Marilyn’s bigger picture of national gallery

Marilyn Martin

An 11-year stint as the director of the South African Gallery, and seven years as director of Art Collections at Iziko Museums, has given Marilyn Martin much insight into the way museums and galleries are run along with politics, and she decided to put it all in a book.

The book, Between Dreams and Realities, tells the story of the gallery, important exhibitions, achievements of directors, and forgotten tales.

It also details the neglect of the museum, the history of art and politics, and how it changes when the government changes.

Marilyn grew up in Robertson and Heidelberg and throughout her schooling she struggled with numbers and maths, so she could not attend university. “I think we all have strengths, and I was good at every other subject, and there was a productive life outside of numbers.”

She only managed to start university when she was 23, but before that, she worked at a newspaper in various capacities and eventually completed her Honours degree in History of Art through the University of South Africa.

She said she has always been passionate about writing.

Marilyn got married and had two children and moved to Pietermaritzburg. She later got divorced and studied while she looked after her children. “When my ex-husband moved back to Scotland, I was wondering what I would do because I was at home, but the then University of Durban-Westville approached me and I took the job as a lecturer in art history.

“It was an enriching experience for me because I moved in different cultural circles, but they were difficult times for students and staff because of the government’s apartheid policies. I stayed for five years before I moved to Johannesburg to work in the University of the Witwatersrand’s (Wits) Performing Arts Centre, doing administration, because I couldn’t get a teaching job without a Master’s degree.”

She registered to do her Master’s in Architectural History at Wits. “What piqued my interest in arts and architecture was that I initially had no formal exposure to art. In Robertson and Heidelberg, there were no museums, but my mother kept beautiful calendars and she would frame them, and there would be new things on the walls of my home every year. My grandfather also had beautiful paintings.”

After she completed her Master’s, she was appointed as a lecturer of the history of art and architecture, in the Department of Architecture. “I couldn’t get my Cape Town body to adjust to he climate, so I moved back to Cape Town and took up the position of director of the South African National Gallery. It was a special time in the country when I came to the gallery – it was 1990.”

She said she acknowledged the things at Wits that she had learnt – one of it being putting together the work of different artists and time frames, for example historical African and contemporary work in an exhibition. “This was an inspiration of what things could be like in the gallery.”

She said while she loved working with the people at the gallery, there was an “interesting” board of trustees and because apartheid was still in force, they kept a political eye on the directors. But, the representatives of the City council and universities brought a progressive nature to the board.

She said after former president FW De Klerk made his speech in 1990, internationally it meant that the cultural boycott against South Africa was over, and the country could engage internationally.

She said the gallery was closed for renovations, and reopened with the Cape Town Triennial in 1991, an exhibition of contemporary South African art.

The controversial exhibition, coupled with cultural and political differences between board members, resulted in a charge of misconduct against her.

“We began to seriously collect African art from southern Africa, such as ceremonial staffs and headrests, and we the beadwork made by women.”

Since 1994, the new Department of Arts and Culture (now Sports, Arts and Culture) showed little to no interest in the gallery. “The gallery had gone through ups and downs, but we engaged with many museums internationally and also exchanged exhibitions that we could otherwise not afford. We worked on the principle that the government wasn’t interested.”

In 2001, she became the director of art collections at Iziko Museums, and retired in 2008, but still remains active in the art and museum sectors.

“Art museums should be ahead of politicians so that you are never told how to do your work, and it is sad that Iziko became a handmaiden in the politics – it does what the government tells it to do – and I worry about how this affects the gallery and museums.

“The curators are overworked, and when you go there, you will see fine exhibitions because they are good curators, and they are beautifully displayed.

However, I thought that there would be more upheaval from the general public.”

She said when she retired, she had written many art reviews and continued with her contribution to art magazines and journals throughout her career. Her teaching career was also resurrected as a history of art teacher at the UCT Michaelis School of Art, and continued curating from time to time.

She also became a council member of Iziko museums from 2010 to 2013. She said visitation to the gallery was very low, and the situation was exacerbated by the opening of the Zeitz MOCAA in the Waterfront and the Norval Foundation at Steenberg.”

Marilyn is still a member of the Friends of the Gallery and says her biggest disappointment was that there was no additional building implemented on the vacant car park on the Hatfield Street side of the gallery.

“I hope that there is time for me to see that dream realised, otherwise I will have to come back and make it happen.”