Interview with Jonathan Garnham, founder of the gallery Blank in Cape Town
After living in Berlin for ten years, Jonathan Garnham returned to Cape Town in 2005, where he opened an art space that turned into Blank in 2012. In this interview the trained artist speaks about the small but vital art scene of Cape Town, and how it developed from the time under the Apartheid in South Africa to now.
What led you to open your own gallery? Tell us a bit about the origins of your gallery.
After spending 10 years in Berlin, working as an artist and independent curator, I returned to Cape Town and discovered that there were very few spaces for art, so I decided to open one in 2005. It started as a small 18 square meters project space and I ran it parallel to my studio practice. It soon became apparent that there was a real need for such a space in the city, the focus was on pushing the discussion around contemporary art forward and not on sales (we never made any).
As the programme developed, Blank Projects gained a reputation for engaged cuttingedge work and I was able to access some funding, which allowed me to spend more time developing the programme. This continued to develop for about 6 years after which I decided to stop my studio practice and concentrate fully on Blank Projects. We moved into a larger (150 square meters) space in Woodstock, a light industrial area just outside of the city center, and during 2012 made the transition into a gallery, representing a small group of mainly younger local artists. The gallery is now four years old.
What brought you into contemporary art in the first place? What is your background?
I travelled for a few years before starting my art studies in Cape Town. It was a difficult time as we were still living under Apartheid in South Africa, so I left the country and ended up furthering my studies in Germany, completing my MFA at the University of the Arts in Berlin in 1996.
After that a few friends and I formed the association “Kunst+Technik“ and took over a building in Berlin Mitte where we ran a programme operating at the intersection of art, architecture, new media and sound. It was a great moment to be in Berlin and that experience gave me invaluable experience in running a space.
What has been the biggest challenge in opening and running your own gallery?
Finding the money to do what you want to do without compromising and, increasingly, finding the time too.
Is there someone who influenced you in a particular way?
I’ve been influenced by many people in many different ways along the way. Having said that, a teacher of mine at art school, Makoto Fujiwara, taught me to not choose the easy way, and to persevere.
Can you describe the art scene around you in Cape Town?
The Cape Town art scene is small but vital; we live in a dynamic country at an interesting time in its history, which makes for compelling responses from the artists here. In the past several years, there has been a lot of interest in contemporary art from the continent, South Africa included, which has obviously benefitted the scene.
Allied to that we have a few institutions opening here, like the A4 Art Foundation and the Zeitz MOCAA, which, together with the annual Cape Town Art Fair and the existing gallery landscape, makes for a focused, vibrant scene.
Has the artistic climate changed over time? Have there been shifts that you’ve observed during that time?
When I returned to South Africa 12 years ago there were only a couple of galleries and the majority of represented artists were white, we now have several galleries representing a more diverse group of artists operating internationally. The whole climate has become more professional and the quality of work being produced is of a higher standard.
What about institutional support? How do you seek their attention?
There are very few institutions in South Africa, and those that exist have few resources. This means we need to look at international institutions, and we do this mainly through participating in international fairs and attempting to become a part of an international conversation through shifting the focus away from the center, it is difficult coming from outside of where those institutions are situated but that is changing slowly.
How do you decide to add a new artist?
I try to keep informed about what artists are doing locally and I’m constantly doing research about what artists are doing on the continent. If I find interesting approaches I might contact the artist and ask for more information about them and their work. This could then lead to a conversation and depending on how things go, possible inclusion in a group show, or a solo at the gallery.
If that goes well for both the artist and the gallery we could start talking about the possibilities around representation. It takes a long time before we take on an artist and it has to feel right for both parties, so intuition plays a roll too. Like any relationship, it is based mutual respect and trust.
How do you see the role of a gallery today?
A gallery should build a focused programme that adds cultural capital to the place it is situated, while taking part in an international conversation. It should support and nurture the artists it works with, and it should be sustainable. We’re all in this for the long run.
What exhibitions or projects do you have planned in the months to come?
We start our year with a solo exhibition by Jared Ginsburg, which will sit somewhere between a theatre production and an exhibition. We then head into an intense period of art fairs, with the Cape Town Art Fair, the Armory Show and Frieze in New York, followed by Liste in Basel. At the gallery we will also have solo shows by Dorothee Kreutzfeldt, Senzeni Marasella and Bronwyn Katz. It’s a very busy first six months.
And finally, how do you see your gallery in a decade?
I like to think we’ll still be around and playing a relevant role, with the artists more established and their practices maturing. I would like us to remain grounded, focused, and human. And to continue playing a role in shaping the discourse around contemporary art from the region.
Blank takes part in Liste–Art Fair Basel from June 13th to 18th, 2017. The gallery will present a selection of works by Kukama Donna and James Webb.
113 – 115 Sir Lowry RoadWoodstock
7925 Cape Town
Tuesday to Friday: 9am–5pm