. The employees would have then have had the opportunity to learn something about quality South African art, which the collection was to be representative of. Later the company would also put the collection on tour throughout the country, particularly to smaller towns where such opportunities to view art were non-existent. The company directly supports the South African art economy by buying local art.
Further to that, the artworks placed in the company’s headquarters would enhance the working environment and add prestige. Fortunately, from the outset the company engaged the services of FL Alexander, Die Burger’s art critic at the time, as an expert adviser to select works for acquisition. Since then, the company’s acquisitions have been made by an independent, external committee of qualified advisors chaired by the person responsible for the collection. The quality of the early acquisitions is undisputable, and they reflect what the committee understood to be South African art – of course, ideas of what constitutes art, and what is representative, have come a long way since then.
Over the years, the collection continued to expand at varying rates depending on available funds and the committee’s ability to identify worthy acquisitions. When the touring exhibitions started in South Africa, in the late sixties, the collection already included some three hundred works. By the seventies, the touring exhibitions had made it to Europe, and a decade later, in the late eighties, Sanlam acquired the entire collection of Dr Helmut Silberberg – a well-known fine art dealer in the country. His collection comprised a broad selection of established South African painters and printmakers and enhanced the collection considerably.
In 1993, the company completed a refurbishment of its head office building, which included a purpose-built gallery and storage facility. By the time of my appointment as the first curator, the gallery was well established.
The new space allowed for the permanent exhibition of Sanlam’s collection, which became a feature of the head office. This development also enabled the collection to grow beyond traditional media – it was augmented with installations and projections that could previously not be accommodated in an office environment.
Moving the collection out of this traditional office space into its own dedicated gallery also meant that it could now include works which might have been considered provocative or contentious in a conventional office environment. This development therefore broadened the representative character and aims of the collection as whole. Many of the artworks acquired from this point would not have been possible without the gallery; because of previous installation or exhibition restrictions and significant additions were made in the area of sculpture, which had been neglected in the past.
The collection is now representative of South African fine art practices from the mid-19th century to the present. There are many historical gaps to be considered and contemporary developments to be incorporated.
Can you elaborate on the collection’s initial mandate to be representative? What does your current strategy entail and how have you guided the collection since its’ inception up until now?
The initial mandate was broad – a representative collection of South African art. Of course, this was easily understood in 1965 but by the 1980s the concepts of ‘art’ and ‘representative’ were being highly contested.
The South Africa art scene experienced a number of paradigm shifts introduced, to some extent, by groundbreaking exhibitions such as the ‘Tributaries’ show conceived and curated by Ricki Burnett, the ‘The Neglected Tradition’ by Steven Sack and ‘Images in Wood’ by Elizabeth Rankin. The Cape Town Triennial competition launched in 1982 and provided a stage for conflicting views on the content, organisation and purpose of art in South Africa.
Considered in the context of the successive ‘State of Emergency’ that South Africa was subjected to, art became a vehicle for political expression and opposition when other channels where systematically shut down by a repressive authority. However, South Africa was largely isolated from the international art world. Once South Africans had accepted a democratic dispensation in 1994, it was the Johannesburg Biennale that showed up the parochial and inward looking character of the South African art world. A further paradigm shift was required in the visual arts and some artists succeeded in making this shift, while many were left to linger on in their fixed traditional views. All this provided rich material for artists, and as consequence for collectors and collections.
The concept of ‘representative’ has expanded enormously and the collection strategy takes this into account. The historical aspect of the collection is still augmented where specific areas are identified, hence Sanlam still acquires works by the dead and famous – but also by the forgotten and neglected where this is affordable. The idea of the collection was fundamentally founded within the fine arts space, and this is still maintained but with a much wider purview.
In the past, traditional practices of painting, sculpture and printmaking were – to some extent – defined by specific media. However, this is no longer tenable and although such categories have practical purpose when discussing art, they are of little use when developing strategies for collecting. Hence Sanlam doesn’t have a collection of paintings as such, nor does it “not collect photography.”
The collection acquires significant images irrespective of the material in which they were produced- provided the work is able to be exhibited within the practical constraints of the company’s facilities.
Does the increasing focus on and emergence of art fairs and platforms dedicated to contemporary art from Africa have any bearing on the collection? Have these engendered a more continental focus moving forward, bearing in mind that the Sanlam Group has a presence in eleven African countries?
The emergence of these fairs does not have a direct impact on the collection yet. Certainly their proliferation has provided the opportunity to see the collection and the South African art market in a broader African context.
Much of the art exhibited on these fairs is produced outside of the continent by artists who have found survival in the broader more realistic art world – where art markets and art institutions are well established. It is encouraging to see that while the subject matter of much of the artwork has universal relevance, there is a unique character developing that is only found on this continent.
What influence does Sanlam’s corporate presence in other African countries have on the collection? Is the collection purely South African, or have you extended it to include other African countries?
Sanlam’s presence in eleven African countries is a fairly recent expansion, and in most instances it’s in partnership with established local companies. In addition Sanlam also has a presence in Europe; UK; Malaysia; India and Australia.
The growth into Africa will begin to influence the way in which the company operates as the corporate culture begins to settle in and adapt where necessary. Although not formal, there is most certainly a discussion on this; no position has yet been taken with regard to expanding the scope of the collection to be more representative of the continent as a whole.
I would think this would still take some time - Sanlam’s approach to establishing businesses elsewhere has been to build partnerships with existing successful businesses. Should the art collection begin to reach out to the rest of the continent, it will be most likely done in a similar fashion. Our strategy would be to look towards establishing collections locally; then collaborating and sharing collections.
