Art in the Heart of the City: JAG Centenary Celebrations

Johannesburg inner city has 217 000 residents in 37 000 dwelling units, some 800 000 commuters enter the CBD every day, and 300 000 – 400 000 migrant shoppers visit the city each year. Nestled in the heart of this bustling environment is JAG – the gem in Jozi’s art crown. Since opening its doors in 1915, JAG’s Lutyens home on the edge of Joubert Park has remained at the epicentre of the Johannesburg’s art establishment.

The Gallery’s first collection was established by Florence Phillips (1863 – 1940), art patroness and wife of mining magnate Lionel Phillips. Art dealer, collector and gallery director, Hugh Lane (1875 – 1915), was drafted to put together the collection, which was first exhibited in London, before it was brought to South Africa. The Johannesburg Art Gallery was originally called the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art. The collection was temporarily housed at the South African School of Mines while a permanent home was being planned.  

In 1910 the Johannesburg Art Gallery Committee, headed by Florence Phillips and her advisor Hugh Lane, invited British architect Edwin Landseer Lutyens (1869 – 1944) to draw up plans for a gallery in the city. The foundation stone was laid in 1911. Located in Joubert Park, the sandstone building was built with a south-facing entrance, but was not completed according to the architect’s designs due to lack of funds. The Gallery opened to the public, without ceremony, in 1915 – the year after the start of the First World War.

During the 1940s the gallery was extended following Lutyens’ original design, adding east-west wings along the south galleries. The 1986-87 extensions by architects Meier Pienaar was conceived as a complementary completion of the original unfinished 1912 building. The project won both a design and conservation award, and drew international attention, earning entry in Sir Bannister Fletcher’s authoritative A History of World Architecture, as well as Kenith Frampton and Udo Kultermann’s A Critical Mosaic of World Architecture.

The 1986-87 extensions added the present north facade and galleries and made JAG the biggest gallery on the sub-continent. Today JAG is home to 17th-century Dutch paintings, 18- and 19th-century British and European works, 19th-century and contemporary South African art, as well as contemporary African art. The collection boasts over 9,000 works of art, displayed in 15 exhibition halls and sculpture gardens. Only 10% of the extensive collections, ranging from range from traditional African artefacts, sculptures, drawings, paintings, prints and lacework, are ever on display at one time, the rest are kept in storage.

Over the decades JAG has adapted to the changing nature of its inner-city home, as well as adapted to the changing nature of South Africa as a country, and the ever-evolving nature of its art, and the expectations of contemporary art audiences. Museums all over the world are changing in similar ways, and JAG is following suit.