Norval Foundation: The power of art to transform society
By Elana Brundyn
In the early nineteen nineties, Louis Norval attended an art auction and bought two paintings, one of which was Maggie Laubser’s,“Woman with a yellow scarf”. It was a defining moment for him, marking the beginning of a sustained dedication to the visual arts in South Africa. Many years later Louis went to a Stephan Welz and Co. auction, of a rich and varied collection of South African paintings. It included works by Irma Stern, Maggie Laubser, Hugo Naude, Gregoire Boonzaier, and other prominent South African artists. The paintings had been collected over many years by the Cape Town businessman Jack Kahn and his wife, Helene. As they had no direct descendants, the proceeds of the auction went to charities. This intrigued Louis. He realised that art collections that are kept intact for generations have far more intrinsic value for society than individual works of art bought primarily for investment purposes and eventually sold as commodities. This was a formative moment.
On becoming a global investor in 2011, Louis found that there was not only very little political incentive to support the visual arts in South Africa; philanthropists, too, rarely provided financial assistance for artists, museums and galleries. Public art institutions and university art departments had had their budgets slashed and were barely surviving. While individuals would occasionally donate or bequeath art to these institutions, the amounts were never adequate to ensure their long term existence. Louis decided that it was his social responsibility to establish a world class, self-sustaining art institution that could enrich people’s lives and uplift local communities in a profound way. In this way he would be able to make his extraordinary art collection available to the public. Other private and corporate collectors in South Africa would also be able to entrust their art to the new institution for future generations. Hence Norval Foundation was born: a cultural centre dedicated to the research and exhibition of 20th- and 21st-century visual art, with a focus on Africa. Its aim – to create dynamic artistic programming to broaden our understanding of the visual arts in South Africa and beyond.
Located in the beautiful Steenberg area of Cape Town, adjacent to Table Mountain National Park, this modern pavilion for art, with a dynamic, revolving exhibition programme, opened to the public on 28 April 2018. The “green” building, designed by DHK Architects, is a pure expression of form, sensitively constructed so as to offer protection to a wetland ecosystem inhabited by the endangered Western Cape leopard toad. The galleries and public spaces face an exquisitely landscaped, indigenous sculpture garden and, beyond it, the dramatic mountain landscape of Table Mountain National Park, allowing visitors to combine an experience of art with an appreciation of the surrounding natural grandeur. The sculpture garden features 21 three-dimensional artworks by artists from South Africa and other African countries. Yinka Shonibare’s “Wind Sculpture (SG) III” (2019) was acquired by Norval Foundation in February 2019 and is an excellent example of the practice of this globally influential British Nigerian artist. In addition to being conceptually and historically rich, “Wind Sculpture (SG) III” is the first monumental Yinka Shonibare sculpture on the African continent. Soon it will also house two permanent monumental pieces by William Kentridge: “Action” (2019) and “World on its Hind Legs”(2010), conceived as a public art piece by Kentridge and his long-time collaborator Gerhard Marx. The sculpture stands more than four metres tall and weighs more than four tons. Particularly relevant in these challenging times, from one vantage point the composition suggests how fragile our world order is, how tenuously held together. But from another the world resolves into wholeness, striding purposefully. There is hope for the future.
The Norval sculpture garden, outdoor amphitheatre, purpose-built exhibition spaces, and research library together offer visitors a uniquely multisensory experience. The Skotnes Restaurant and Bar, a bespoke shop, and a children’s playground further enhance this. Each element of the building has been commissioned to the highest possible specifications, on a par with leading international art institutions. The Foundation’s entire construction, the design of all its systems and functions, is for the preservation and display of art. For example, to ensure protection from fire damage of artworks exhibited in some of the galleries spaces and in the collection vaults, an advanced dry method gas suppression system was installed, preventing inadvertent water damage to artworks.
We are honoured to be the custodians of the Gerard Sekoto Foundation, the Edoardo Villa Estate Collection, and the Alexis Preller Archive. We are also the custodians of one of the most important private collections, The Homestead Collection (the Norval Family Collection), with its focus on South African visual art. Edoardo Villa’s “Africa” (1959), a sculptural work on long-term loan to Norval Foundation, welcomes visitors as they enter the museum. The prominence of the piece symbolises the extent to which stewardship of the collections and archive is a core feature of Norval Foundation’s mission. Indeed the Foundation has noticed increasing enquiries from patrons who wish to bequeath a valuable artwork or carefully acquired collection to the Foundation. A bequest is one of the simplest ways to provide for the future of a cultural institution, and Norval Foundation welcomes enquiries in this regard. Patrons whose passion for art is not shared by their heirs can be confident that their legacy will be carefully preserved for posterity.
