I’ve been creating content and interviewing industry movers and shakers for a while now but, on Tuesday, I met who I believe to be one of the most passionate women in the South African arts, its artists and their overall wellbeing. This woman is none other than Karen Brusch– one of Gallery MOMO’s Directors who also manages the gallery’s Johannesburg arm. Karen has been with the gallery from its early days (eight years ago) and through the gallery’s growth, has overseen and managed careers and projects of artists such as Roger Ballen, Andrew Tshabangu, Ayana V. Jackson and Mary Sibande to name a few.I am back at the gallery to speak to Karen about her thoughts about the South African art landscape and how the gallery has positioned itself within it. They currently have
I am back at the gallery to speak to Karen about her thoughts about the South African art landscape and how the gallery has positioned itself within it. They currently have Jonathan Freemantle’s DER HEILIGE BERG II exhibition on display which opened on the 3rd of March and will run until the 18th of April 2016.
We move into the gallery’s office and I start setting up for the interview as she takes a seat. This is how it went:
Shots011: Who Is Karen?
KB: I have been working at Gallery MOMO for the past eight years now. I was a teacher in Switzerland eight years before that. I was an Art Producer in the South African Film Industry ten years before that and travelled around the country a lot. I’ve also studied a few things. I have a degree in Journalism; have studied Speech and Drama, Ayurveda, Art History and English Literature.
So I had done a variety of things in my life and when I came back to South Africa I wanted to settle down. I didn’t want to work in the Film Industry anymore because of the extremely long days. So when a job was advertised in the Mail & Guardian that Monna and Lee Mokoena were looking for someone to head up the gallery, I thought it was ideal for me. I think I was a great candidate because I had worked and headed up entire art departments on movie sets in the film industry. I also speak a few languages including German and basic French. However, I think it was because I could run things and projects quite easily that I was selected.
Shots011: What is your role at Gallery MOMO?
KB: I started off when Gallery MOMO was really, really small. I was running everything on my own. I did everything from the design, the PR, the website, running the projects inside the gallery, projects with artists and their careers. When I think back to it now, I don’t know how I managed to do it on my own. But I developed a wide range of skills, which was a blessing.
Shots011: What are some of the challenges that the gallery has faced since opening its space in Cape Town, and how has the synergy been between the two spaces?
KB: One of the biggest differences is location. Johannesburg and Cape Town have entirely different challenges. I personally find Johannesburg a much more vibrant culture. People are moving between the spaces in Johannesburg much more freely and it’s more open. I think the consciousness and transformation between all the different races and cultures have been much quicker. I find that people navigate freely through the city of Johannesburg.
Whereas Cape Town still feels very insular. I think the changes that need to happen in Cape Town are much more evident. This is what I find very exciting about Gallery MOMO opening in Cape Town. We have the sense that we can change consciousness and be able to open up debates and dialogues that haven’t really been spoken about as freely in Cape Town. I think through the medium of art, we have the possibility of doing that in a very urgent way.
Shots011: The gallery manages an impressive catalogue of artists, what are some of the challenges that come with managing artists’ careers?
KB: Look, I think firstly you are dealing with people, and people come with different characters and different approaches to their art. So you have certain artists that are more hands on and in a sense want to control [the process] every step of the way, which is the extreme example on the one hand. Then you have other artists who don’t necessarily take a hands-on approach in terms of the way their works are exhibited and you don’t have a strong sense of them in the gallery space. So you almost have to find these elusive characters and draw them in whenever there are projects that you need to work with them on.
It’s really like dealing with everyday people. You have to change your approach to every single character. Some are more difficult than others, others are more amiable. It really does depend on the artists but also on their subject matter.
We are also dealing with artists that are at such different stages of their careers. We have very young artists like the three we have just brought in. Here, there will be a lot of nurturing and mentoring, certainly on Monna’s part, so that we can fast-track their careers and move them forward quickly. Then we have artists that are “superstars” in the gallery such as Mary Sibande and Ayana V. Jackson. They are really on the cusp of their careers internationally. This requires a lot more energy to manage. We also have artists that are in their mid-careers and their requests come on a much more regular and steady basis. They are known in their careers and are much more stable. We, as the gallery, need to evolve our approach according to each artist and where they are at in their careers.
Shots: The gallery has both locally and internationally recognized artists, does that affect the way in which the gallery operates?
