How Mark Coetzee’s resignation may lift the lid on the arts industry’s practices

Mail & Guardian

Arts journalist Matthew Blackman was among the first sceptics of Zeitz MOCAA, a position he has maintained through to last week’s resignation of the African contemporary art museum’s head curator, Mark Coetzee, under a cloud of improper behaviour. In this interview, he shares his misgivings about the museum’s operations and the parallels with South African society.

Has Mark Coetzee been living under a protective cloud? People we have spoken to say the revelations about his behaviour have been a long time coming.

Largely speaking, that’s true: there has been this weird sense of protection. The museum, as far as I can see, has protected him in the past. I’m sure they must have known, because I lived outside the country from 2015 until recently and I heard the rumours about abuse of power. As far as the art world is concerned, I think some protected him because they were friendly with him and others were afraid of his power. He manipulated people.

What about Zeitz MOCAA’s practices contradicted its positioning as a museum?

For me, a museum is a place of academic deliberation among a group of people who are qualified to be in the positions they are in, and they have a research background and there is some form of the democratic processes that happen in a museum. Curators talk about their practices, who they are interested in, why they think an artist is important. What should be the next exhibition; why it should be the next exhibition. It is part of the academic framework, but at Zeitz it was only the head curator and then there were all these weird people called curators at large and adjunct curators — but they had nothing to do with the museum and its practices. They were just names on a piece of paper. And then there was this group of recent graduates who were on one-year contracts and were getting paid about R92 000 a year. The processes that would go on under that kind of a structure … that’s not a museum. Museums do not have one head who decides everything.

What about someone like Elana Brundyn [the museum’s former director of institutional advancement and external affairs]? Did she not wield any influence in the institution?

Elana brundyn, for all her good qualities, she is not an arts historian and she is not a curator. She ran a gallery which was funded by herself and her rich friends. Im suspicious of some of what has gone on [under her watch].