Besides being the curator of the art collection, you also head up Sanlam Private Investments Art Advisory Service that launched in 2010. Do you use the same criteria as applied to collecting work for the collection when advising clients on which artists to collect?
The Art Advisory Service is a service offered to clients of the Sanlam Group and anyone else interested in starting an art collection. Those who may already have an existing collection and require guidance with respect to its management and further development may also make use of this service. My many years as curator at the Oliewenhuis Art Museum – and now for the Sanlam Art Collection – have enabled me to actively participate in the art market from a knowledgeable position.
I have enjoyed institutional backing and have had access to some of the best expertise in the market. Whilst actively expanding the collection for Oliewenhuis and Sanlam, I often observed the poor choices made by those who had adequate means but very little know-how. Some became victims of unscrupulous agents and smouse (‘hawker’) dealers – especially so when the South African art market was beginning to boom and prices for works by celebrated artists doubled every few months. It was easy for someone of means to follow the market trend – trend that often leads to mediocre works becoming vastly overvalued and over-appraised. In many respects I found this state of affairs unconscionable as good money was chasing poor or overpriced art.
The art advisory service was established to provide individuals with an informed, experienced and independent view on art and the art market and not to present the case for ‘art as an investment’. The acquisition of artworks can prove to be a sound investment – in the context of the individual’s existing investment portfolio and requirements – but shouldn’t be the primary motivation for acquiring a work.
The service does not participate in the sale or purchase of art, nor does it have a vested interest in the business of art trading as such. Unlike many art consultants, the service doesn’t source artworks for clients nor does it keep any sort of stock at its disposal for sale.
No one can predict the future, but a suitably qualified and experienced person would be able to identify assets or artworks that would have present adequate value for money and would have the best possibility for growth in value over time.
What is your opinion on the current state of corporate support for the arts and creative industries, in comparison to say, twenty years ago when a new democratic dispensation was born?
Twenty years is not so long ago. Corporate support for the arts and creative industries has grown significantly over the years and the character of such support has changed somewhat. Corporate art collections experienced a growth phase from the mid-1990s to about 2005. Beginning with Gencor, many larger companies realised that building a collection of South African art was a good and ‘cost-effective’ way of demonstrating a commitment to the ‘new South Africa.’ Art was visceral; visual; unique and very reasonably priced.
A number of collections founded in the 1990s hardly collect now and in some instances are disposing of their collection – no doubt at a handsome profit. However, keeping an art collection has its own challenges and is not core business. Inevitably the euphoria that may have accompanied the establishment of a corporate collection often wanes as implications of care and display start weighing in on the annual budget. Corporations have become a lot shrewder.
They realise the significant benefits of being associated with the creative arts but they don’t necessarily need to own works of art to forge such association. Although sponsorship for the visual arts may at this time seem to be in decline, I’m fairly confident that new sponsorship models incorporating elements of partnership with organisations, NGOs and institutions, will become prominent over time.
The Sanlam Portrait Award competition gives local artists the opportunity to gain invaluable exposure with exhibitions throughout South Africa. What impact has the competition had on the careers of these artists? Are there plans to expand the competition into the rest of Africa.
The Sanlam Portrait Award attracts entries from a diverse range of artists. Because of its narrow focus (on portraiture) the competition attracts both established and emerging artists. For the winner of the competition, the impact extends beyond the monetary benefit in that the artist now enjoys national exposure. For those artists whose works were selected for the touring exhibition the exposure has been similarly significant.
This year sees only the second iteration of this competition, and the eligibility of expanding it to entries from all over Africa still needs to be tested. Portraiture is a popular genre, not only for the public but also for the artist. I imagine that local portrait competitions could be established that may then finally feed into one significant ‘continental’ award. Planning such a competition is, I think, a daunting but enticing prospect.
Given your experience over the years, could you provide us with some insight into the trends you have seen developand comment on what are some of the current trends that you find noteworthy or identify as opportunities?
There is little doubt that South African art is becoming recognised globally. Given the proportion of the country’s population with access to education in the visual arts, South Africa has produced a significant over proportion of superb artists when compared to Europe and the United States. There is, alas, little State support for the visual arts and little reason to be optimistic about this changing in the future.
However, I think that the resourcefulness of many of our curators will begin to play a significant role in uplifting important national institutions that have experienced neglect over the last twenty years.
The rise of the ‘serious private collector’ is a reality in South Africa. Although they may not throw around millions of dollars, the investment that a number of committed individuals have made to art over the last few years is significant and will continue to grow. The establishment of the New Church Museum and the Zeitz MOCAA are significant indicators that (part of) the South African art world is healthy and growing.
In contrast to this, the decline of the role of public institutions in the art world is of serious concern. These institutions have, in the past, been exemplary in the quality of their acquisitions and exhibitions. Their relative independence from government and market interference meant that these institutions could provide a well-considered view of the quality of art produced. Without adequate funding and support these institutions lose their capacity to fulfil their mandate – as representative collections of the country’s art and its relations to the globe.
The public is left poorer and exposed to the machinations of the commercial dealer, where everything is presented as art and an investment. Some twenty years ago, the art market was insignificant and not managed very professionally. There has been a significant increase in professionalism of the commercial gallery scene and worthy contemporary artists are being represented successfully at art fairs internationally. Competition is fierce amongst these galleries, the crop of promising graduates is still small and few of them make it beyond the second solo exhibition.
There are many shooting stars but few burning suns. The auction houses have certainly taken over the secondary market in the last few years and there are a handful of galleries that reliably trade in the secondary market. In 2009 there was only one auction house with a national footprint that offered specialised catalogued sales of artworks. Now, there are nine of them that actively sell art as a separate category. There is no doubt that the art market has grown significantly, and that there is a growing interest in South African art, both locally and abroad.