Stakeholders in the cultural heritage sector say poor workmanship and project management, as well as lack of maintenance and political will, are to blame for the state of the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

The facility’s roof continues to leak even though repair work has been done. The water leaks are threatening to destroy the valuable artworks housed at the facility in Joubert Park in the city centre.

The Johannesburg Art Gallery was built in 1915. It is the largest in Africa with a vast collection of over 9 000 artworks, ranging from artefacts, sculptures to drawings and paintings – some dating back to the 17th century. They are displayed in 15 exhibition halls and sculpture gardens.

Nonhlanhla Sifumba was the City of Johannesburg MMC for Community Development between 2016 and 2019.

“JAG was always closest to my heart because it is one of the oldest institutions we have in South Africa where it allows people from all over the world to be able to do research via what we have at the Joburg Art Gallery. And it’s one institution that so many people, so many academics, people who are into the arts fraternity are able to reference using the richness of what JAG has,” says Sifumba.

Roof leak damages

In 2017, Sifumba ordered that it be temporarily closed due to flooding. Its roof leaked and this threatened to damage the artworks housed in the gallery.

“When we got in, in 2016, the first hurdle I came across was the fact that the roof, which is a copper roof was stolen, the place was partially vandalized, the lifts weren’t working, there were other areas where there wasn’t a ceiling. And if you understand art in its entirety, you would know that there are certain art pieces that need to be kept under certain conditions,” says Sifumba.

It emerged that the contractor hired to renovate the building between 2014 and 2015 had done a poor job and had no experience working on heritage buildings. Cultural Heritage Architecture, Jonathon Stone, was then commissioned by the City of Joburg to do an audit of the entire building.

He found that the roof tiles had been badly laid and some of the materials used were of inferior quality and that about R70-million would be needed to restore the property to its former glory, money which the city did not have at the time.

Poor quality work by engineers

Tarpaulins were then put over the roof as a temporary measure to keep water seeping into the building. Stone says in 2019/2020 the city through the Joburg Property Company, appointed a team of engineers to repair the roof, using metal sheets. He claims that he sent numerous letters to the team of engineers about the poor quality of work but got no response.

“We said I am afraid the roof you put on, the material, the way you handled is not a certified contractor – expert. Half of it is incorrectly fixed. Half of the roofs are damaged already. These are called flashings, you don’t make a hole in the sheeting, but you can see that flashing there’s a whole there, a whole there. You have to re-do it. You can’t patch it; it is not a patchable thing. It means the city wasted its money,” says Stone.

He left the project at the beginning of this year. City of Johannesburg Spokesperson, Nthatisi Modingoane, says R4-million was spent to fix the roof and the electricity system at the gallery and this was phase one.

He says phase two of the project will involve spending R100 000 to hire engineers to conduct a structural integrity assessment of the property, the stormwater drainage system, and security.

“Because the assessment will give us a clear picture of how much money is needed to deal with all structural issues at the Joburg Art Gallery,” says Modingoane.

However, Jonathon Stone believes this would be a duplication and a waste of taxpayers’ money because he was commissioned by the City to undertake an audit of the entire property which he did and this is well-documented.

‘No wasteful expenditure’

Modingoane denies that the city has wasted money on this work.

“Thus far there is no wasteful expenditure identified. Those defects that were identified were itemised and shared with the service provider so that they can be repaired and fixed. So, the phase one we are satisfied that it is complete and to the satisfaction of the city,” says Modingoane.

Watermarks are still visible on the walls of the art gallery and paint on the roof is peeling off. The section where some of the sculptors are located has no roof and unused furniture is placed next to the wall and gathers dust.

Chairperson of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation, Floranelle Bird, could not believe what she was seeing when she visited recently.

“When I was in there the other day I thought, my God, we could be in Syria, a war zone. It is in a dreadful state now. I was in despair. When I left, I could not believe it? They have been spending money on this gallery, but things are getting worse, not better,” says Bird.

There is an urgent need to restore the building, improve security to prevent theft and ensure it is well managed and that the valuable pieces of art housed there are preserved so that future generations can learn more about their heritage.