KB: Not at all. With technology, we are now able to manage any process. We can skype to get on board quickly. We can ship artworks internationally. It doesn’t matter where anybody lives at the moment. We have artists such as Ayana V. Jackson who is represented on three continents by three different galleries. She lives between New York, Paris and Johannesburg and we manage it.
Shots011: How has the relationship between galleries been?
KB: I think collaboration is a key word at the moment. I think that for some artists’ careers it does make sense to be represented on different continents because of the subject matter of their work. That then is a feasible option for all involved. With younger artists, it makes more sense for them to be represented by one gallery especially early on in their careers. This is something we negotiate with other galleries. If we represent an artist on the African continent we will also represent them at art fairs that we participate in around the world as well.
Shots011: How important are art fairs for a gallery and artists as opposed to gallery exhibitions and openings?
KB: It’s all about visibility; the art industry is all about visibility. It’s about where you are seen. It’s about how artists are recognised in the market. We have just exhibited at The Amory Show in New York where we exhibited Mary Sibande and Ayana V. Jackson, their photographs in particular. The response to both artists was overwhelming. We have a sense that perhaps there are spaces in America that do not know of these artists yet. However, America by example is so vast. The more visibility we can get from showing in art fairs around the world, the quicker artists can move in their careers and by participating in art fairs internationally our visibility as a gallery is also raised.
Shots011: How well do South African artists fair compared to their international contemporaries in both international and local markets?
KB: We are currently “riding” the prediction of about five years ago in the art world of a “Renaissance of African and the Diaspora Art”. This has certainly become a reality. All eyes are on Africa. You can see this trend evolving as we speak. Look at the 1:54 Contemporary Art Fair which was developed for London, now two years running and recently introduced to New York.
We had another ground-breaking situation at The Amory in New York a couple of weeks ago, where all the focus was placed on African art. African artists are no longer on the fringes of these huge art fairs like the Amory; they are now recognised as the central focus. It is finally our time!
I think more and more Curators and Museum Directors will be coming to South Africa to request for our artists to be exhibited in galleries and museums across the world. It’s a ripple effect that will just grow with time. Over the next five years, all eyes will be on Africa.
It’s an extremely exciting time for South African Artists!
Shots011: South Africa is a very good exporter of talent, with artists often opting for international markets rather than the local art market, why do you think that is?
KB: I think this is the case across the board with the arts, not just visual arts. Dare I say it; it has a lot to do with our insecurities in a sense. It is only once artists step outside the waters of South Africa and reach some acclaim that we South Africans look at them and give them that acclaim. It’s such a crazy notion. For decades, we’ve known that South Africa has a huge artistic impetus. We are deeply creative. The acclaim should start from the moment these stars rise in whatever art form they are using. That they don’t necessarily require moving across the waters in order to reach that level of status.
Shots011: What then is the responsibility of the South African art market in retaining and maintaining South African Artists?
KB: I honestly feel that the visual arts industry is a small pond, there are a few galleries and communities that are supporting artists. In terms of funding, it’s not where it could be. I think business has a huge role to play in this. Organizations such Business and Arts of South Africa are key to the country. BASA is developing connections between business and the arts and helping companies to recognise and develop a responsibility towards the arts. More and more, businesses need to realize how important it is to keep artistic talent and masterful artworks within the country. How does that happen? Through funding!
It is important for other corporates to develop art collections and realize that this is necessary to keep culture within the country.
Individuals as well– especially individuals who have the means. It is vital for them to develop their own collections and to set up artist funds. The art world in South Africa needs to reach a state of further maturity in nurturing the arts. We cannot look to government to answer all our needs. The museums of the country cannot look to government for their entire sponsorship of their spaces, even though they need to be fund driven. Who is going to come forward with those funds? It’s corporations and individuals who have the vision and realise that not only is art a stable investment but it also speaks to the social responsibility of South Africa to its artists.
If you look at models in America for example, museums are majority driven by funding from individuals and corporates. They are not driven by government. The government actually plays a small role in keeping those museums functioning. This is a thinking that needs to be developed and changed in this country.
This is how we drive the arts forward and keep art events alive.
Shots011: What are some of the responsibilities then of art communities in creating visibility for the arts and artists?
