Art galleries abound in Franschhoek – you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting one. Not that anyone would try; residents and visitors are far too relaxed. As CHRIS THURMAN discovers, however, there are some quiet revolutionaries in the Franschhoek art world.
“WHEN I WAS YOUNG,” says Migo Manz, “I wanted to be an artist, but studied to be an architect instead. What I do for artists now is to support them, to enable and protect them, to help them concentrate on their art.”
It’s a powerful mission statement, and one that leaves Migo dissatisfied with the title ‘gallerist’, even though he is the proprietor of manZArt, one of the most prominent galleries on Franschhoek’s high street. This is partly because he doesn’t consider himself to be a salesman. He is, he says, “fiercely protective” of the artists he works with, insisting that “they must be free to produce what they want to”. It’s one of the reasons why he avoids facilitating commissions. And while he is proud to represent these artists to prospective buyers, acting as a go-between, Migo resists the standard practices and protocols of the art world.
For example, he does not believe that collectors should be encouraged to think of their acquisitions as assets that can safely be relied on to grow in value – which is, after all, the conventional wisdom driving the art market. “I don’t care about art as a financial investment,” he declares. “People should buy art because of a meaningful connection with the work. It’s intuitive. I live by intuition, so in my relationships with both artists and buyers, I’m honest and direct. People are surprised because I’m straight-talking rather than diplomatic. But what can I say? I’m German!”
For similar reasons, Migo avoids the art fair circuit that has become a cornerstone of the art sector. “It’s not out of ignorance,” he tells me. “I’ve tried art fairs. But competition kills joy. People rush through, they don’t spend time with the works being exhibited. And what kind of experience can you offer in a small cubicle?” With his gallery manager, Zuricka Erasmus, he lovingly curates the manZArt space to ensure that everyone who passes through it has a memorable encounter.
The gallery’s location in Franschhoek introduces place-specific advantages. “Most people walking up and down this street are tourists. So a lot of our visitors and potential buyers didn’t plan to come here – they were just passing by. In that way, we play the role of a small art museum as much as a commercial gallery.” Migo was previously based in Cape Town where, even in the City Bowl, there were fewer people who happened to come into the gallery with a tourist’s sense of adventure and curiosity. “But here in Franschhoek, we have plenty of walk-in visitors who fall in love with an artist and become first-time buyers. Most of our business comes from repeat customers who live elsewhere but still remember how much they enjoyed being here in person.”
Insofar as Migo is to some extent independent of the dynamics that drive most other gallerists, this also applies to his identity as a collector himself. With partner Gerard Holden, he owns Holden Manz Wine Estate, which has developed a reputation as a destination for art lovers. The Holden Manz Country House boasts its own collection and sometimes also displays a work by manZArt artists that is either on its way to the gallery or being looked after for a recent buyer. Migo doesn’t see these aspects of his professional and personal identity as distinct. “Whatever I do – in the gallery, as a parent, working on the farm – I want to be creative!” He quotes Albert Einstein: “Creativity is intelligence at play.”
This earnest playfulness is infectious. It’s evident when one watches the combination of sincerity and fun that marks Migo and Zuricka’s interaction with their artists. “We know our artists; it’s like a marriage,” he quips. “We’re a team. When that is presented to a buyer, they know they are getting more than just what is on the wall. They are getting a relationship they can trust.”
There is another important sense in which speaking to him about his commitment to local artists is generally uplifting, particularly for South Africans who may have a tendency to state-of-the-nation despair. The fact that most of manZArt’s buyers are international visitors is a reminder of the weak rand and the socio-political or economic instability this often indicates. But when there is much collective anxiety about fluctuating levels of foreign direct investment and the various disincentives to tourists on whose spending a substantial portion of our GDP depends, South Africans can take heart from Migo’s perspective. “I have friends who live all over the world; life is not easy for any of them right now. And I can tell you that there will continue to be many, many people falling in love with South Africa when they visit. They’ll be coming back again and again. And they’ll be buying art while they’re here!”
After leaving manZArt, I travel a kilometre or two out of town to Grande Provence Wine Estate, another spot much loved by the tourists who come to Franschhoek. Sitting on a bench in the sculpture garden or wandering in the shade of its oak trees comes with a distinct soundscape: a combination of birdsong and foreign accents. Admittedly, it’s a midweek morning; over a weekend there would be a few more South African day-trippers. Nevertheless, a conversation with Jean-Marié Olivier, director of the Gallery at Grande Provence, echoes my interview with Migo Manz. “Grande Provence is a premier destination and most of our visitors who become buyers are international guests,” she confirms. “We are deeply passionate about supporting South African art and their patronage allows us to do that.”
The art displayed at the gallery is not part of a Grande Provence collection but is presented in rotation and curated as a new group exhibition of 40 or more artists approximately every six weeks. Olivier singles out works produced at studios along the Garden Route and in the Karoo, noting that artists from the Eastern Cape are often under-represented and undervalued in South African exhibitions.
I can’t help thinking of that line in the Bible about prophets not being recognised in their own country. Is the same true of South African artists? All too often, yes. But Olivier’s final observation is encouraging. “Here at Grande Provence,” she says with pride, “we are able to offer South African artists a launch-pad into the international art market and that grows their local profile too.” V
ART AND ABOUT IN FRANSCHHOEK
Franschhoek is home to a thriving fine arts scene and boasts a number of galleries along its charming chief boulevard, Huguenot Street:
EVERARD READ FRANSCHHOEK
A major South African gallery with a big footprint in the Franschhoek Valley, including a collaboration with Leeu Estates just outside town.
The gallery in Huguenot Street combines classic and contemporary fine art with exclusive design.
The home base of painter Junaid Sénéchal-Senekal, known for his ‘silver metallic’ style.
Fabrics, sculpture and ceramics, with a special focus on the iconic works produced by Ardmore Ceramics.
Established by artist Makiwa Mutomba, this gallery has a twin in Umhlanga Rocks, KwaZulu-Natal.
One of three Gallop Hill ‘investment art’ galleries (the others are in Plettenberg Bay and Sedgefield).