It is a strange but inescapable fact that a single building can transform a city. Sydney has never felt remotely the same since the opening of the Opera House, nor has Bilbao after the debut of Frank Gehry’s titanium-clad masterpiece, the Guggenheim Museum. Both places were suddenly perceived to be more important, more cultivated, more complex. Even London, scarcely a cultural desert, gained a new aspect to its multifaceted personality with the inauguration of Tate Modern in 2000. The city of Shakespeare and Dickens and Sherlock Holmes acquired a new veneer of cool when augmented by one of the world’s preeminent museums of contemporary art. And now it’s Cape Town’s turn.
The new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, which opened in September of last year, has provided a focal point for the city. Its location, the V&A Waterfront, suddenly seems more cosmopolitan, more sophisticated. And the bars and souvenir shops that once drew much of their business from cruise ship passengers are being replaced by ambitious restaurants and stylish upscale boutiques. There’s a creative buzz about the place that wasn’t there before.
The museum itself is housed within the 42 huge concrete tubes of a former grain-storage facility. These have been sliced and diced by architect Thomas Heatherwick to create 65,000 square feet of exhibition space in 80 galleries, as well as education rooms, conservation areas, a restaurant and a bookstore. At the center of the museum is a vast atrium, above which the truncated concrete shafts have been capped with strengthened glass so as to allow natural light to flood into the cathedral-like interior.
Most of the artworks on display come from the private collection of Jochen Zeitz, a German businessman who acquired a fortune as CEO of PUMA, the sporting-goods manufacturer. Under his stewardship, the company’s share price increased by 4,000 percent in 13 years, before a majority stake was acquired in 2007 by Kering, the Paris-based luxury group founded by Francois Pinault. Today Zeitz is an environmental campaigner (in collaboration with Richard Branson), a best-selling author and a board member of Harley-Davidson.
Since 2008, the Zeitz Collection has been on a mission to acquire representative works of contemporary art “from the African continent and its diaspora.” It also bought 85 works at the 2013 Venice Biennale, including the award-winning installation at the Angola pavilion by Edson Chagas, a series of photographs by Zanele Muholi from the South Africa pavilion and three large sculptures by Michele Mathison in the Zimbabwe pavilion.
Cape Town, it seems, will never be quite the same again.