KB: I think it is about continually supporting [the arts and its artists]. Support is the key to everything, supporting the artists on every level. As a gallery, yes we are a commercial space but also hold a very powerful position in that we are almost like a conduit. We collaborate with academia, corporates, institutions, and embassies that understand the role of the arts and want to support artists. For example, we have The Goethe and French institute which help provide funding and support to artists, across the board, so that projects can be developed and manifested. Both have quite a vibrant presence in South Africa. It is also important that artists’ projects don’t just become proposals dropped off at doors. Proposals need to be responded to, supported and brought into action.
Shots011: Do you feel artists are exhausting the resources available to them?
KB: It is impossible to generalize about artists. There are artists out there who completely understand the system if you will. However, I often meet kids and am actually quite shocked at how little they know about the resources available to them. They know little of what is required and what they can do to improve their careers. I think that from the first-year level already, students should filter into the spaces where the visual arts are being supported. Don’t just sit and develop your own talent, you also need to learn and start developing your network from a very early age.
Also, never underestimate what mentorship can do for you! I know we don’t have very strong mentorship and apprenticeship programs in the country. However, offer yourself! In any stage of your development as an artist, offer your time and energy to somebody that you think you can learn from. So if it’s someone you admire, that has the skills you’re interested in like photography, reach out to those photographers that you admire and offer your services to them. I am telling you now; every single established artist always needs help. From film shoots to the projects that they are currently working on, offer your services to them. Just your energy! In return for just spending a day, week, a month in their presence, it will help you learn and develop yourself. I understand that not everyone has the means of going into an academic environment and get a degree or diploma, but this is a wonderful way for artists to go out there and learn.
Go to all the art events and get to know who the key “players” are in those environments. Get to know them. Speak to them. Find out more. There was this wonderful artist who approached us and said: “I just want to learn, I just want to be in the building”. (Laughs, “Oh my goodness, now we are going to have hundreds of artists asking us to do this!) He would come to the gallery and quietly read books. He would also ask questions here and there or pop questions via email and that’s how he has grown and developed within himself. Now, he is an artist that is just about to step into larger things.
Don’t isolate yourself, that’s the thing. Find out also where you can get funding. If you have a project that you and your friends are so inspired to do; there is funding out there. Educate yourself, do the research. Go to websites such as the Arterial Network and you will find a page that lists about eighty different organizations internationally and on the continent that you can approach for funding.
There is literally no excuse!
Whatever your weakness is, develop that part of yourself. For example, if you want to create massive fibreglass sculptures yet you’ve never worked with fibreglass before, do your research, find out about the foundries in your city working with fibreglass. Phone up the owner and say: Can I come help you for a month and be your intern? In return, I would like to learn skills from you. Okay, maybe you don’t get paid for that month but the training, skills, and knowledge that you will get from that month will payback enormously.
If you don’t know how to write proposals, there are courses that different artists and art institutions offer for you to develop your proposal writing skills. Contact them if you need financial assistance in order to attain this skill.
All I am saying to artists is this – don’t isolate yourself. Step into the spaces. Get to know who the people are. Learn from them and ask questions. Do the research. Where can I develop which skill? Again, the Arterial Network has wonderful resources on how to market yourself, what your legal rights are, etc. VANSA has also recently set up a legal support wing for artists – check it out!
Call on these resources. They are available to you. All you need to do is educate yourself.
These 10 questions originally came from a French series, “Bouillon des Culture” hosted by Bernard Pivot. They’re better known as the questions that James Lipton asks every guest at the end of “Inside the Actor’s Studio”. Their addition to this questionnaire is to get to know a bit more about Karen the person, instead of the artist, a bit more about Karen outside your role.
What is your favourite word?
My recently discovered, Japanese word, Wabi-sabi – look it up, it’s a beautiful notion.
What is your least favourite word?
What turns you on creatively?
I’ve always had this question for myself: What is the highest form of art? And honestly, nothing is better than going to a live jazz or dance performance. This is a true inspiration and it is entirely for just that moment in time.
What turns you off?
Artists that approach us and clearly have not done their homework or research on Gallery MOMO and where they would fit in within that.
What is your favourite curse word?
Merdre! It’s so expressive!
What sound or noise do you love?
What sound or noise do you hate?
A chainsaw – I think I watched too many horror films as a teenager!
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
If I could live my life again, I would love to be a double-bass player in an avant-garde jazz band!
What profession would you not like to do?
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Welcome, my sister. Laughs.