Basil Brady: Letter to the Editor (edited)

Hello Gabriel,

Regarding the last edition of SA Art Times (June 2016) the Leading article and cover.

Having just read the article I am rather concerned about the emphasis given to Dr Melanie Hillebrand and the fact that her predecessor at the King George VI Gallery (NMM Art Museum) has been completely ignored. What I am now submitting to you are the actual true facts behind the development of our Art Gallery/ Museum here in PE which played such an important part in the cultural life of the Port Elizabeth community.

I’ve got a feeling that there will be widespread support for this matter especially as this is the month that the Port Elizabeth NMM Art Museum is celebrating its Silver Jubilee with a 60th Anniversary Exhibition.

I’ve known this former Director of the King George VI gallery Clayton Holliday since 1973, whom I’m pleased to say very much alive and well and still very much involved in the art world here in the Eastern Cape.

I find it unfortunate that your extensive leading article and prominence given to the retiring Director Melanie Hillebrand as the ‘change agent’ of the NMMAM (Nelson Mandela Art Museum), is economical with facts, fairness, impartiality, even veracity. ‘Change’ and expansion of this Art Gallery / Art Museum, and of their previously established management policy, took place long before Hillebrand was appointed in 1987.

There were two prior Directors, Mrs Eleanor Lorimer and Mr Clayton Holliday. The former established the King George VI Art Gallery 60 years ago in 1956, and Holliday a professional museologist with a Fine Arts degree was appointed in 1972. He served in this capacity until 1987, and with the support of his Trustees and Friends, the Municipality, the public, and his Museum colleagues, both nationally and internationally, developed it. ‘Transformation and change’ have different connotations today, I prefer to use less politically biased, ‘developed and expanded’, and incidentally, he also doubled the size of the Gallery.

I was there, during this time, having been a resident in Uitenhage and the City of Port Elizabeth for many years, but not in 1972 when Holliday began his 17 years as Director. I have attended many functions since at the NMMAM where his work was never mentioned, nor at any function prior to 60th Anniversary.

Hillebrand no doubt has added her influence during her term of office and this is not questioned, but she inherited a viable, established and respected institution with a fine collection and staff, and she should acknowledge, not negate this.

The situation and political climate in Port Elizabeth today, is very different. The NMMAM suffers from a chronic lack of funding, no replacement of her successor, shortage of staff, no purchase fund, no Trustees or Advisory Committee, all cannot be laid entirely at her door, but we have to accept that all is not positive at present at the NMMAM, and has been for some years. Public support has waned, financial constraints have had dire effects on the Port Elizabeth Museum, the NMMAM and on the City as a whole, and art has been an unfortunate casualty. I know this because I work daily to stimulate art awareness in a climate of other priorities. I have also done my homework. I know that during the period of Holliday’s administration he put the Art Gallery on a sound footing, established salary structures, improved conditions of service for staff, increased the staff, established a pension scheme, medical aid, even housing allowances, though I am aware, he did not benefit from some of them, and certainly not a more appropriate salary. He established a restoration/ conservation department, an art library, restored and developed the Arts Hall and provided a home for the EPSFA (Eastern Province Society of Fine Arts). Started and developed the Eastern Cape historical art collection into one of the City’s most valuable holdings, he raised money for purchases, worked with the Port Elizabeth Museum to develop No 7 Castle Hill Historical Museum, established (later) the Prince Alfred Guard Museum and preserved their historical collections. Since his retirement he also helped to develop the Ron Belling Art Gallery, now the GFI Gallery, and still continues to work in the interests of art and culture. This in brief needs also to be acknowledged.

I remember the regular exciting exhibitions and my exposure to outstanding original works of art that initiated my starting to collect works of art, and later, to my association with art in this Province which I have documented in some thousands of photographs.  Holliday was supported by an enthusiastic Board, the public and significantly by the Eastern Province Society of Fine Arts (EPSFA now known as artEC), and the then Municipality. He established the Friends of the Gallery, raised funds and purchased some of the finest, and today, the most valuable works of art now in the permanent collection of NMMAM.