The Norval exhibition programme draws on these rich collections, celebrating our South African cultural heritage while proposing links to the vibrant art practices taking place internationally. Through the diverse exhibition and public programming, the Foundation balances a commitment to local culture with an appreciation of global innovation. At Norval Foundation, we are deeply aware of our role in the local and international art ecosystem. In its opening year, the institution became one of only five institutions internationally and the first in Africa to receive a Sotheby’s Prize Special Commendation for Curatorial Excellence for the proposed exhibition, Jackson Hlungwani: Alt and Omega, scheduled to open in September 2020.
Norval Foundation could have achieved none of this without its very dedicated and dynamic team, including those both visible and behind the scenes. For this reason the wellbeing of staff, from those in senior management roles right through to its support staff, cleaners and gardeners, is highly valued. An example of the Foundation’s commitment to its human resources is the in-house “Grow the Good” initiative, established by Mareli Voster, which aims to assist and develop staff by providing meals, transport and a social upliftment programme.
Established to celebrate creativity, stimulate questions about our world, and engage audiences of all ages, Norval Foundation has successfully mounted 16 exhibitions since it opened. Connected to the artistic and education programmes, and further enhancing its national and international profile, Norval Foundation has produced seven quality publications for the broader public, including books for children. The Foundation is passionately committed to disseminating knowledge about art and artists in an accessible way. Our mission is to make art more available and accessible, as well as to research and educate. Through this research, we focus on what makes an art piece valuable in a cultural context and worthy of its place in a public institution. Our curators take great care to examine and research the historical and aesthetic importance of artists and their unique achievements.
Through its exhibitions, education initiatives and public programming, Norval Foundation has brought a lively array of cultural experiences and ideas to Cape Town and South Africa. Artists, musicians, scholars, collectors and curators, have physically and conceptually transformed the Foundation. This has been done through enigmatic installations, dynamic conversations and powerful performances, featuring forgotten, emerging and established artworks and artists. As part of the Norval Concert Programme, visitors have to date had the opportunity to attend 17 concerts by local and international musicians. The Foundation has welcomed more than 220 000 visitors since opening in April 2018, a remarkable achievement for a new museum destination in an area with no public transport.
All of this reminds us that museums matter. Audiences are “hungry” to learn in alternative ways, and creativity runs in all of us, not just the lucky few who by chance inherit an artistic gene. Art is a profound expression of creativity, which has been shown to be key to the development of critical thinking and empathy. Art fuels minds and hearts to keep growing and developing. Moreover, in these difficult and divisive times, art has the potential to transcend language, class, religion, gender, to heal and unify. As Martin Price of the Art Shanty Project writes,
Art transcends time. It transcends the artist who was responsible for its creation. It shatters barriers and goes beyond them to share its message … Art brings people together. It elicits different reactions and emotions, but everyone can agree that it moves them to think, to feel, and to act. Art is there to remind us of the values that we uphold.
It is indeed puzzling that cultural centres and museums are often seen as secondary to other, more prosaic, concerns of our time and are often last on philanthropist’s lists?
Louis Norval, his partner Mareli Voster and the Norval family have lifted cultural philanthropy to a new level in Africa, not only by creating a world-class platform, focusing on purposeful collecting, and welcoming the general public, but by understanding that supporting culture will have an impact far beyond today. It will guarantee a long-lasting legacy of the innovation and creativity happening in Africa now.
We need Cultural Philanthropy today more than ever to help us better understand and communicate with each other. Art history and art practices today hold lessons for all of us, in every aspect of society. Art can build bridges and facilitate transformation in this country and beyond, by providing the means for connections and collaborations. Museums are no longer merely platforms for culture, but vital educational institutions that have a profound effect on society and the public discourse. Museums can testify to other’s cultures, identities and faiths in ways that go beyond the spoken or written word. They provide ways for us to understand other’s realities, histories and influences, by protecting diversity, pluralism, and the dynamic exchange of ideas. Exhibitions provide the tools for more subtle, unconscious and open-ended forms of communication. Through the reality of objects, we learn about other cultures and find a common understanding. From understanding comes the revelation of common humanity – a better humanity that protects its children; loves, and fears the loss of love; struggles with the obstacles of youth and age; pursues knowledge and meaning; and allows us to experience possibility.
I believe that there is untapped opportunity in private philanthropy in South Africa, to respond to some of the most urgent and complex issues of our times — climate change, the legacy of colonialism, wealth, and gender inequality — with creativity and possibility. Culture and art are tools for social change, a way to educate and inspire people to dream bigger, better worlds.