Readers of this article, now more than forty years after Holliday was appointed, and who never experienced some of those exceptional art events, such as ‘Victoria and After’ with a loan collection from the S.A.National Gallery, given to celebrate Mrs Lorimer’s service, ‘German Art of the Sixties’, ‘Recent British Painting’ that then toured South Africa, the ‘new’ collection of restored and preserved works of art from historic times in the Eastern Cape that included now famous paintings by Baines, Bowler and I’Ons, and many loan collections sourced from collectors and combined with newly acquired works, may not be aware of this. I remember the wonderful showings of collections brought together by the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation and Dr Anton Rupert, such as the hugely influential and then unseen modern art collection ‘Recent British Painting’, ‘Agam’, ‘Animals in Art’, ‘The Hidden Art of Nature’, ‘Kathe Kolwitz’, ‘Inuit Art’, ‘Collage’ and the showings of the most recent South African art in the Cape Town Triennials, especially the one in 1982, that brought new South African artist’s vision to this city. These and so many more that I have not mentioned, that were memorable events to so many of us. Holliday also did the first major showing of ‘Fred Page’, honoured Dorothy Kay, the Art School Centenary in 1982, Joan Wright and Betsy Fordyce who were art teachers, the fascinating local artist, ‘Maurice Weightman’ whose work he rescued in 1986, the ‘Jock of the Bush-veld’ drawings, the numerous exhibitions by the British Council who supported the work of the King George VI Art Gallery, the list is long, and I cannot include them all.

With the help of the established Friends of the Gallery, the permanent collections were expanded and works of great artistic and intrinsic value were added. I mention a few, the Ivon Hitchens, Ceri Richards, John Piper, John Nash, historic works by Lely and Reynolds, Rorkes Drift School, Dorothy Kay, Fred Page then hardly known, the Villa sculpture unfortunately carelessly destroyed in the City Hall, the list is long. Stephan Welz commented the year before he died, that the ‘Gallery was full of wonderful treasures and complimented Clayton Holliday for purchasing them. He knocked down the historic ‘Landing of the Settlers in 1820 by Thomas Baines to him in August 1986 for a record amount, the funds for which Holliday and his supporters had collected from well-wishers of the Gallery. Finally, I should mention, this was in the 1970 – 80s, troubled times of political and racial division and strife.

With regard to change, Holliday did the first exhibition of ‘The Creative Arts of Black Africa’, that brought interest to, and more understanding of, indigenous culture, and to also to blend interest and the understanding of other cultures. He also did special exhibitions of Chinese Art, Indian Art and Dance and wonderful Indian traditional food, Jewish Art, German Art, British Print Makers, Greek Art and Culture with the Greek community, this was combined with theatre, dance and traditional Greek cuisine, the first South African Ceramics exhibition that then became an annual event, the regular Annual exhibition of EPSAC members, and many other gala occasions that reflected local interest and creativity. Local workers were given prominence with an exhibition of Phil Kolbe’s sculpture, Herbert Mc Williams ‘War Art’ with watercolours loaned from collectors and overseas museums, that travelled the country, the Walter Battis when he hung washing across the main gallery, and what fun that event was. Many of us who remember the King George VI Gallery, are appreciative of how the gallery and art became a major interest in our marginalised lives during the cultural boycott, and how much Holliday and his small team did for art in Port Elizabeth. The Gallery was where all the rainbow people of Port Elizabeth were welcomed and enabled to attend as there was no colour restriction. Somehow Hillebrand has overlooked all this?

Growth and change at the Gallery, began long before the name change to NMMMA, long before Hillebrand in 1987, it started in 1972, when the gallery became a much loved and widely supported part of the cultural life of this City.

Kind regards,

Basil Brady

Image: Two of the Museum’s original staff members, Anthony Keogh and Greg Knip. Photo: Basil Brady

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Response:

Dear Gabriel,

I heartily back Basil with his wonderful, informative letter.  Too much is made of “present” and the numerous and incredibly good and positive works, of the past, are totally ignored.  Can we not focus on Art related “good”  , with decent reporting, and less focus on Politically Correct reporting.  Art throughout the country, especially our National Galleries and Museums, need our complete support.

Kind regards

Doreen Daubermann (7 July 2016)

2018-10-23T18:29:24+00:00